From Here to Serenity
All too soon, I'm gently ushered into the steam room to meet the therapist who will complete my treatments. She has scented the steam with sandalwood oil—therapeutic, she says, for my constitution. There are cool cloths for head, heart, and groin, and water or warm tea to drink. Twenty minutes later, she escorts me across the hall for the next treatment—a delicious-smelling concoction of warm milk, sandalwood paste, and chickpea flour which she spreads all over me. I want to eat it.
My therapist then begins shirodhara, the process of gently pouring warm oil onto the center of my forehead. The purpose is to move the nervous system into a state of deep repose. It works. Though the treatment lasts half an hour, I only last 10 minutes. I awake warm, slippery, and the consistency of an overdone noodle. "Are you ready for your shower?" she inquires. "If I must," I reply, incapable of argument. As warm water slides over my well-greased body, I am careful not to strip the therapeutic oils with too much soap. Never have I felt so profoundly relaxed and nurtured. Can I really submit to such treatment four more times? You bet.
Back in my clothes, fatigue drops me on the sofa before I can attempt the seven-minute walk to my room. By dinner time, I'm so tired I wonder if there's any sense going to the lecture that evening. Needless to say, early to bed is easy. The next morning I awake at 5:30 without the alarm, feeling very refreshed.
By Tuesday evening I find I'm less exhausted by the treatments. Ed Danaher, the panchakarma coordinator, assures me the immobilizing fatigue after Monday's treatment was actually a good sign. It seems my body is releasing deep exhaustion. Now I'm ready for the second phase of panchakarma, where three consecutive days of self-administered herbal enemas (basti) are added to my treatments. Basti removes excess vata from the body. Because vata is the dosha involved in movement, it is implicated in all imbalances. Basti is not new to me. I had done it at home from the instructions in Dr. Lad's Complete Book of Ayurvedic Home Remedies (Three Rivers Press, 1999) and found it beneficial.
On Wednesday afternoon, things take a challenging turn. The air-conditioned room where I receive my massage gives me a chill, and by the end of the session, I'm shivering. The chills intensify even in the steamer, and I start sobbing helplessly, panicked that my blissful week will be cut short by sickness. The staff is responsive, but not intrusive. Aware that I'm overreacting, unable to stop, I feel strangely reassured by a sense that they've seen it all before. The remaining treatments are altered to balance my current state. I'm supported until I stabilize, and Danaher offers his home number, encouraging me to call with any concerns. Tonight even the short walk home is beyond my capacity. I accept a ride and fall into bed. There were actually several times throughout the treatment that felt emotionally raw, and the skills I had learned over years of intensive meditation retreats served me well in managing my psychology. Both American and Indian experts agree that an emotional release is essential to the purification process. Dr. Smita Naram, who runs the Ayushakti Ayurved Health Center in Mumbai, India, with her husband Dr. Pankaj Naram, tells me later that the patient is never manipulated to precipitate catharsis. It just happens as a natural by-product of cleansing. The possible aggravation of emotions makes it critical that the entire process is surrounded by gentleness and nurturance, and thankfully, my therapists provide these.