Read part one here.
On Day Four I was initiated into Virechana ie Ayurvedic purgation wherein after the customary herbal bath, I was made to gulp down a cup of a thick muddy compound.
The compound was an intestinal purgative, made up of Castor oil and Triphala, that made me pass stools about six times over the course of the day to empty out all the contents of my bowels and clean out the small intestines.
For the past couple of days I had been subsisting on a diet of rice gruel, boiled vegetables and bananas. During Vamana and Virechana, even the fruits and vegetables were dispensed with and I was given only steaming bowls of gruel accompanied by freshly squeezed juices of gooseberry, beetroot, watermelon, tomato, cucumber and carrot in various combinations by Amma, the amiable chef.
Surprisingly I did not crave more solid food and I grew to appreciate the minimal diet.
The next day my entire body was massaged vigorously with heated and medicated herbal oils by two attendants, while I lay on a raised wooden platform, a process known as Abhyanga. The massage oil is made up of Sesame oil, Camphor, Country Mallow and a compound named Dasha Moola or Ten Roots, extracted, as the name suggests from ten medicinal roots that are blended together in precise amounts.
Like all herbs used in Ayurveda, the Dasha Moolas are endowed with significant healing, regenerative and rejuvenating properties.
After Abhyanga, I sat in a wooden chamber large enough to accommodate one person, pumped full of herb infused steam. The process is called Swedana, the Indian version of the sauna.
After sweating out subcutaneous toxins for twenty minutes, I was let out of the box and once again made to lie down, this time on my side for Basti—the ancient precursor to what is commonly known as a ‘colonic irrigation’ in the American wellness community.
A long thin tube was inserted up my anus which acted as a conduit for a viscous solution released into my large intestine. Ten minutes later I got up and visited the restroom to empty out my bowels and left the place feeling lighter than I had in ages.
In ayurvedic medicine, a Basti is a therapeutic treatment in which medicated, herbal decoctions are introduced into the rectum for the purpose of flushing toxins from the intestinal tract. The name has its source in antiquity, when healers used the “bastis” (sterilized bladders) of animals to hold the medicated solutions.
Bastis are often referred to as enemas but go much further than merely emptying the large intestine. In ayurveda, the colon is the principle site of Vata, the Dosha that governs movement and circulation. An excess of Vata manifests as many symptoms and diseases, including most digestive disorders, back aches, arthritis, gout, migraines, nervous disorders and Alzheimer’s among others. Basti therapy penetrates all the seven Dhatus and facilitates the elimination of excess Vata, helping restore total health.
However, the day wasn’t quite over yet.
My right big toe became swollen, inflamed and unbearably painful as is the case with chronic gout. I reported this to the doctor following which he recommended ‘leech therapy.’ The leech, or ‘Jalauki’ as it was called in Sanskrit, had been used since antiquity to remove toxic blood from affected areas in the body.
In this procedure a few selected leeches are placed on the affected area to suck out the contaminated blood. They grow fat and engorged from ingesting the thick red liquid and eventually fall off when they’ve had their fill.
The process was certainly efficacious as I can testify from personal experience. My toe regained its natural mobility in a few days, and after a few more sessions returned to normal once again. The leech’s saliva contains enzymes and compounds that act as an anti-coagulation agent. The most prominent of these anti-coagulation agents is Hirudin.
Several other compounds have been identified in leech saliva with clot dissolving, anti-inflammatory, vasodilating, bacteriostatic and anaesthetic properties. Interestingly, the chief deity of Ayurveda, Dhanvantari, is depicted with four arms, one of which holds the Jalauki, alongside the Chakra (wheel), Shankha (conch shell), and Amrita or nectar of Life.
A paper published by Dr. Robert Mory and others (The Leech and the Physician: Biology, Etymology, and Medical Practice with Hirudinea medicinalis) looks at how leeches are used to treat arthritis and other inflammatory processes, vascular (arterial and venous diseases), as well as heart and lung problems. It posits that diseases like hepatitis, stomach ulcers, and pancreatitis, and skin conditions like psoriasis, herpes, and eczema can be treated with leech therapy.
