Tag Archives: Kerala

Divine Dhara

For the past week I have been staying as an inpatient at an Ayurvedic hospital in Kerala, India. My favourite part of being here, along with being surrounded by beautiful flowers and plants, has been experiencing the twice daily treatments. In the morning I am summoned into the treatment room which is conveniently adjacent my room and bathroom.

My modesty is maintained by a piece of fabric tied around my waist, somewhat unnecessarily as this is later removed anyway. Then I lie face down on the huge dark wood of the treatment table which has been carved from the ‘medicine tree’. At the foot of the table in the centre there is a small whole and it has been designed in such a way that any liquid pours down the table and into the hole and is collected in a bowl situated underneath. It is very simple yet very practical as with much of the Ayurvedic procedures.

First I am given a full body massage with warm oil. The therapist uses invigorating and rhythmical strokes circling my joints and sweeping over my limbs in a flowing motion that I really enjoy. It’s not a deep massage and it doesn’t send me to sleep but it is definitely having an effect my circulatory and lymphatic systems and is working to remove any blockages in the energy points of the body.

I’ve asked what kind of oil it is and I think it is sesame seed oil medicated to produce a herbal infusion that they make themselves here, as with most of the products and medicines used. After the massage treatment I am told to do my exercises. These include single leg raises, bringing my knee to my nose, raising my hips and lifting my arms overhead (not all at once).

Next the therapist returns joined by a colleague to help her carry out the ‘Dhara’ treatment. ‘Dhara’ means flow and this treatment involves warm liquid being poured all over my body (excluding my head) in circular and long connective motions. This is not to be confused with Shirodhara where the oil only flows onto the forehead-I don’t have any images of this to show unfortunately. On the first day the liquid used was medicated oil. Medicated with what I’m not sure – I keep asking but I don’t recognise most of the names. I plan to ask the doctor to write down a bit more information about all the medication and methods used before I go.

For the next five days after that, the same warm herb-infused oil used for my massage was the liquid of choice for the Dhara treatment. Ooh it feels so decadent! This is my favourite part of the day. I love, love, love it! I find it so warming and relaxing and such a treat. When do you ever get to lie like this? I feel so lucky and lazy at the same time. I always find myself thinking how grateful I am-it’s like I’ve won the opportunity to be treated like a princess for a half hour. Maybe not everyone would feel the same; I know some people would feel like they had been treated to the inside of a chip pan, but not I. I lap it up and come away feeling like the best moisturised, oil plumped up person on the planet.

After this, I go through to the bathroom to sit casually on a steel stool while the therapist rubs a green powder over me to get the oil off and then washes me using a jug to pour water from a bucket-there’s no shower-and then finishes by tipping the rest of the bucket over me like a waterfall. A bit like being a child again especially when she also decides to briefly pat you down with the towel. So nice-who’d have thought?!

Today however, the ‘Dhara’ part of my day slipped from number one position to number 3. The fresh coconut moved into first place followed by dinner. Because today instead of thick warm silky oil, it was carried out with a special rice powder milk concoction. All thin, runny and messy. Although it was also warm, my body instantly felt cooler afterwards. It’s poured using a metal vase shaped pot with a hole in the bottom. One therapist re-heats the collected milk and re-fills the pot while the other directs it over me. I just couldn’t help thinking (between feeling a bit chilly and needing the loo) what a mess it was making and wondering how they would clean it all up. Never a good sign during a relaxation treatment.

On the plus point, it did improve when I turned over onto my back – for some reason I felt warmer face up. Also the therapist told me that the aim of the rice milk was to make me strong and prevent pain in the body. Feeling like Cleopatra who had been gunked on Fun House, I gratefully made my way to the bathroom and to the steel stool to have it all rinsed off in the waterfall wash down, again slightly reminiscent of the legendary childhood game show. I looked down at myself and I saw that I had become the Rice Pudding Monster. It’s the stuff of nightmares for anyone with OCD, I imagine…

Amazing Aditya

Amazing Ayurveda, I find it so fascinating!

