Life is all about balance—at the workplace, at home, and in the mind. And, the ancient Indian system of Ayurveda is hinged around this very concept. According to this ancient “life science”, for all round well-being, one needs to attain the correct equilibrium of three doshas or energy elements present in our bodies: air or vata, fire or pitta and water or kapha—the elements which are the key to physical and mental well-being. It’s a simple concept: when these elements are balanced, we have a healthy mind and body, while an imbalance leads to illness.
And balance is exactly what hundreds flock to Kerala every year seeking. It is where the ancient medical science of Ayurveda started, and people from around the world visit Kerala Ayurvedic centres through the year. But it is during the monsoons that the Keralites prefer to go. The rains hit the region roughly by June, and go on till August. While it pours through these months, it is believed to be the best time to visit the state, especially if you have come for Ayurvedic therapy. The lush environs do much to calm your senses, making your body more receptive to the diverse treatments that fall under the ambit of this 5,000-year-old medical practice.
I was among those who, in the quest for “balance” and good health, landed up in a small Ayurveda centre in Kerala a couple of years ago. All Ayurvedic treatments aim at two things: healing existing illnesses and preventing future ones. For me, there was a lot to “detox”. I had treated my body like a “junkyard” for several years. And then there was stress, of course: inevitable, and almost compulsory, part and parcel of life in the big city. I had heard quite a few queasy stories (ranging from forcible purging to drinking glasses of medicated ghee) about Ayurvedic treatments. So I braced myself for the worst, all in the pursuit of healthy, stress-free living.
But, as I later came to learn, it wasn’t as vigorous as I had feared it would be. Ayurveda places a tremendous emphasis on “relaxation”, and is thus, big on massages. All kinds of massages. Oil, powder, water, salt—these brisk “rubdowns” relaxed every part of the body and besides that, the mind. On the first day of my two-week treatment, I found myself, spreadeagled on a table, slathered from head to toe in copious amounts of warm oil. The chechi who did the massage was an able-bodied lady in her forties, with mullapoo flowers in her hair, and a golden pin on her nose. She began with a vigorous scalp massage, and then proceeded to the rest of my body. I had a wonderful time imagining the toxins exit my body as she massaged my shoulders, arms, back and limbs. Immediately after, I was led into a small steam room, where I sat for ten minutes, sweat trickling down my face. At the end of the day (I spent the next few hours meditating, doing yoga and reading), I felt relaxed, and somewhat energised. The not so nice part? I smelled like a South Indian dish and my body had turned pale yellow because of all the oil.
While I had chosen to go during the monsoons, many visitors (usually foreigners) like to go after the monsoons, in the “winters”, when the rains have abated and temperatures remain reasonable. The typical treatment starts off with a “dosha” diagnosis (to figure out one’s temperament and physical condition), where you tell your doctor everything about yourself: right from your medical history to how much salt you prefer in your daily meal. The doctor then decides if you have a dosha imbalance, and prescribes a treatment to rectify it. During the rainy season, it is usually something called “Karkataka Chikitsa”, or the monsoon treatment. Planned to combat the ills of the monsoon (the rains are believed to aggravate your doshas), this kind of chikitsa typically lasts two weeks, but it can even carry on for a month.
We had to down glasses of greyish ash gourd juice early in the morning, which started with a 5:30am pranayama session. For breakfast, we had a mushy mixture of green—Karkataka kanji was a “monsoon special” rice soup which helped prevent fevers and aided digestion. Lunch and dinner, which was at 11:30am and 6:30pm respectively, was usually a boiled vegetable and dal mixture, a surprisingly tasty chutney made with local greens, accompanied by rice or two chapatis. I can’t say I loved the food but when I saw my courageous compatriots down by the “Weight Loss” section surviving solely on carrot and barley juice for days at a stretch, I certainly felt I was better off!
Apart from Karkataka Chikitsa, which is usually recommended in the monsoons, there are several others too: Panchakarma, another widely recommended treatment, has five different kinds of therapies done over two weeks. An important part of panchakarma is therapeutic purging or vamana, extremely beneficial for the digestive and respiratory track. Nyasa, on the other hand, is believed to cleanse your sinuses by clearing your nasal passage with oils.
I fret and whine for a while, but on day six, I find myself discussing with the lady in the next room — somewhat expectantly— what they would serve for dinner that day. The truth was that I was very hungry. The treatment had done wonders to my appetite. How quickly a body can adapt to existing circumstances, I thought. This was one of the main outcomes of doing Ayurvedic therapies. Train your body, give it a little balance, and it will begin to listen to you, and start healing, almost effortlessly. The second week passed more quickly than the first, and towards the last few days of the treatment I found that my body felt light and supple, my appetite was great, and I was full of energy. Apparently I looked good, too — at least according to the chechi who had done my first oil massage.
As I left the gates of the treatment centre, I knew I wanted to do this again. But maybe I wouldn’t go the whole hog next time. My friend from the neighbouring room told me of a number of resorts which offer these treatments but weren’t as strict with their regimen. She had been to one particular resort called Vasundhara Sarovar Premiere in Alleppey. “It’s near a lake and just the perfect place to unwind. They offer some great treatments too,” she said. Apparently the resort had everything from exotic Balinese massages to the traditional Karkataka Chikitsa treatment. In addition to some fantastic appam and strew. That was incentive enough for me and I took it as a cue to start planning my next travel itinerary.
doshas: According to Ayurveda, the three bodily elements that make up one’s constitution
chechi: an elder sister
mullapoo : jasmine flowers
Karkataka Chikitsa : Ayurvedic detoxification treatments and therapies done in the monsoon months of June, July and August
pranayama : A set of breathing exercises in Yogic practice
Karkataka kanji: A special rice porridge
Panchakarma : According to Ayurveda, a set of five therapies to detoxify your body
appam : a type of pancake made with fermented rice batter and coconut milk