The daily abdominal massage, Abhyanga, Swedana and Basti sessions continued for the whole week. The colon was the most important organ of elimination and its treatment was therefore given the highest priority.
The days progressed slowly but steadily, punctuated by short sporadic showers rendering the vegetation a vivid green hue shot through with little explosions of red, yellow, white and purple flowers. Occasional thunder and lightning gave the experience an epic, almost mythical quality, like being healed by the Maharishis in some antediluvian Golden Age of the Vedas.
Later that evening as we sat down for dinner, the doctor and I spoke at length about the traditions and history of Kerala. The Maharajas of Travancore had made conscious efforts to preserve the ancient sciences thus ensuring that the traditional systems of learning would not wither away.
The Sushruta Samhita and Charaka Samhita, along with Vagbhatta’s Ashtanga Hridaya, were the three primary texts of Ayurveda, comprising an exhaustive practicum that dated back at least 3,000. They were named after Sushruta, Charaka and Vagbhatta, venerable physicians who had documented their work for the benefit of posterity.
I was amazed at the intricate details described in the one text I had access to the Sushruta Samhita, which contained complex procedures like cataract surgery, rhinoplasty, hernia surgery, haemorrhoids treatment, laparotomy, cauterization, amputation, fractures, dislocations and C-sections among others. It had exhaustive data pertaining to obstetrics, pediatrics, gynaecology, ophthalmology and the treatment of mental and nervous disorders, thyroid imbalance, dysentery, diabetes, angina, seizures, hypertension, kidney stones, to name just a few— essentially the entire gamut of contemporary medical prognosis and treatment.
The Sushruta Samhita is divided into 184 chapters—containing the descriptions of 1120 illnesses, 700 medicinal plants, 64 preparations from mineral sources and 57 preparations from animal sources.
The works of both Sushruta and Charaka were translated into Arabic during the 8th century into a tome called the Kitab-I-Susrud. The Arabic translation was received and further propagated in Renaissance Italy at the end of the medieval period by the Brancas of Sicily and Tagliacozzi of Bologna.
The practices ultimately reached Britain inspiring physician Joseph Constantine Carpue’s voyage and twenty year sabbatical in India to study plastic surgery techniques. Carpue performed the first major surgery in the western world in 1815, dubbing it the ‘Indian method.’
After my chest cold and cough had completely subsided, we commenced with Shirodhara.
It was a steady flow (Dhara) of cooling liquid streaming down on my forehead through a hole in an earthen pot, placed directly over the head. The liquid is a decoction of buttermilk processed with Amlaki and Cyprus Rotunda. The leaves and root of the Cyperus plant have been recommended in Indian ayurvedic texts for reducing fever and inflammation, digestive disorders, menstrual cramps and other maladies. In traditional Chinese medicine Cyperus was considered the primary Qi regulating herb.
Shiro-dhara has the effect of calming the mind and generating a feeling of peace and contentment. Indeed the warm, centered, glow stayed with me for a good few hours after the treatment.
I had also got into the habit of circumambulating the premises five to six times daily. One round of the periphery was a distance of approximately half a kilometer. It was a delight to walk amidst the lush vegetation, smell the flowers and listen to butterflies, squirrels and avian warblers rejoice at the first rays of the morning sun. Luis and Natasha had left the center and other guests had arrived; three couples from Germany, Switzerland and Mauritius.
At the end of two weeks a new round of treatments began called Nasyam or Nasya Karma (through the nose). Laying prostrate on the massage table, my neck, face and head were gently massaged, opening the channels, dislodging congestion and loosening up the tissues.
Next, I was made to inhale herbalized steam through a pipe to open the internal channels and liquefy the congestion of the nasal tissues. Lastly, two mililiters of Nasya oil was administered gently into my nose. The Nasya oil is pressed from Sida Cordifolia, also known as Country Mallow, Fennel weed or ‘Bala’ in Sanskrit.
