An Athlete Learns to Slow Down on Ayurvedic Retreat


By Lindsay Yaw  |  

The leaden humidity of the Kerala monsoon coats my skin as my travel-battered body melts onto a sculpted wood table. I’m lying in a thatched hut, its bamboo shades rolled up halfway to let in the sounds of the Arabian Sea crashing on the white-sand beach below. Two Indian women in royal blue saris shuffle around me, lighting candles and sticks of incense and heating coconut oil on a small stove. The younger of the two, Rigi, pours a dab of warm oil into her callused hands, places them in prayer position in front of her heart, and quietly whispers a blessing. She prays that her hands will nurse my body to the highest level of health as she begins a two-hour Ayurvedic massage.

It’s day two of a weeklong series of Ayurvedic treatments I’m undergoing at Manaltheeram, a resort on the southwestern tip of the Indian subcontinent. I came here in the wake of a frenzied three-month stint of work-related travel. My life had become a blur of sleepless nights and deadlines, I was plagued by migraines, and my muscles were wire-tight. Ironically enough, I had come halfway around the world to take the first step toward a slower, saner life—one in which I hoped my yoga practice would play an important part.

I knew the transition wouldn’t be simple. As a professional skier and writer, I get paid to be doing something at all times—going on an assignment to Arctic Norway, writing dispatches from Annapurna base camp in Nepal, or skiing in Chile. Traveling eight months of the year had taken its toll on my friendships, my love life, and my health. A week of treatments in this ancient land seemed like a good way to wipe the slate clean.

There was only one problem—sitting still has never been my strong suit. “You have to take her out and run her, or she’ll tear the house apart,” a friend often says. I’m accustomed to exercising every day. And when I’m not exercising, I’m scanning my to-do list, ticking off items with feverish efficiency. Could I learn to relax? I didn’t know, but I decided that answering that question and making a shift in consciousness from “doing” to “being” would become my yoga at Manaltheeram.

After 40 hours of flights from Denver, photographer Melissa McManus and I finally arrived at the resort. The long trek was worth it: The manicured lawns, teak bungalows, and sweeping ocean views instantly soothed us. Potted medicinal plants lined stairways up to the 35 treatment rooms, and tempting smells of cardamom, cinnamon, and curries wafted from the kitchen.

The first morning, we met with Manaltheeram’s chief Ayurvedic doctors, V. Madhuri and P.J. Sandhya. The resort bears the government of Kerala’s highest rating for an Ayurvedic treatment center, and it’s staffed by nine physicians and 70 therapists. In a dimly lit room, the doctors filled us in on Ayurveda‘s history. A 5,000-year-old system of healing, Ayurveda supposes that individuals are governed by three doshas, or constitutions—vata, pitta, and kapha—which control the body, mind, and soul. Depending on our circumstances and the food we eat, the doshas can get thrown off balance and instigate illnesses. Through hands-on treatments, a precise diet, and medicinals from around 400 plants and herbs, Ayurveda aims to bring us back into equilibrium.

The doctors asked about our eating habits, activity levels, temperaments, and digestive patterns. After examining me, they concluded I was predominantly vata with some pitta attributes. This determined what treatments I would undergo in the coming days: a daily two-person rejuvenation massage, then shirodhara (warm oil poured onto the forehead to clear my mind and rid me of migraines), and a face pack or steam bath. I would also take a black tincture with an unpleasant aftertaste to clear my digestive tract, a molasses-like herbal syrup for overall wellness, and large herbal pills called cephagraine for the migraines.

During the first treatment, I fall asleep, still jet-lagged. When it’s over, I sit in a green robe, sipping the milk of a fresh young coconut. I haven’t felt so relaxed in many months.

Fast-forward 24 hours, though, and I’m back to my old self—anxious with thoughts of deadlines and desperate for a workout. Feeling Rigi start to massage my head, all I can think of is what exercise I’ll squeeze in the next day. I try coaching myself out of this mindset by repeating something that tennis champion Julie Anthony once said to me: “We’re human beings, not human doings.” Good point, I tell myself—but I counter it with a line from a Rumi poem: “Neither the sun nor the moon could lavish their light if they stayed motionless as a rock.”

During the next morning’s deluge, inspired by Rumi, I decide it’s OK to take a run. I finish off with push-ups and sit-ups. The activity feels good, but afterward my internal debate begins again. “Why can’t I just sit still and enjoy the beauty that surrounds me?” I ask myself.

I don’t have an answer—at least not yet.

But as I spend more time at the center, things start to become clearer. Each day, Osha, the more cheeky of my therapists, dives in for deeper massages. She hangs onto a rope dangling from the rafters and makes long passes with her foot, rubbing up and down my oiled muscles. As I match Osha’s breaths one day, I realize something: All this time in India I’ve thought that changing my habits was the only way to experience my true self. I’ve battled with my desire to exercise because I was convinced that just being meant doing nothing. But I had it wrong.

The Greek philosopher Parmenides once said, “Being is the very act whereby any given reality actually is, or exists.” In other words, being manifests itself in many ways. For me, reality is made up of a need to experience everything I can—usually something physical.

By week’s end, I’ve settled into a rhythm: short runs or yoga on the lawn, followed by a breakfast of wheat dosas (pancakes), banana stew, and lemon ginger water. The afternoons follow a simple formula: treatments, a nap, and then dinner. I feel in sync with what my body and mind need to be balanced and relaxed. I’ve let myself be me without trying to be something I will likely never be—totally still. And somehow this brings me into a kind of stillness.

Being me was never so easy.

Lindsay Yaw is a writer in Aspen, Colorado and finds that an Ayurvedic head massage washes the jet lag right out of her hair.