‘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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
My treatment was at Amrutham Gamaya Ayurvedic Village Resort