I spent last Friday night standing in Vaidyagrama’s open air kitchen looking out over the wall at the deep green banana tree tops, listening to the grazing cows mooing from inside the grove, and tending a fire stove trying to bring a vessel of Balaguduchyadi herbal decoction to a boil.
Ayurveda offers guidance in lifestyle practices, diet, herbal medicines and treatment options for a wide variety of conditions – outpatient medicine, you could say. In addition, it offers inpatient treatment for acute conditions, as well as an intensive residential detoxification and rejuvenation process called pancha karma (“five actions” in Sanskrit – although I’ve certainly seen more than five here).
You could say pancha karma is the pinnacle of ayurvedic treatment. This rejuvenation process can restore the body’s natural state of balance, which many of us haven’t experienced since we were infants. It is an amazing – and intense – series of treatments and herbal medicines taken over the course of three to six weeks depending on the condition. The patient is encouraged to remain quiet, relatively inactive, and with limited mental stimulation for the entire time, hence the residential setting – it’s just not as effective if you are going back to your usual home routine each night. It can be a very difficult endeavor mentally and physically. At the same time, some of the treatments (like shiro dhara, pouring a steady stream of oil over the forehead) have become known even in the west for their relaxing and calming qualities. For many, the time spent alone in such a simple environment is the biggest challenge.
Vaidyagrama is a pancha karma center, so in addition to learning theory about outpatient care that will be relevant to my own client-based practice when I return to the States, we have the privilege of observing and learning from an amazing group of patients as they go through pancha karma here. The most influential part of my education, I suspect, will be the last month of my time here, when I will go through pancha karma myself.
In the meantime, last week I had an outpatient consultation with Dr. Ramdas and Dr. Harikrishnan (the other senior physician here) to start me on a regimen of herbal medicines. They gave me a restorative and immune boosting prescription to strengthen my body and joints in particular and to support my immune system. The most exciting part is that I now get to make my own medicine.
Every other day now I must go to the storeroom (or “store” as they call it), pick up my 60 gram packet of dry herbs mixed according to my prescribed formula, add 1200 ml of water, and boil until it’s reduced to one quarter of the volume, or 300 ml. Now, that word “boil” sounds simple enough in the context of our typical kitchen in the States. Here, however, the stoves are powered by fire. While they have gas camping stoves in each of the treatment rooms, the gas supply is very precious and is only used to heat up one dose of medicine, not to cook a decoction. Over a gas stove, it would take about thirty minutes. Over the fire, well, suffice it to say I’m learning!
Last Friday night was my first attempt. Let me tell you, that stove was tough to get going for this fire-building novice. Luckily, Palani, one of the chefs, was very helpful after watching my inadequate attempts. Regardless of the fact that we can’t speak a lick of each other’s languages, communication about basics is relatively easy. He stuffed the right sized palm fronds in first as kindling, lit one frond from an adjacent burner, used a bamboo tube to blow air into the fire, and once the fire was started he added cakes of “bio-fuel” (compressed organic waste bricks kind of like charcoal). After he got the fire going, I just had to maintain it. All in all, it took me about two hours, including fire building and tending time, to reduce the volume of the decoction sufficiently.
I am sure I’ll get more efficient (God willing), but for now, I am just going to assume that the investment of my own energy into my medicine will give it an additional healing effect. Despite its bitterness, it did have a certain sweetness that I am sure comes from my own sweat.