4/2/2007 re: the ambience of India - more stories
In Spring 2007, I went to South India to study Ayurveda at the Ayurvedic Retreat Hospital in Conoor, India. While there, I sent 4 emails to a small group of my family and closest friends. I thought some of you might enjoy reading my unedited thoughts and experiences. This was my second trip to India, and my first real introduction to Ayurveda beyond library books. I went with my boyfriend-at-the-time, Michael, and we had an amazing experience. I was just beginning to learn about white privilege and cultural appropriation, so please excuse any ignorance on my part back then - this was 14 years ago!
4/2/2007 re: the ambience of India - more stories
Hello sweet friends,
I am having so much fun jotting down flavors of my experience here to share with you all back home. Being the organized person I am and knowing that I can get very wordy, I've broken things down into themes so you can scroll down to topics that fascinate you. I'd love to hear from you, so please write! These are a collection of haphazard journaling I'm patch-working for you below. I also have grandiose ideas of sending recipes, Dosha/constitution questionnaires, meditation techniques and other things.
Women wear their sarees/saris everywhere, doing everything. If you don't know what a saree is, it is 5-6 yards of fabric tucked and draped elegantly to look kind of like a dress. They wear little blouses and petticoats underneath. In their sarees they pick tea leaves, ride sidesaddle on motorcycles, clean our rooms, go to festivals, fancy parties and perform hard labor such as carry 30 lbs of dirt on their head, pound rocks into gravel, or other agricultural work. Walking through town or down the road they are so feminine and graceful - like floating flowers in wildly bright colors with lots of sequins (very Maui). Bangles on the wrists and bells on ankles jingle, gold glistens in ears and on necks and noses, with vibrant sweet friendly smiles.
Sarees are not very easy to wear and mine always come untucked, which is scandalous to suddenly be exposing your petticoat. At a shop yesterday the owner put me in a gorgeous royal blue saree that was sewn like a skirt to look like it had the appropriate pleats. It had velcro and a zipper - my kind of saree! He also pulled out an exotic red dress with hand-sewn gold sequins meant for Lakshmi - the Goddess of Abundance. It fit perfectly and I want it. It costs 16,0000 rupees (roughly $350) and is very heavy and not easy to move in. But ooooh I looked fabulous shuffling stiffly along!
A HARD JOB
There is a man outside in view of our balcony who is inside the septic tank wearing a doti - which is a piece of fabric wrapped around like a sarong mini-skirt. He is barelegged and barefoot standing INSIDE the septic tank, rhythmically hauling out buckets of sewage to empty the septic tank. I can't even look. Michael took a picture but this I don't want to remember. As I've been typing I can hear him empty bucket after bucket. He has been at it all day. I am reminded that even the worst part of any job I've ever had was really not so bad.
SHOPPING AT THE MARKET
Downtown Conoor is juicy, overwhelming, busy, messy, shocking, fun and yet welcoming and peaceful. Few Westerners pass through this town as it's not on the tourist map, so people here aren't trying to sell usthings or tired of our blundering ignorance. Smiles everywhere and people wanting to help and let us take their picture.
The market is a maze of little outdoor stalls made out of whatever could be found - tarps, metal siding, cardboard, pallet pieces, etc. and a patchwork roof of miscellaneous fabrics, sacks and tarps. To get there you have to take a bridge over a river of raw sewage (the smell is beyond foul). Most shops are the size of a bathroom stall and packed full of usually one thing only - like fried snacks, glittery bangles/bracelets, cleaning supplies, gold jewelry, watch parts, fresh herbs, fresh flower garlands coiled in stacks, or displays of fruit and unfamiliar vegetables. They all specialize in one thing and usually are all clustered together with their competitors.
We also went into Ooty last Sunday which is an hour away and supposedly more charming, but all of us who went came home exhausted with brutal headaches after only 3 hours in town! I fell in love with Tylenol that night - Ohm Maha Deva Tylenol Ki Jai!. We took the train in and though we had 1st class tickets, there was no room so we were stuck in 2nd class (and no reimbursement of course). Marie and I were tightly packed in with very friendly upper middle class Indians who were also tourists. We communicated with the women by pointing at each other's jewelry and scarves and nodding appreciatively. One man plopped his 4 year old son in my lap because there was nowhere else to put him and he just looked up at me in shock. The train moved slowly and thus we enjoyed vistas of little villages and hillsides of tea terraces.
We explored town and the shopkeepers here were much more aggressive - often following us out of their shop and down the street. We stumbled into one shop catering to Westerners so it was clean, quiet, spacious and the sales people gave us time to explore and served us tea. It was more expensive but it was worth it and I had to admit that I am not as much of a "blend in with the locals" person as I romanticize myself to be.
