Ayurveda diary: schoolgirl giggles, horrors and healing

Ayurveda

‘You will be lubricated, scrubbed and sweated,’ says the grinning Ayurvedic doctor.

Sounds scary? Yep, I was a little apprehensive, especially when he causally mentioned the possibility of far more daunting cleanses. Block your ears (no, that’s not a treatment), I told myself.

But I was intrigued. A fascination to find out more about this centuries-old practice is what brought me to this retreat in the village of Pangode, Kerala – the devoted land of Ayurveda.

Pool

What’s Ayurveda?

Ayurveda or ‘life science/knowledge’ is a thousands years old healing system. It sees the body and mind as being based on three energies or doshas – vata, pitta and kapha – each associated with a particular element such as fire, air or earth. Most people are a combination of two and, as the doshas move in and out of balance, they can affect your health, mood and overall energy.

What’s my dosha?

After a brief medical history, weigh-in, blood pressure and pulse check, I was declared vata pitta. Briefly, vata means you’re lively and energetic person with a lean body but, if out of balance, you can be anxious and suffer insomnia and digestive problems. Pittas are athletic and have a strong appetite for food and life but can overdo things.

Amrutham

What’s the treatment?

Step 1 – the oiling

Lots of herbal (cocoa smelling) oils are poured over me as my body is given a deep tissue massage. There was so much oil that when I got off the table to be led to shower, I looked at my dewy honey-coloured skin and thought ‘wow, my tan is coming on’. Erm, no.

The massage pressure is strong in places. My therapist got into my tight calf, quad and shoulder muscles – you are kind of on a knife edge at times, unsure if it’s pleasurable or painful. I was also given massages on my side with strokes to stimulate the circulation system.

Next up, a tasty face mask treatment made of cucumber, papaya and banana (mixed with Ayurvedic medicines) to make your skin soft. Softening that dry vata skin is what this stage is about.

Amrutham outside

Step 2 – the scrubbing

On entering the massage hut today, I have a paper mask placed on my face. I thought this was part of the treatment but it turns out it’s simply to protect the throat from the powder being scrubbed into me. It’s also good to disguise my schoolgirl giggles as two women therapists energetically sand down a buttock each. This is the urdvartana (udwarthanam) treatment, which is good for reducing fat and softening skin.

I am then treated to a sirodhara in which warm herbal oil is poured over my forehead for around 30 minutes. This relaxes the nervous system and is good for insomnia and stress – and I slept through most of the treatment.

On the second and third days of scrubbing, I hear a crackling of oil heating in a pan behind me. Eek! But this is actually the start of the enjoyable elakizhi treatment. Herbal leaves are made into a ball in a cloth bag which is used to pummel the body. It is good for improving blood circulation, skin complexion and body stiffness. It’s pretty invigorating stuff.

Final step – the sweating

Another oily massage with emphasis on the spinal column, and area around the navel. Then hot towels were waved over me and patted on my body. The face mask as before – and I slept, again. This is a toxin releasing treatment.

Throughout the six-day treatment, Ayurvedic powdered medicines are rubbed into points on the body including the scalp.

This treatment, overall, isn’t for the bashful. You really do start to wonder what is the point of the ever-shifting paper pants. My therapist got to know me so well that we started discussing new mosquito bites at the top of my thigh.

Ayurveda lake

What else happens (besides the treatment)?

Yoga and meditation

Two hours of yoga and an hour of meditation each day. I was the only student so got extra special tuition – or rather I was pushed beyond my comfort zone. It’s ashtanga based with an emphasis on backbends and twists. I felt absolutely no strains from this intense practice (heat/sweat included), so something was clearly working.
My only lowlight was being coerced into singing a song solo – way harder than chanting, my teacher later admitted. There won’t be a repeat performance.

Ayurveda food

Food

It is an activity as much time is spent consuming it. Curry made out of everything: pineapple, sea gourd, eggs, chickpeas, and fish (it’s a vegetarian retreat but they cook fish for the pescetarians). There is even post-meditation snack of either homemade peanut bar, sesame seed ball or a gooey mixture of ghee, bananas and grapes (tastes way nicer than it sounds!). Clear coriander water is served with every meal. Apparently people lose weight here but I think they must be on a different diet plan.

Did it work?

