We’ve been at Vaidyagrama for almost four weeks, and I am settling into my daily routine. My roommate Lynn and I get up at 5:00 and go about our waking up rituals silently, more or less. After tooth-brushing and such, I do a self-massage with coconut oil followed by a brief warm shower to help it soak in. The coconut oil here is unbelievably fragrant, like nothing I’ve ever smelled before. Self-massage is a primary part of health maintenance according to Ayurveda – it nourishes and lubricates all the tissues of the body and gives a very tangible sense of grounding. If you have never tried it, I highly recommend it. Next, I do some yoga postures in the room while Lynn does hers on the patio (I actually find it a bit too cold out there for me in the morning-!). Just after 6:00, the bell calling us to morning prayers rings. The clear piercing clang of it cutting through the night insect songs is a lovely rousing sound in the darkness.
Our prayers consist of chanting and pranayama, and they last just under an hour. I revel in the chanting. In the morning, we chant the Shri Vishnu Sahasranama, or the Thousand Names of Vishnu. I don’t know all of the Sanskrit words but I enjoy following along in the little book we were given and sounding out the words that I can manage to fit in at Dr. Ramdas’s breakneck chanting pace. We then do ten rounds of nadi shodhana, a breathing practice that involves breathing through alternate nostrils in turn, which helps balance the body’s energy and the two hemispheres of the brain, including hormone levels. Our teacher Claudia from the Institute has said that this one breathing practice is the most powerful medicine she knows – it causes the greatest effect of all the things she offers her patients. After prayers, with the sandalwood mark on my forehead spreading coolness through my head, I watch the sun rising over the coconut palms in the distance. This morning there were tiny clouds fringed with pink on the underside.
I then take my turn on our room’s patio and go over a verse of the prayer to practice deciphering the devanagari script (the beautiful curly alphabet that Sanskrit uses). A verse is only two lines, but it takes me about ten minutes to sound out each letter and string them together with the right meter or rhythm. The process is curiously satisfying to me – I don’t know why I love it so. It’s like solving a puzzle mixed with singing, leaving a sweet taste in my mouth. There are 108 verses, so if I work on two a day, I will have at least gone through the whole thing once before our classes end here.
Somewhere between 7:00 and 8:00, the most delicious tea is delivered to our room, made with ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, jaggery and some other mystery spices. Jaggery is an unrefined sweetener made from sugar cane or palm sap whose rich dark sweetness really isn’t comparable to anything else. I curl up with my cup to write a bit. Breakfast happens somewhere between 8:00 and 9:00, and class begins at 9:30. We have a few breaks in our full day of class, including a two hour break for lunch in which I often take a short nap. I’ve never been a napper, but it seems to be working for me here – I think I get tired from the sheer weight of input from every sense organ. Class ends around 5:00 and we have an hour before evening prayers. I often do laundry then or filter some water to fill up my water bottle. After dinner, I write a little more or read before an early bed time around 9:00. Sleep comes quickly.
It’s been interesting to watch this routine emerge. When I first arrived, I tried to plan out a daily routine, but it didn’t take – I had to wait and see what called me at different hours of the day. It’s been a process of watching more than planning and, as Dr. Ramkumar suggested, being patient.
There is something to be gained in this process of observing as patterns emerge in their own time. The first several days we were here, I never knew after prayers what Dr. Ramdas would be putting on our forehead – it seemed like sometimes it was one thing, sometimes another. It only took a few days for the pattern to become apparent. Now I know that after morning prayers, it’s always the yellow sandalwood paste followed by kum-kum (a bright red turmeric powder), and in the evening it’s a white powder ash. Other patterns take a bit more time to reveal themselves.
As an exercise to build our pulse-taking skills (a primary diagnostic tool in Ayurveda), we are taking our own pulse up to ten times a day: upon waking, before and after breakfast, before and after lunch, before and after dinner, before and after emptying the bowels, whenever one feels emotional, and just before sleep. With each reading, we are to write down the rate, qualitative speed (fast, medium, slow), strength/volume, character of the movement (like a frog, snake or swan) and regularity. The idea is that by writing these impressions down, we will come to see the patterns that lie hidden in the apparent randomness. Indeed, I now know my pulse rate increases before eating and slows down afterward, that it’s very heavy and slow upon waking and more bouncy and alert mid-day (definitely frog-like), and that it’s frequently irregular but feels like a metronome when I’m hungry. I am eager to have more sensitivity in my fingertips and wish I could just flip a switch and suddenly be able to “see” everything that our teachers can see in the pulse, but there is just no replacement for logging in the time and practice.
This week we have started observing clinical treatments with patients, which we’ve been anticipating excitedly. I got to observe a janu basti treatment, which involves pouring warm medicated oil into a small reservoir built from dough around each knee, in this case used to treat arthritic pain. To maintain a warm temperature for 45 minutes, the oil is frequently replenished with warmer oil. As part of a larger treatment plan, it is very successful in reducing pain over the long term. As students, we were exposed to this treatment first simply because it was being done here today. We are seeing it out of context, which is not insignificant; Dr. Ramdas has referred many times to the importance of the sequence of treatments. Specialized treatments like this for one body part must be done only after more generalized treatments for the whole body, which we don’t yet know a thing about. We’ve just jumped right into the middle of things. However, I am beginning to trust that in its own time, the larger pattern will emerge, just as it will with the pulse. Patience seems to grow here, just like everything else.