Last weekend Michael and I went into Conoor during a religious festival. To enter the temple, we had to deposit our shoes with hundreds of others and enter the temple of decorated statues, loud bells clanging, and lines to give and receive blessing to various gods and goddesses we were unfamiliar with. One priest ecstatically gave me blessings for a successful and healthy life at the feet of Ganesh - the elephant God symbolizing good luck. We had no idea how to be polite in there so devotees very exuberantly and joyfully pushed us in the right direction and helped us hold out the right hand for holy water, place red vibhuti powder on our third eyes and of course deposit rupees on the puja trays as an offering. We walked out with dirty feet, jasmine flowers, bananas, and a little more insight into this world.
We are learning so much in our 4 hours of theory classes each day. Right now we are focusing on the different qualities of food and its effects on the body, health and disease. Depending on your constitutional type or "Dosha" there are certain foods it would be best to eat more or less of. Ayurveda focuses on detoxifying the body and improving digestion to create healing with appropriate food choices, herbal medicines and different physical treatments. The goal of Ayurveda is to harmonize the body, senses, mind and soul so one can lead a healthy, happy life and ultimately attain Moksha - divine bliss and union with God. Ayurveda believes our body and mind is a byproduct of food, so that eating appropriate foods and herbal medicines for your constitution ensures health and a clear mind.
It's awesome having access to the doctors here and the apprentices who deliver your Ayurvedic medicine to your door at 6am, all meals meals, teatime and before bedtime. They are either in the form of loose powders, elixers, or warm liquids and are usually overwhelmingly bitter. Ayurveda is more 'holistic' than any alternative health system I have studied. The concepts are very different - for instance sugar causes diabetes not just for the reasons we know of, but also because it has the qualities of being cold and oily and made up of earth and water, so it thus decreases the Medo Dhatu (tissue element containing blood) which is also cold & oily.
Dr. Sundar - our brilliant and charming 25 year old teacher - has so many success stories of different patients who had incurable diseases by allopathic standards, but were cured within 1 week to 3 months on Ayurvedic treatments. When I return I will be able to help friends, myself and my clients make better choices to support our health. Our training is now getting very juicy and exciting because we are beyond the basics. I am always so disappointed when our class time is up as the info is fascinating and so pertinent. Martin, a fellow classmate, said the other day, "For the first time in my life I am thinking I could live to be 100!"
In Ayurveda it is extremely important to give the right type of appropriate treatment to balance each patient and to use the appropriate oil based on their constitution. It is all very complex and “foreign”. For the last 2 weeks we have received a download on the basics of Ayurveda and how to figure out people's constitutions. So I won't be learning a set prescription of herbs, topical treatments and diet for each skin condition - such as psoriasis - instead I will have to figure it out separately for each person. Wow! I've taken over 50 pages of notes so far. Dr. Sundar will be giving me recipes for facial packs and oils during the last two weeks (I'm already drooling!).
We had a big test yesterday. It took me 3 hours to answer all the questions and I wrote as fast as I could. I feel like I'm back at school - but this is so much more pleasant, beautiful and exciting in our dreamy little center here. And it is so much fun to learn from the people here as they really believe in Ayurveda and feel that it is very sacred and holy.
READING THE 72,000 PULSES IN THE WRIST
When we first asked Sundar about the Nadis (reading the pulses) because we were hoping to learn in this basic course, Sundar only laughed sweetly at our naivety. Sundar told us that the Nadis, which are pulses you can feel in the person's wrist and aid in diagnosis are very difficult to learn. There are some Ayurvedic doctors who only read the pulses - they don't ask questions about symptoms or do any other type of diagnoses - and completely heal the patient that way. Apparently there are 72,000 types of pulse patterns that range from feeling like a frog (bouncy), an elephant (slow and methodical), or a snake (kinda slippery).
For the first 6 months, a medical student will constantly feel her pulses during different states throughout the day - upon waking, when hungry, full, tired, angry, happy, sick, with a headache, etc. and take meticulous notes. That way they learn how the pulses/Nadis are affected by different states and imbalances in the body. After that, they spend years just feeling patients' pulses and taking notes and only after 6 years can they start diagnosing. It takes that long to learn!
Some Ayurvedic doctors don't use modern imaging equipment - such as X-rays or MRIs, or know much about anatomy - yet they still diagnose accurately and heal their patients. Sundar is unusual in that he knows a lot about Western Medicine, which is very helpful to us.
Amudha, Parvathi and Neela are the female therapists training me daily in the treatments. They are petite, sweet and affectionate. While talking to me they want to hold my hand and admire my jewelry, clothes and hair. They are excellent therapists who work 6-7 days a week even though they are married with children.