Country Mallow is used in the indigenous healing systems of Brazil and Africa for the treatment of asthmatic bronchitis, nasal congestion, stomatitis, asthma and nasal congestion. It also has psycho-stimulant properties due to the substantial ephedrine content, and affects the central nervous system as well as the heart.
Recent studies have shown that an aqueous extract of Sida cordifolia tested on rats had potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties as well as the ability to stimulate liver regeneration.
According to the Sanskrit texts, Nasya therapy activates the Sringataka Marma which is a vital point situated on the surface of the brain where nerve cells and fibres (Siras) converge that control the function of the sense organs—speech, vision, hearing, taste, and smell—the seat of cognition. From here it spreads into various Strotasas (vessels and nerves) and brings out vitiated Doshas from the brain. The absorption of Nasya medication takes place through the mucous membrane, the ophthalmic veins and directly into the cerebro-spinal fluid.
Nasya was also administered in the form of smoke—a burning stick of cotton cloth was tightly rolled up with camphor wood and turmeric, lit up at the tip, and its smoke funneled through a cone shaped leaf directly into my nostrils.
I felt a tingling sensation running down the back of my head, all the way from my nostrils to the base of my neck. Almost immediately after, I felt a sense of clarity and sharpness, like all my senses were heightened and amplified. The state of heightened awareness stayed with me through the day.
In esoteric terms Prana or life energy enters the body through the intake of breath through the nose. Nasal administration of medication helps to correct the disorders of Prana affecting the higher cerebral, sensory and motor functions. The mechanism of Nasya can be summed up in a single statement made in the Ayurvedic texts—Nasahi Shirasodwaram which means the ‘nose is a pharmacological passage into the head.’
Apart from the evening Nasyam sessions, I was undergoing Njawara Kizhi therapy every morning. The treatment is named after Njawara, a unique strain of medicinal rice that grows only in Kerala and has been cultivated specifically for Ayurvedic therapy for eons. Its healing properties and various applications are well documented in the Charaka Samhita.
After boiling the rice in a decoction of Sida root and milk, it is bound in small cloth bags or boluses (Kizhis) and pressed all over the body, causing perspiration, opening the pores and absorbing the compound deep into the tissues.
The paste can also be massaged directly on the body. It has remarkable rejuvenating properties and is an effective cure for rheumatoid arthritis, neurological complaints, muscular degeneration, tuberculosis, anemia, ulcerative disorders and skin diseases. The oil extracted from the bran of the rice has been used for neural diseases and eye disorders.
My three weeks were almost at an end and I was eager to verify the effects of Pancha Karma for myself.
The doctor referred me to a diagnostic lab in Kottayam town for the test. The report was emailed to me three hours after the blood sample was drawn from my vein.
At first glance I could not believe the numbers. My total cholesterol count had come down by a massive 80 points in just 20 days and was now safely in the normal zone. My triglyceride count was down from a staggering 800 to just 180.
Lastly, the abnormally high uric acid levels, the main cause of gout, were also in the safe zone. I let out a loud whoop and did an impromptu war dance around my room and patio, much to the amusement of the attendants passing by.
The long-term effects of the treatment became more apparent in the weeks and months that followed. I did not crave cigarettes, alcohol, meat or junk food anymore and the quality of my sleep was much better. I wasn’t nearly as prone to anger and irritability, and could focus on the many tasks at hand with gusto. My relationships with various family members and co-workers also improved significantly and I started what felt like a brand new chapter of my life.
To me there is no place on earth capable of inducing a major perceptual shift like India can. On the flipside, not everyone is equipped for dramatic changes in consciousness. Many come away from the experience feeling disassembled; like all the parts that make up the ‘Self’ have to be picked up and pieced back together into a new whole.
For me it was a journey worth embarking on and one that is never really over. I hope this personal account will prove to be helpful for others who wish to overhaul their lives and pull themselves out of embedded patterns but don’t know where to begin.
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Assistant Editor: Dana Gornall/Editor: Bryonie Wise
Photo credit: elephant archives