My first two blogs about my time here at this Ayurvedic hospital in Kerala were quite jokey and perhaps a bit flippant. I was still settling in and making sense of why I was here. I really felt as though someone else had planned this for me and that I had shown up 5 evenings ago feeling a bit out of place and as if I had crashed a wellbeing party.

In actual fact a friend had spent some time here about eight years ago and recommended this place to me after I asked her for some advice on places and things she rated in India. The India part I had come up with on my own but looking back, the outline of the rest of this trip was born out of her suggestions. It’s funny to think that another email and my first experience of making a payment using Western Union later and I was booked in to spend 10 or so days here taking part in some kind of Ayurvedic health treatment plan.

I have to say that this treatment plan has not become any more clear to me since being here. I feel very much in the dark, as I am at the moment, deliberately ruining my hopes of an early night by enjoying typing away on my wee iPad as the fan churns noisily overhead. As an aside, I hate fans-they are so noisy and this one makes the tune of Beyonce’s ‘Run the World’ which I now have going round and round in my head with every 360 of the propellers above me.

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Simple accommodation seems appropriate for ‘cleansing’ your lifestyle

Anyway back to the hospital – it is more of a home stay run by a lovely family and a great team of caring and friendly staff. The doctor, Dr Sathya, is from a long line of Ayurvedic specialists and he and his wife run this treatment centre along with a clinic in the local town. They are both kind and sweet people who are clearly busy but never show it outwardly, instead they always have time to see how you’re getting on and if you need anything. This is a quiet place which is exactly what you need, I imagine, for healing and what people coming here seek-an escape from anything that stimulates stress or ill-ease.

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Here the only provocation of stress for some is the internet playing up, but in an ideal world, we wouldn’t have to use wifi whilst receiving treatments. The holistic and traditional nature of this health system fits perfectly with the pre-technological age and you can imagine that in order for it to flourish and be of most benefit to the patient, the patient needs to also put in the work by not spending time on devices like I’m using now, but instead by appreciating the frogs jumping off the lily pads into the pond and the beautiful sounds coming from the nearby temple.

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The whole settling contributes to the effectiveness of the treatments, every single element plays a part and what we’re given here, which I’m really grateful for, is somewhere you are best placed to feel well or to feel better. Ayurveda as I’ve understood it has always been aimed at preventing illness or at maintaining good health. That’s mainly because I work with the massage therapy strand of this eastern medicine and so do not administer anything ‘medicinal’ other than oils onto skin. But here the doctor receives patients from all over the world with a wide variety of conditions; many of them are in the very late stages. I’ve already spoken to two fellow patients here who have come to receive treatment with their last remaining hope that they may be able to avoid surgery for long-standing and painful injuries. Although tempted, I have resisted the nosy urge to ask anyone their reason for being here so I only know what has been offered up to me.

The first morning after breakfast I go into the doctor’s office and fill in the consultation form.

“Goodness no!” I declare in ridiculous shock at the question asking if I’ve ever injected street drugs. That was the wording of it and I think that’s what caused such an embarrassing reaction. I mean ‘street drugs’!? Any how I did have a few ticks here and there namely back and neck pain (my knee also hurts but I forgot to tell him that darnit) and PMT. I tell him I want to feel rested and energised ahead of my month long stay at an ashram where I’ll be undertaking what promises to be an intense and rigid schedule. I have nervously been leading up to this ashram experience by preparing myself through not reading the books on the recommended reading list or actually finding out what Sivananda means and what style of yoga I’ll be learning to teach, but instead by having as nice a time as possible before my life becomes a living hell consisting of yoga prison. Don’t get me wrong I chose to do it and I would consider myself to be an open-minded person, but wake up time is as 05.20 and we only seem to get fed twice a day! To say I’m already feeling hungry at the thought is an understatement. I have got protein bars, 3 chocolate bars and 2 packets of cookies for some sustenance when times get hard but I’ve already dipped into the coconut cookies and the choccy won’t last long once I’m out of here.