The treatments are very different than what I'm used to and they feel far more therapeutic, beneficial and transformative, but not because they are relaxing and peaceful. Even the massage here seems more holistic, because they massage your whole body at once, up and down, rather than uncover one limb at a time. It's really fun sharing this center with patients who are here taking herbal medications and receiving treatments for a week or more so I can ask them questions about the changes they are noticing. Though the Western patients are also adjusting to the more vigorous treatment style here, we all need to nap for an hour or more as we feel so mellow afterwards.
For two days in a row I received Nasya (don't know how to spell it yet) to help clear congestion in my nasal passages. After massaging my face with lots of medicated/herbal sesame oil, the therapist, Amudha placed 3 drops of medicated oil into each nostril, then massaged my face/nose in different ways while I snorted it up my nose. It helps move the congestion to the throat so you can spit it out. For the first time in 3 months my nose is clear and no longer itches! I will be learning how to do this treatment to people. Trippy, eh?
This week I've been learning Podhikizhi, which is light pounding all over the body with warm sacks of herbal powders. During the first few minutes I thought, "Oh dear I can't endure a whole hour of this!". But my body quickly relaxed and I couldn't believe how invigorated, yet peaceful, I felt afterwards. All the tension in my muscles from advanced yoga was released. I can already think of the different types of people who will benefit from this.
Yesterday I received Shirodhara, which is the continuous pouring of medicated oil or milk on the forehead. I have been so eager to experience this as it calms the mind and helps alter your brain waves to be the same as when you were a fetus in the womb. Pure bliss. They hang a pot above your head with a little hole on it while one therapist gently moves the pot in a continuous slow back and forth motion. Another one collects the oil pouring off your head to reheat it and pour it back into the pot. I washed my hair twice and it's still full of oil!
The roads here fascinate us - brightly painted trucks with sayings like "Praise the Lord", motorcycles piled high with 30 or more plastic jugs, families tottering on scooters, goats, cows, a plethora of pedestrians, lots of honking, swerving, and magically flowing chaos.
The yellow rickshaws (mini taxes) are the size of a riding lawn mower, but with a back bench and an overhead tarp. They are open air with no sides or windows, and they bounce and shake and vibrate and jerk and are very loud. You just let your body relax and flop around while you precariously swerve inches around buses, cows, other rickshaws/taxis. All the drivers are very relaxed and merrily make their way through impossibly tight squeezes. I have not seen one angry driver - being stuck nose to nose on a steep hillside with 2 trucks and a pile of scooters and animals is an everyday fact here. So they negotiate who backs up and inches in which way till everyone squishes through.
WALKING THROUGH NEARBY VILLAGES
After teatime, we love to walk through the meandering roads up and down the tea terraces. Life here is more quiet and rural. People are always walking on the road because vehicles and gas are a luxury, so I often feel people are gathering for a parade or a block party, but then I remember that back home they'd all be in cars instead. There are lots of scooters, usually with 2-4 people piled on the tiny seat. One might squat down over the foot pedals under the driver. Today 3 men sped by while the middle one leisurely took a drag on a cigarette. When going downhill they coast to conserve gas, so we get honked at a lot because we can't hear them coming from behind us.
Children walk by with mellow cows, women balance gigantic loads of laundry, firewood or water on their heads, men walk hand in hand because that is okay here and they all smile radiantly at us. Birds chirp and leaves rustle, and of course their is lots of honking and loud music from the Christian, Hindu and Muslim churches/temples/mosques.
Woohoo I had my eyebrows threaded today, which is the same effect as waxing but using only a 2 foot piece of thread. The beautician used her mouth and both hands, and had me use both my hands to pull my eye tight while she used twisted thread to pull my excess brow hairs out. Ouch! She was incredibly fast and accurate - her hands were a blur. I'm hoping to learn this art while I'm here, which is apparently difficult and requires lots of practice. The salons here charge only 10 rupees for threading, which is $0.25!!! The beautician also gave me a facial in my room today, which wasn't too exciting. I don't think it was traditional Ayurveda as she used creams and bottles that look like Indian versions of drugstore products.
OUR COMMUNITY LIFE HERE
As most of us arrived at the same time, we are all starting to gel. During yoga and meditation most of us know the words and tunes to the various mantras and it feels like home. My body is already transforming in yoga - far more than working out at the gym. Meditating an hour every day is a brilliant idea and I highly recommend it! The staff is fabulous - especially Chagan and Mohanji, our cooks and waiters. They are from Rajasthan and left their wives and children back home to make money here and send it back. They are silly and playful with all of us and very proud to serve us well.
I'm going to go wake Michael up from his nap so we can head into town and shop as today is our one day off a week! Oh yippee!