Making Medicine

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.

The kitchen - note the square holes under the stoves where you feed the fires.

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!

Palani the chef, a.k.a. "Meshay Ma Ma" (Mustache Uncle)

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.

9 Replies to “Making Medicine”

  1. well, as you know, i have been in favor of cooking over a fire for some time now…but let me also say that drinking bitter herbs is not my strongest desire!!!!!!!!!! and cooking a detoxic fluid for two hours would decidedly stretch my attention span limits. it’s not that i have much else to do, but remember, i have no banana leaves to watch (or stimulate fire with). all in all, you’re gonna be the doctor, i the patient, so i am hoping you have a fire pit where you settle. you have your own medicine because…? you aren’t “sick” are you? you’re just strengthening your systems, yes? how’s the jasmine substituted plant fairing/faring? and is it hot hot hot now? any bites, from bugs or snakes? mom

    1. Yes, I know you and bitter herbs don’t mix so well! We’ll see how the fire keeps up – I found the bio-fuel stove (works like gas, with an “on” lever) and we’re allowed to use it for cooking decoctions, so I used it yesterday and it worked like a charm – so we’ll see about the fire! As for your questions: I am NOT sick, this is just a strengthening, boosting formula, so no worries mama. The new jasmine is doing wonderfully, thanks in no small part to all the water we have been giving it. We weren’t going to let another one die on our watch. YES, it is hot hot hot. Super hot. And when there is no breeze, it’s pretty heavy and icky. Luckily, there is usually a breeze! But it is feeling like “India hot” now. As for bites, I continue to get a few mosquito bites each day, but they disappear by the following day. and no, no snake bites!

  2. Thank you Virginia for giving voice to all my questions! I so loved hearing about all the medicine cooking but cannot see my impatient Western self doing it. Aren’t we all glad we have Ivy?? And Ivy, please remember to check the time before you step out into the sand – no sense in just making yourself available to cobras and the like. I am so glad you are happy and content and I can hear the wheels turning in your brain as you continue to process all of your current (and don’t forget temporary!) life in India.
    Much love,
    Honey

    1. Hey Melissa! I misread your word “impatient” as “inpatient” and it made me notice for the first time the word “patient” inside “impatient”…. interesting. I wonder what the etiology of that word is…. Anyway, thank you for your concern – yes, I do avoid the sand at those hours for the most part (not that I was out and about at that hour usually before – it’s always the hottest time of the day!). I am looking forward to returning to my permanent life in Texas! xoxo

  3. so,the snake has been found,all safe. bobby and family were recently in costa rica face to face with their deadliest snake, unaware they were as they snapped photos and when they showed their photo to a naturalist, they were told they were lucky to be alive…well, that sort of underscores the whole notion that if you fear something that creates a fear reaction. they were in awe and not threatening. there is no one more non threatening than ivy ingram. she is safe wherever she might travel. http://www.cnn.com/2011/US/03/31/new.york.missing.snake/index.html?eref=mrss_igoogle_cnn

  4. whoops, i realize i was referencing flo’s comment re. the last entry …so apologize if my entery seems to not relate to subsequent entries….there is a grand illogic at play…lpsi

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