Initially I felt so tired with heavy legs but I was told this was natural. My sleep was interrupted but I think this was due to the nearby temple festival (starting at 4am!).
But as the week went on, I felt more energised in my yoga practice and my digestive system was more ‘UK normal’. My skin feels very soft and smooth and the hard ‘saddle sore’ skin I’ve had for a few years has gone – yay!
And I didn’t enjoy a much anticipated beer (and chocolate mousse) later in Chennai. Am I reformed? No. Relaxed? Yes.

Lotus flower

My treatment was at Amrutham Gamaya Ayurvedic Village Resort

Find out more about Ayurveda in Kerala

It’s not all peachy – or is it?

Kerala: Kovalam

I crashed in Kovalam. Physically. Mentally. Guiltily. Ridiculously.

My travel plans for this Kerala leg did not go to plan. I’m not even sure what the plan was but it didn’t meet my expectations.

I split my dress, broke my bag, bruised my leg – and my pride.

It was very hot (heat index of +40c). I didn’t know where I was going, neither did anyone else. I was supposed to be staying somewhere then had to shift elsewhere, the yoga place wasn’t as I’d imagined (neither did I give it a chance). There were tourists everywhere (fancy that in such a seaside resort?!). I was alone.

Normally, I’d tell myself to suspend my judgment and go on to discover it’s perfect, or at least fine. But instead I lay down and just let myself wallow in my first world problems in the most modest and friendliest country in the world.

Kerala: lighthouse beach

I have been pretty much lying down ever since, spending hours watching the waves crash on the shore, earphones in listening to music so no one bothers me. Watching the sun go down with the beach dogs. Such a hard life, I have. Not doing yoga yet feeling guilty every time the manager of my digs asks ‘off to yoga?’, ‘back from yoga?’.

India: Kovalam dog sunset

Then in response to a late night stressy email from me, my sister says: ‘maybe you’re just tired’, and she sorts me out with an alternative plan. A friend tells me ‘no one wants to read it’s peachy all the time’. They are both right. So here we are.

I’ve realised I’m being completely ridiculous and also in feeling guilty about not being always full of gratitude. So, I’m just letting myself crash out and not care.

Oh and I’ve checked myself into an ayurvedic retreat. Lucky me! Watch this (head) space, if you can bear it.

5 things I’ve learned about South Indian food

Kerala thali

The food you eat and its effect on the body is a popular topic of conversation among westerners in India.

You’ll find you know more about the digestive systems of newly found friends than people you’ve known for years, with stocks of Imodium undergoing regular audits.

But toilet talk aside, food and drink does provide a great source of happiness, and also healing (post initiation stage).

Here are a few things I’ve learned and loved along the way, generally via two wheels:

Kerala: fruit

Appreciate your food source and say thanks Keralan style

I get a veg box at home yet I’ve far greater appreciation for food where you can actually see its source. Breakfast mangoes from a tree you’ve spotted, fresh fish from the sea before your eyes. A single cashew nut coming from one cashew apple – hey, this is why they are so expensive in the UK. Tip: in Kerala show your gratitude with the banana leaf you’ve eaten off. Once you’ve finished your beautiful platter of relishes, nuts, fruit and curries, fold that leaf downwards to show you like it.

India: fish

Variety is the spice of life

There are around 15 varieties of banana in Kerala ranging from the teeny finger-sized ones which decompose fast in your pocket to the pinky flat – and frankly huge – types, and the conjoined twins. There is no EU straight banana edict here.
Bread is also vast in its varieties. Parathas are my favourite – they are far softer and pull apart more easily than I’ve ever experienced elsewhere.

Kerala: Maria cookery

Less is best

This definitely applies to eating rich curries but Maria of Maria’s Cookery in Kochi (Cochin) explains that this is also so in spicing a curry in the kitchen. When doubling a recipe meant for two, don’t double the quantity of spice – just add a touch extra to get the same flavour, she says. I’d highly recommend checking out Maria’s classes. She is incredibly knowledgable with an emphasis on what’s good for you (ginger, lime juice, honey and water is a refreshing drink, recommended by Maria). You also get to eat the yum food afterwards!

