We have been at an Ayurvedic ashram in South India called Arogya Niketana for three weeks now.
It’s a small, simple, family-run ashram where Dr. Ashvin and Dr. Shubha, a husband and wife team, provide residential and non-residential treatments for both Westerners and Indians. The delicious cuisine is prepared by Amma, Dr. Ashvin’s mother, while his father, Guruji, helps with treatments and oversees the running of the ashram. The entire family has been very welcoming to us all and the kids are feeling more at home.
It’s a peaceful self-contained ashram, simple, without a lot of the basic comforts, but the delicious South Indian vegetarian cuisine makes up for the lack of creature comforts.
Monica, a fellow resident and Ayurvedic ashram veteran, told us tales of the many medieval style therapies she’s encountered such as blood letting by applying leaches to the skin, administering emetics (which make you vomit), and lying in a coffin on scattered bricks with steam coming up from below. Thank goodness these extreme techniques are only used in rare cases.
First stop, purgation.
My treatments started with four days of ghee therapy, where each morning before breakfast, Dr. Ashwin would ask me how I slept, take my pulse and observe the sheen on my skin. Then he would give me a cup of warm medicated ghee and place his hands on my head uttering a Sanskrit prayer after which he would tell me to drink.
After the fourth day of ghee, my steam treatments began with abhiyanga (oil massage) and then about 20 minutes sitting on a stool in the steam box with my head sticking out of the top. I had four days of this and then the final flush with some medicine that instigated cleansing of the bowels.
Finally…the rejuvenation begins…
After purging, I began to receive the much awaited rejuvenation therapies. First, I was given a longer abhyanga massage and then about 30 minutes of warm oil poured all over my body. It felt like being covered in warm liquid silk. After seven days of this treatment I felt like a pampered French fry. Now each morning instead of oil, they pour warm medicated milk on me for 30 minutes. After three weeks of this my skin has become silky soft and almost luminous.
In the afternoons, I receive shirodhara where warm medicated oil is poured over my forehead continuously for 20 minutes.
When I asked Dr. Ashwin about the benefits of shirodhara, he explained that in Ayurveda, the brain is considered the supreme organ of the body so this therapy helps to resolve problems in both the head as well as the body such as skin problems, illness relating to the five senses (eyes, nose, ears, mouth and skin), pain in the back and extremities, as well as many neurological problems. Shiradhara also helps to calm the nervous system, easing anxiety and insomnia. Moreover, the herbs in the oil and milk absorb into the skin and deeper tissues to benefit the whole body. The benefits of these types of treatments are said to be palpable for up to six months after treatment.
Panchakarma, the ancient detoxification regime of Ayurveda, has been practiced in mostly the same way for at least 2500 years. And while it can sound very exotic and medieval to westerners, its durability is a sign of its potency. It has influenced Greek, Chinese, Tibetan and Indonesian medical traditions, as well as, homeopathic and surgical traditions. For example, the oldest recorded technique for rhinoplasty (nose plastic surgery) is found in an ancient Ayurvedic surgical text.
My husband, Scott, an Ayurvedic practitioner, and Dr. Ashwin explained my treatments in this way:
When you take the ghee in this quantity, it temporarily reverses the digestive process for the purpose of drawing excess metabolic wastes (the stuff that will sicken the body if not eliminated) into the GI track so that it can be eliminated. Then the sweating and the purgatives help to eliminate these toxins from the body in service of improving the overall digestive functions of assimilation and elimination. This is like a taking one step back to take two steps forward.
An ancient common sense analogy is that if you have a pool full of stagnant water, you have to drain it before you put fresh water in. This is why the detoxification precedes rejuvenation.
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