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!
4/26/2007 re: I love my India!
Namaste friends and family,
Due to an exciting week of afternoon thunderstorms, lightning, rain and hail, the internet has been pao for over a week. We're finally back online - hallelujah - and there has been a mad rush of staff, students and patients hungry for email. We took our final theory exam last week and I scored higher than anyone - go Tauna! go Tauna!. I scored one point less than Martin and Michael on the practical treatments because (and I quote our teacher), "I always give higher scores to the men." Ah, yes - even though Dr. Sundar is an unusually modern, enlightened and amazing man, he is from this patriarchal culture. Though most of my experiences here as a woman is one of delight, I am very great-full to have been born into the Western world. Below is an abundance of tidbits to savor that I have collected during the busyness of the last two weeks. WOMEN IN INDIA It is still common practice - and often expected - for the woman to eat after her husband, even if he comes home very late. Once he has cleared his plate, she eats off his plate as a sign of respect. As a man, I would much prefer coming home to a content wife late at night than a low-blood-sugar, irritable and edgy wife hovering over me to finish my dinner! Marriage: The head therapist, Amudha, who has taught me over 15 Ayurvedic treatments, married 3 months ago to a man her parents chose for her. After looking through numerous photos and brief descriptions presented to her, she saw his photo and told her parents that he looked nice and she would marry him. Luckily, he IS very nice and when she talks about him she seems like a woman in love. She is already pregnant. He lives and works in Delhi, which is about a 3 day train ride away. According to custom, she moved in with his parents, her in-laws, even though she now has to walk 45 minutes further to work and he doesn't live there. Her in-laws are good people, but she is quite bored there and feels she needs to be prim and proper, so she sneaks off to her parent's house as often as she can. Where Are The Women?: While plowing through a crowd of 1000s of dancing, drunk men celebrating the Tamil New Year late one evening, Michael and I latched onto a train of 15 petite women in silk saris with fresh jasmine strands in their hair. With heads down, they held tightly onto each other in rows of 3, stuck their elbows out and we all slowly wormed our way through the vibrating mob. As our tall white heads hovered high above the crowd, the ecstatic men were waiting for my blond/blue-eyed arrival and would paw at my arms and try to get my attention. I just held onto the women in front of me and ignored them. We were the ONLY women I saw for 3 blocks! The SisterHood is Strong: The treatment room therapists - Amudha, Neela, and Parvathi - were immediately affectionate with me. When I arrive for the daily lesson, they hold my hand, pat my hair and examine every inch of my clothing and jewelry with curiosity. The first day I wore a sari here I spent 20 minutes arranging myself and strolled down proudly to breakfast. At lunch, the gals ushered me into the treatment room and immediately unwound me and tucked me back in because it had been bothering them all morning whenever they thought of me! Apparently I had too much skin exposing, an inadequate number of folds covering the breasts, sloppy pleats and I was revealing my petticoat. To me and the other Westerners I looked fabulous - but I guess it's kind of like a foreigner showing up to a party back home with their jeans inside out and a bra over their backwards t-shirt thinking they looked stunning. (I couldn't help but picture the Weasley's proudly sporting ridiculous muggle clothing Harry Potter).
Like a Local Woman: I had some sari's and salwaar kameez (tunics with pants) made by a local tailor in the market maze. The local people here are thrilled to see me in them. On days I wear Indian clothing in town I am gifted with flowers, chocolates, pictures of a favorite saint, quoted better prices, and offered sticky sweet prasad snacks. Today I wore my retro 70's sari and the 3 housekeepers chatted exuberantly around me, examining every inch of my sari, lifting up the fabric to fondle my petticoat and blouse and pet me. It was an intimate moment. I can now proudly proclaim that I know how to tuck myself into a sari and stay that way all day! I'm hoping to start a new fashion back home and am demonstrating tremendous willpower by not buying more saris. They are exquisite shimmering folds of embroidered fabric in juicy colors....sigh. Working Hard: Women here are toned and thin without exercise or watching their calories because their bodies are their tools. In the intimacy of trading treatments with my female teachers, I see their muscular, cellulite-free bodies. I know they don't ever exercise for the sake of exercising to look good. They simply walk where ever they need to go, wash their laundry by hand, roll out chapatis, and squat just to get through the day. Of course there are a few plump women, but they are the wealthy few with servants (who all have svelte bodies).