India: watermelon

Rehydrate as nature intended

Drinking fresh coconut juice (from the coconut, not an over-priced organic carton) is a great healer for the belly and generally to rehydrate. Similarly, a lime soda (fresh lime juice, soda water, salt and sugar) is perfect to rejuvenate yourself with after many hot hours on the bike. This is nature’s electrolyte drink and served widely across India. Also, just accept that watermelon tastes of onion. This is not some new variety of the fruit, rather everywhere seems to use the same knife to chop up both watermelon and onion. You get surprisingly used to it.

Indian tuck shop

Long live and love the tuck shop!

The range of snacks you can buy at small roadside cafes is mindblowing. From the sweet shop style jars of cookies (spicy, of course, and sweet) to cabinets of fried bananas and vegetable samosas, there is pretty much something for everyone (including expiring kit-kats if desperate for a western sweet fix). Go for masala tea and accept that coffee will generally be instant, though it will take time to serve as they do make an effort with frothing the condensed milk. Yum, erm?

Kerala: curry

With very special thanks to talented (often while two-wheeling) photographer Sarah Michaux for most of the images used here.

These experiences were gained on a two-week cycle trip we shared, organised by Exodus travels with local guides.

India trails: The killer elephant who came for a midnight feast

India: figure car park

Cycling along the Bangalore Nilgiri road through the centre of Mysore city is a hairy experience.

In the midst of the tooting and honking tuk-tuks, cars and motorbikes careering towards each other (and you), there are cattle grazing in the kerbside dust and suicidal dogs on a mission to nowhere.

‘This is worse than cycling down the Euston Road!’ jokes a fellow London cyclist in our group of travellers riding around 550 km (340 miles) from Mysore down to the southern coast of India.

India: Ganges of south

There is a method to the Mysore traffic madness – just keep on going with the grit and determination of a city commuter.

This city stops for no man, woman, child or indeed sacred animal.

Yet it is a really fun experience – even if roundabouts do make Paris’s Champs-Elysees circle look like a Sunday stroll.

‘Selfie, please!’

The cityscape soon gives way to calmer highways which then ease into quieter villages where you are treated to the kind of welcome worthy of a Tour de France champion on a victory lap. Grinning children shout ‘hi, hi!’ as they race to the roadside, and men and women working in the rice fields wave enthusiastically. We have now passed through dozens of villages and nothing but joy greets us – and the obligatory ‘selfie – please!’ photo request.

India: Mysore palace and Flavia

There are so many sights to behold on this journey from the 96,000 bulbs that light up Mysore Palace powered by hydroelectricity for just 30 minutes once a week (on a Sunday at 7pm), to the luscious hillside tea plantations and the elegant saris worn by women everywhere doing everything.

India: cycle view

‘There’s a tiger within metres’

There are also plenty of tales to tell here, and in the jungle environment they need no embellishment. A day after tigers had failed to come to tea – or early breakfast – in Bandipur ‘Tiger’ Reserve, we are walking through jungle land when our guide casually says ‘There’s a tiger within 300 metres of us’. The accompanying dogs had heard it roar. So what did we do? Run? No, we had a game of shot-put with a boulder and then retired to local man Kumar’s home for a nice cup of tea and cake (which incidentally was once visited by a leopard who snarled his dog on the doorstep, he tells me with his toothy grin). Our drama is their matter of fact.

India: elephant crossing

So, back to the safety of our safari lodge for the evening? Not exactly. After dinner a wild elephant with three-human kills to its name pops by for a midnight feast. Standing the other side of the electric fence to him, I asked a guide from another group what would happen if there is a power cut. He says the elephants know their boundaries adding ‘of course, there was the time, the elephant disabled the fence by throwing a boot over it. Do not underestimate their intelligence’. I didn’t sleep too well that night.

India: safi

But seriously, we are safe in the expert hands of our wonderful guide Safi, supported by Vipin and Michael, who are all incredibly knowledgable, friendly, and, crucially, love a laugh – largely at our faces when they tell us of the next schedule of hills. The first two are professional cyclists but don’t let that put you off – they don’t make you go fast, but are road-safe.

India: pin bends

One of most challenging rides so far was up Ooty hill, which is around 13k with an average gradient of about 12 per cent [cycle geek talk for v steep] and a mere 36 hairpin bends. En route a Buddhist monk and motorcyclist stopped to give me words of motivation. Where else do you experience this? I smiled through the pain and at the passing traffic – and summited.

This two-week trip is organised by Exodus travels