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Small pleasures-our afternoon fruit snack

Sitting beside the doctor with my mouth wide open (like they make you do at the doctors when you’re a child but without me having to say ‘aaahhhh’) he then does what seems like the quickest check of my tongue and eyes ever by a doctor followed by a pulse diagnosis. I like his manner. He’s not smug or condescending and he seems a lot more humble and less theatrical than a lot of the western doctors I’ve encountered. He tells me I have a slight Vata imbalance probably due to all the travelling I’ve been doing along with a Pitta imbalance – neither of which comes as news. I am very much a Pitta dosha dominated person who is in a warm country eating spicy food and occasionally sunbathing. I knew my Vata was on the up because of my back pain.

However what I didn’t know exactly-and still don’t-is what to expect from my time here.
I am told that not having long enough to do the full panchakarma treatment, (unfortunately as I had been hoping to experience it) means I bypass the daily consumption of ghee and go straight to daily treatments and a general diet of healthy vegetarian and non-spicy meals. We are given medicine four times a day which I still have no idea what it is although it tastes disgusting. The focus will be on rejuvenation treatments the doctor tells me and I’ll have one or two treatments a day, the first being a massage followed by Dhara (which literally means flowing) of medicated water.

“What will I do for the rest of the day ?” I ask unimaginatively and if I’m honest a bit panicked. How will I make the time pass here?! I had thought there’d be this whole schedule. I now see that people coming here probably need routine but not a ‘schedule’. Here they get granted the space, time and fresh air to do nothing should they wish and to try to let go and unwind. The doctor tells me I could read a book, take a stroll or talk to the other patients. Hmm, the panic is not reduced by this response. I undertake to fill my time as much as possible with yoga, the act of ‘journalling’ (a word I still can’t really fully condone-is it actually a verb? I’ve only ever heard Americans use it so I’m not sure it exists in British) and reading.

Now it’s the end of my fifth full day and it’s all starting to finally sink in. We have to trust this place; the sacred surroundings, the doctor’s intuition, the age old and time tested methods that have been proven, and importantly ourselves, in order to bring about whatever changes or effects we’re hoping for. We have to let go of our past habits, stop running to our phones or the office for wifi and try not to wish we were anywhere else but here. To surrender to the simplistic facilities, the mozzies, the thunderstorms that keep you awake and cut the power and to just feel it all. The oil pouring all over you that soaks into your skin and leaves you feeling swollen and slick, but also nourished. We have to be at one with all the various treatments and powders and the oils-so important in Ayurveda-and just (I hate to say it but I can’t help it!) go with the flow!

Hairfall Madam?

I look back a bit in disbelief. I know that ‘hair fall’ here means hair loss, that much I have cleverly deduced from products and adverts I’ve seen around. And I know it’s not taken lightly. But although the therpist has come away with both hands full of hair having combed through my thick, frizzy mane using oil and her fingers, I am not worried.

I haven’t brushed my hair today. If I had, all that hair would be on the brush. That’s all thats happening here. That’s why we don’t use our fingers to brush our hair.

“Have you told the doctor about your hair fall?”

Clearly she thinks I have a problem. “Err no, I just thought it was normal”, I laugh. How naive of me. Despite the therapists’ concern I’m not really phased by all this. Instead it’s a little bit exciting. Finally I have something wrong with me other than the niggling back ‘pain’ that got a lot better the minute I stopped my Ashtanga yoga practise. However, now I feel I have a legitimate reason to be here – I’m in a hospital after all. This proves that I am not a self-indulgent lay about under the guise of self-improvement who essentially just likes massages. Even if my problem is aesthetically based.

“Did here used to be more hair before?”

“I don’t think so but I had been thinking my forehead is looking bigger these days, now you mention it, maybe my hair is receding.” Oh no, I knew I took after my dad. I have a genetic disorder. This is getting to be quite serious. Ok maybe a bit dramatic, but this is the most exciting thing to happen yet today so I’m running with it…Do I have bald patches? No, I’m sure I don’t. My hair was definitely thicker when I was younger but I always put that down to it being frizzier and to stupidly brushing it when it was dry; a big mistake that I think I got away with in the nineties and learned to stop by the time I had a social life.

“Ok I will tell the doctor and maybe he can suggest some herbs and oils.”

Ok good. I have a well experienced doctor on the case of my hair. I am in safe hands.