Women and Men:
On the train to Ooty, we clambered onto a packed car with no available seats. People clapped and applauded as the exotic Westerners entered. The train lurched forward and I held onto what I could. After awhile Martin leaned over and said, "There's certainly no chivalry here, is there?" as the men were simply staring at me, rather than offering me a seat. After 1/2 an hour one man did give up his seat (phew!). Martin bonded immediately with some kids by showing them videos of his family on his cell phone and letting them listen to Enya on his iPod, while Michael hovered protectively over me as I was surrounded by helplessly awed men. People took pictures of us and we took pictures of them. Indians take just as many pictures as we do, and I'm sure we are in a lot of local family albums already! I WAS ON THE SOUTH INDIA NEWS! This month is the most festive in Conoor as it's the Tamil New Year. Every night of the week there is a parade, street party, temple pujas, fireworks - or a fire walk, where everyone walks on burning hot coals! 45 days before the fire walk day, people wanting to deepen their devotion, pray for something they want (like health or finances), or wash away bad karma begin fasting, praying, meditating, abstaining from alcohol/cigarettes and doing good deeds in all their spare time. The night before the fire-walk they head to the temple to consult the local God by shaking packets of red and white powder in their hand, then tossing them onto the ground (like dice). If they get red, the God does not want them to fire walk, but if they get white, they will walk the coals.
On the night of the fire walk a group of us Westerners merged with the crowd and immediately became hot celebrities. Guards ushered us to the front of the line, then into the roped-off area meant only for the 500 fire walkers. I felt a little awkward as I knew most of the people had been waiting in line overnight. Everyone wanted to shake our hand, practice their English, and have their pictures taken with us. Gifts of limes, carrots, holy leaves, milk, sweets, and flowers were showered on us with wide grins and eager insistence. We squatted by the fire pit where fire walkers exuberantly chanted and cheered each other on in the flavor of a big foot ball game. Some fire walkers ran as fast as they could over the red hot coals, some glided slowly, others danced in wild trance and collapsed on the coals (to be carried off by others before they burned). Some were very, very old and some were only 5 or 6 years old. Parents carried their children and babies. The next day the retreat staff told us that we were on the news more than the fire walkers! Apparently there was a long clip of me leading the men in a chant of "Om para shaktiyai namaha" and "Om Kaliyai Namaha!," which thrilled them as women don't normally act so brazenly, I was told. We came home covered in charcoal with pockets full of carrots. DRUMS AND DANCING One night at the center we danced around the fire pit to expert drumming by local musicians. I couldn't help but wonder what they thought of our loose, Western ways as we women and men inter-mixed so freely with each other. If this had been a local crowd, the men would have danced while the women watched demurely. A few nights ago, 2 exquisite kathak dancers shared their art and I drooled over their perfected femininity. Afterwards they taught the meanings of the different hand movements (mudras) used in their dance. I now know how to use my hands for moon, deer, twinkling stars, shy girl, and lion. AYURVEDA MEDICINE Ayurveda's approach to health is completely different to allopathic medicine, and even Western alternative medicine. (In general:) According to Ayurveda, all disease is a result of imbalance or toxins (or needing to work off past-life karma). Pancha Karma is a common way of curing most diseases through loosening Ama (toxins) in the Dhatus (which are all the body tissues - blood, muscle, muscle fat, bone, bone marrow, organs, reproductive liquids), then directing them to the gastro-intestinal tract. To loosen the toxins, patients drink medicated ghee (clarified butter) for an appropriate number of days, then receive treatments that externally oil their body to soften and lubricate the tissues from the inside out, such as Abhyanga (oil massage) or Pizhichil (warm oil bath). Then they undergo Swedana (sweating in a steam bath).
Finally, the toxins are expelled through the most appropriate method, such as purgation (through the bowels), vomiting or medicated enemas. Some branches of Ayurveda use medical leeches for blood letting, which is particularly helpful in arthritis and skin diseases. No need to be squeamish - even our American hospitals use medical leeches purchased from a pharmacy as they are painless, remove only impure blood, and don't leave a scar. For the most part, treatments are gentle, nourishing, pleasurable and very humane. Needles, austere treatment rooms, harsh drugs with dangerous side effects and surgery are reserved for acute emergencies. Here is a tip that has been helping me tremendously. Every day after brushing your teeth perform nasiyam: take 2 drops of warm sesame oil in your palm and cover the tip of your other finger, then swirl it around in each nostril and snort. As the nostrils are considered the gateway to the brain and the whole head, this helps nourish the eyes, scalp, hair, and facial skin and increase your resistance to respiratory diseases (such as cold or cough). It can also help you sleep when done at bedtime. For the last 6 months I've been sneezing, blowing my nose and enduring itchiness in my nostrils. After just two days of nasiyam I'm cured! For bleeding or receding gums or gum disease, gently massage coconut oil onto your gums after brushing them. I have many more tips that I will share with you, all accessible in your kitchen cupboard! TREATMENTS I'VE LEARNED: UDWARTANAM (powder massage): body scrub of warm herbal powders. Liquifies excess muscle fat, decreases cellulite, improves skin complexion and blood flow and prevents looseness in the joints. And feels really good!
