As part of our education about pancha karma, Ayurveda’s intensive detoxification and rejuvenation process, we have been learning some of the hands-on patient treatments. While some of these may look like spa offerings, they are powerful therapies designed as part of a full treatment plan with specific sequences and preparations.
The most well-known Ayurveda treatments are probably abhyanga, a gentle oil massage (much milder than deep tissue massage), and shiro dhara, a steady stream of oil or other liquid medicine poured over the eyebrow center and forehead for up to sixty minutes. We have also helped administer pirichil, pouring warm medicated oil over the whole body, podi kiri, a dry powder treatment consisting of pressing herbal boluses over the body, and akshi tarpana, bathing the eyes in a pool of liquid medicine such as melted herbal ghee (blink… blink… blink). Our teachers here emphasized the importance of appropriate preparatory and recovery procedures for each therapy, cautioning that a shiro dhara (often offered as a one-time spa treatment) can actually lead to strong adverse effects if undertaken inappropriately.
Abhyanga is the most involved protocol we have learned and one we feel competent doing (but not doing commercially back home without a massage license…). Literally translated, the word means “all body parts” and it refers to the application of oil to every inch of the body. The patient is guided through seven different positions on the table so every part of the body can be reached. While there is gentle pressure, according to Ayurveda it is the oil itself, not the depth of the massage, that carries the primary therapeutic action. By applying medicated oil, allowing it to soak in for some time and then bathing the body, we quiet the mind and build a cocoon against stress and over-stimulation. Being embraced in a thin layer of oil soothes frayed nerves and brings the body back to earth from mental preoccupations. I dare say it’s the best medicine for an information-overloaded day of multi-tasking, and while doing it to yourself is truly wonderful, having it done to you is transporting.
Working in the treatment rooms alongside the therapists gave us an entirely new perspective on Vaidyagrama, yet again. Although we have been going on rounds with the doctors every morning and meeting patients in their rooms, stepping into a treatment room in an apron and assisting gives a visceral connection with the patients that is completely different. They are vulnerable and exposed in a concrete way since most treatments are done with the patient nearly naked, wearing just a loin cloth (which usually gets taken off or moved around significantly by the end of the treatment anyway).
We started learning abhyanga by practicing on each other, but the education really starts when you lay hands on a stranger. Our training shifted to a deeper level when Dr. Ramdas’s mother-in-law came to Vaidyagrama for treatment and Dr. Ramdas and his wife Lima asked us to care for her. We were incredibly honored by their trust – and that she was willing, especially considering none of us speaks a lick of Malayalam, nor she any English. Lynn, Emily and I took the responsibility very seriously.
Her main treatment consisted of ten days of shiro dhara, preceded by an abbreviated abhyanga. Each day, two of us took turns doing her abhyanga together and then doing the dhara, which requires two sets of hands to manage the equipment and replenish the vessel overhead. After the treatment, the therapists are responsible for bathing the patient, which is the sweetest experience you can imagine, watching a grown adult almost shift back into their childhood self to receive the bath. Then they are bundled up and escorted back to their room.
We found out the day before Amma’s treatment commenced that we were to be her therapists, which is probably a good thing – we had limited time to get nervous. However, we discovered the hard way that doing a two-therapist abhyanga is quite different from doing it all yourself, which was the only way we had practiced. When you try to share responsibilities with another therapist, each person taking one side of the body, the usual protocol doesn’t quite flow. And then there is the whole synchronization thing. By the last day, however, we were finally getting the hang of it and refining our treatment.
One day near the end, Emily and I were doing the treatment together and due to some scheduling issues, we started quite late in the day. As the treatment progressed, the sun began to set and it started to get dark in the room. By now, we have gotten used to the frequent electricity outages, so we simply kept going, finishing the treatment in the semi-darkness. Then one of us held a flashlight overhead for the bath, creating what felt like a rather romantic, “authentic” end to an Ayurvedic treatment in rural India with no electricity available and the light dimming around us. We helped her dress by flashlight and prepared to escort her back to her room, only to discover upon exiting the treatment room that the hallway outside was bathed in electric light. The electricity was not off – we simply had not flipped the light switch on. The three of us dissolved in giggles. If nothing else, our adaptability has certainly grown.