I then proceed to lie down for my Shirodhara treatment. Here is a rough photo of the set up as I was rushing before the therapist came back:

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Your head is positioned under the clay bowl through which the liquid pours and is collected again in a bowl which it runs into. I have had this done with oil once before in London but this is my first experience of it here in India and this time they will be using butter milk as it’s more cooling and they have caught me walking about in a sticky mess, dripping from the humidity.

“Try to relax by thinking about your breathe or about thoughts that you find relaxing or you can pray”.

Praying sounds like a nice option and for a minute I wish I knew some Hindi prayers as I’m not sure why but the prayers I know from my Christian upbringing always make me feel a little anxious. However I don’t pray, I can relax easily. T’his is going to be fine. I know the other female patient hated it but my lasting memory of my only other experience of this was of just drifting off and coming to about an hour later wondering where I’d been. It is a bit different here as there’s no background chanting music and the lighting is quite bright but I close my eyes and it begins.

The butter milk starts flowing across my forehead, back and forth rhythmically, over and over again, getting topped up by warmer liquid so there’s a constant stream of buttery goodness stroking my forehead. It’s nice. It smells delicious and I’m now really thankful for the two coconut cookies I sneakily ate earlier because otherwise, considering the sugar cravings I’ve been having, this would have been torture. It’s like my head’s a cake bowl and they are pouring in the yummy butter mixture.

Every now and then the therapist rubs it into my scalp which feels nice and gradually I feel myself float away. I think I’m sleeping but then again I might just be having strange dreams whilst still awake. I’m not sure but the time just escapes me and I come to after what must have been about 30 mins. Suddenly I’m not feeling relaxed but I really what to dodge the buttermilk and move my head into a more comfortable position. It’s like being in a hairdresser’s sink – there’s only so long you can stand it before the back of your head and neck hurt. Next time I will pay more attention to my position.

Thankfully we were coming to the end, just in the nick of time. As with previous treatments, the therapist then washed my hair, using my Garnier Fructis shampoo which I had been really embarrassed about before due to it’s artificial smell and chemical content, but was now thankful of because the buttermilk, having been churned over my head now smelt like off milk or cheese. After drying my scalp she dabs some brown powder onto my crown. It’s called Rasnadi Chooznam from what I can make out on the label and is used to help prevent colds and infections.

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After she leaves I suddenly remember a natural, Ayurvedic hair conditioner pack I had bought. The description makes it sound like it was designed for me-it strengthens the roots and helps prevent ‘hair fall’. Not knowing how to use it, I pour some of the powder in a dish and add some water as I’ve seen them do previously with the powder they use to wash the oil off me. I apply this to my now almost dry hair and it goes in like grainy powder would do on drying hair; not well. I try to wash it out but grains kind of spray everywhere and it has clearly clumped into my scalp. Now sitting here writing this as greeny brown gravy stock granules fall over my screen and stick to my shoulders, my paranoia about hair loss seems insignificant to the mess I’ve made. With our limited communication I dread explaining this one to the therapist – green dandruff is only going to convince them more of my need to be here. I feel like a teenager who’s dyed her hair, the bath and all the family towels green.

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I know hair loss is a serious issue and if I was worried about it I wouldn’t be taking it lightly. I don’t consider myself to have anxiety but I can, like everyone at times, be a bit anxious. When this happens I nervously scratch/massage/pick at (whatever you want to call it) my scalp. My other half and I conclude than rather than relying on the green powder I will endeavour to stop this bad habit; it drives him nuts. I mention my hair condition to the doctor who dismisses it instantly saying the oils used are good for the scalp; clearly he has bigger fish to fry. And when lunch arrives I quickly forget about my locks or lack of and all is well again. ๐Ÿ™‚

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Hospital Realisation

I realised (well the clue was in the name, ‘Aditya Ayurvedic Hospital’) or better put, I finally got the reality of where I am this morning before my first treatment of the day-a lovely full body Abhyanga. The therapist looked worriedly at my shoulder and asked if I had a skin problem. Err, not that I knew of. Or black spots on my face? You tell me I was thinking, they weren’t there last time I looked but stranger things have happened. Thankfully the doctor’s wife was there to consult with us both and diplomatically she asked if I’d had this ‘skin condition’ since birth. Another realisation hit me, she was referring to my freckles.