SHIRO DARA: a continuous stream of warm oil is poured onto the forehead and is quite blissful and meditative. Helps with sleeplessness, prevents premature greying of the hair, Eye/ear/nose/throat diseases, headaches, migraines, paralysis, reduces blood pressure, hypertension, urinary disorders (incontinence and UTI), stress, depression, anxiety, soothes nervous system, memory, PMS, brian/spinal cord diseases, purifies the mind of bad memories/emotions, autism, insanity, epilepsy (can cure or control it). ABHYANGA: oil massage with lots of oil and rhythmic effleurage movements. Helps with sleeplessness, constipation, pain/stiffness in the joints, poor circulation, varicose veins, asthma, paralysis, Parkinson's disease, muscle weakness, ear diseases, scalp diseases and is of course relaxing, nourishing and rejuvenating. KADI VASTHI: application of a very thick layer of warm oil to cure chronic back ache and lubricate the vertebrae. Helps with sciatica, low back pain, PMS, pelvic inflammatory diseases, spondylitis and any degenerative disease of the lumbar area. AKSHI TARPANAM/NETRA VASTI (eye treatment): a process of keeping warm, medicated ghee in the eyes. Prevents eye diseases and improves vision. Helps with nearsightedness and far-sightedness, difficulty in opening/closing the eyes, red spots in the eye (subconjunctival hemorrhage), conjunctivitis (pink-eye), cross-eyed or lazy-eye (only if due to injury, not born with it), glaucoma, immature cataract (will prevent further degeneration), pain or dryness in eyes, corneal ulcer, pterygium. NADI SWEDONAM (Steam bath): Very detoxifying. Helps with osteoarthritis, cervical/neck pain, back ache, sciatica, softens ligaments, cough/cold, bronchial asthma, nervous system diseases, and paralysis. PIZHICHIL (Oil bath, pronounced "pre-chill" with a rolled 'r'): This is divine! The patient is dripped with warm oil all over their body, continuously for an hour. Sigh. Afterwards you feel like you had a full body massage! This is lubricating, detoxifying, nourishing and rejuvenating. Helps with neck/back/shoulder pain, autism, paralysis, osteoarthritis, cancer, degenerative diseases, immune disorders, fatigue, pain/swelling in the joints. PODI KIZHI: muslin packets of warmed herbs. Helps liquify excess muscle fat, decreases cellulite, tones the muscles, osteoarthritis, back/neck/shoulder pain, etc. LIME KIZHI: muslin packets of sauteed limes and spices that are rubbed onto the neck/shoulder to cure frozen shoulder. MANAL KIZHI: muslin packets of special sand and salt that are warmed and lightly pressed over the joints for rheumatoid arthritis and stiffness/swelling in the joints. FYI - do not use oil on rheumatoid arthritis patients as it will increase symptoms. NASIYAM: Medicated oil is administered through the nostrils and will reach all the organs and cells and destroys or eliminates increased Doshas (imbalances) above the shoulder. Helps with neck pain, toothache, lock jaw, frozen shoulder, sinusitis (stuffy nose), eye diseases (including eyesight), ear diseases, headaches, facial paralysis, mental imbalances (even anxiety or worry). VAMANA (vomiting): After proper snehana (internal oilation), the Ama (toxins) has moved to the gastrointestinal tract from the Dhatus and are expelled through the oral route. Helps with bronchial asthma, sinusitis, pharyngitis, laringitis, poisons, psoriasis, thyroid deficiency, insanity/epilepsy, indigestion, low Agni (digestive fire). Sounds unpleasant but a chronic disease is much worse! VIRECHANA (purgation): Similar to vomitting, but toxins are expelled through the anal route instead with a natural laxative. Particularly helpful for skin diseases, diabetes, liver/spleen diseases, tumors, poisons, UTI, intestinal worms, herpes, insanity/epilepsy, distension of abdomen, liver abscess, anemia, hyperpigmentation, acne, headaches, eye diseases, heart diseases, anorexia, jaundice, female disorders. VASTI (herbal and oil enema): This is the most important treatment in Pancha Karma in the management of various diseases. Many doctors prescribe enemas for almost every problem. Helps with chronic constipation, paralysis, weakness, pain/stiffness in joints, bladder incontinence, chronic fatigue, problems w/lactation, parkinson, insanity/epilepsy, anemia, low Agni, M.S., sciatica, back pain, cerebral palsy, osteo-arthritis, etc.
That's all for now loves! Tomorrow we go to an extravagant wedding and then dinner at a fancy hotel with our new friends here. Then we leave on Saturday - I will really miss this idyllic place. We definitely made the right choice to come here and learn Ayurveda.
(sorry about the misspellings - this was typed really fast!)