“Well I was a bit silly in my youth and got burnt trying to get a tan while abroad on holiday so the skin on my shoulders is probably a bit sun-damaged but yes otherwise this has been since birth.’

Phew! No horrible black spots although I’m slightly concerned that that’s what the locals see when they look at me rather than an exotic redhead goddess (which I’d hoped was the reason they usually stared but clearly not).

I have luckily and thankfully never been in hospital-I really don’t want to jinx things by writing this but I haven’t had any major illnesses, broken bones and I have even managed to dodge having my stomach pumped as a teenager, although a couple times I thought that really that’s what should have happened.

It has also never been a particular desire nor had it scared me, it kind of seems inevitable that it’ll happen one day, but perhaps that’s the negative outlook I have about getting older creeping in. Anyways it might seem bizarre that I have voluntarily admitted myself to a hospital for treatment and I know this is exactly the type of place most of my family would be mortified by. However I feel extremely grateful to be here and I can put a big fat tick next to something that had been on my bucket list for a wee while now.

This is no ordinary hospital but an Ayurvedic hospital in Kerala set in quiet surroundings with smiley staff, birdsong and unreliable internet. It’s a simple, humble yet efficient place that a friend recommended, with lovely people taking care of everything. My fellow inmates, I mean ‘patients’, include a married Russian couple, a Ukrainian, an American and I’m told, a famous, Australian yoga teacher. Similar to hospital back home only in that there’s really not much to do here other than to try to relax, rest and recover. Oh and there’s black, horrible tasting medicine and food on metal trays.

Unlike hospitals back home, there’s no caffeine (and I’m really surprised at my lack of cravings for it or cold turkey moods wings), no vending machines full of things to momentarily bring you comfort, much to ย the Russian guy’s dismay, and there’s no one hanging around outside having a smoke, although the Russian guy, who is staying here for 3 weeks with his wife and coming to the end of an intense ‘cleanse’ nipped out last night after dinner. Sneaky. Apparently it’s to help curb his hunger pangs.

Most people come for 4 weeks to do the full panchakarma detoxification and rejuvenation treatments. This involves cleansing the body by ingesting ghee, having daily massage treatments and eating a ‘sattvic’ diet which is mild rather than spicy and is aimed at balancing the ‘doshas’. I’m not going to get into the finer details of Ayurveda but I came here to experience it first-hand by authentically trained therapists and a doctor from a family of Ayurvedic medics. I hope that I will learn a lot in the process despite only having 10 days here and therefore not being able to take part in panchakarma, and that the experience will enhance my own Ayurvedic massage therapies.

I had therefore looked at this as a lovely sort of retreat. Seeing as it’s the most expensive place I’ll stay on my 4 month trip to India, I had secretly hoped for a bit of celeb rehab luxury. A lovely room with a view, maybe some beauty treatments now and then and most definitely a pool. 4 days in and it has finally hit me; this is a serious hospital. I mean I knew it was before, that’s why I chose it, but it’s a family run home-stay kind of hospital and I really do think that if I had to do some rehab time this would be where I’d come. There’s no TV, wifi has just come back on, hence posting this but it’s been very sketchy, and there’s a small town but nothing to really tempt you away from the serenity offered here; other than a bottle of Pepsi if you’re the Ukranian patient who told me the other day he had sent his wife home after two weeks here because she ‘doesn’t understand India and just wants to smoke cigarettes and drink coffee’. That was an hour before his contraband Pepsi tanning.

Well this is not a glossy blog, no fancy camera so excuse the photos but since being here I have really had the urge to write, not having posted anything in ages. So with the time and space to do so and wifi permitting, I’ll be posting a few things about my time here. I’m doing this for the first time on an iPad app so it’s even less picture perfect than I would like but hopefully I’ll get the nac and I hope you enjoy ๐Ÿ™‚

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My home whilst here.

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Lunch!

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The murky, foul tasting mysterious medicine-bottoms up!