Taking the Cure in Kerala
The monsoon expends the last of its energy in the Indian state of Kerala, leaving plump raindrops on hibiscus flowers and puddles in the red mud roads. The air is thick but not oppressive, and I begin to understand the words of the local doctor, who says that monsoon season—nature's own megacleanser—is the best time for treatment. Sipping sweet water from a tender coconut, I feel radiant from an hour-long herbal oil massage. The stiffness in my neck, which I once accepted as a necessary evil of urban living, has disappeared. Listening to the waves rolling up on the shore, I realize why this place, Kerala, is part of my treatment, too.
For decades, European pleasure seekers have flocked to the beaches of this tropical southwestern Indian state, but in recent years, a new kind of seeker has landed on its shores. These folks come in search not just of a tan but of an inner glow, and they find it through the ancient Indian science of Ayurveda, a venerable practice that has become Kerala's latest tourist attraction.
Ayurveda has been a way of life here for thousands of years, yet only recently has it attracted the attention of the West. Or, for that matter, my own attention. After all, my family hails from Kerala, and although a vague understanding of Ayurveda was lodged somewhere in my subconscious, I had never really explored the science on my own. It hadn't occurred to me that I could dip my toe into such deep waters while on vacation—yet with each visit to Kerala, I noticed an increasing number of tourists wearing beatific, Ayurveda-induced smiles. It was high time, I decided, to wade in.
The Best Medicine
Ayurveda is geared toward preventing illness, not just erasing its symptoms. Unlike Western medicine, it treats an individual, not a disease. A vaidya, or Ayurvedic doctor, is a combo primary care physician, counselor, and personal trainer whose goal is to make you as healthy as you can be. When I first sat down with a vaidya at an Ayurvedic resort in Kerala, the consultation started out in familiar territory: He asked me my age, height, weight, family history. But then the questions veered into a new realm: How do you sleep? Do you dream? Are you quick to anger?
Although he took note of my specific complaints—an old sports injury, neck stiffness, and occasional back pain—his main interest was in understanding who I was, on a deeper level. According to Ayurveda, each of us is ruled by a combination of three forces, or doshas. Airy vata is the force responsible for movement; fiery pitta rules energetic processes like digestion; and earthy kapha relates to the mass of the body. In most people, one or two of these doshas are dominant, in a balance that's set from birth (called prakriti). Most of us, unless we've spent the past year meditating on a hilltop, are probably experiencing some sort of dosha imbalance (called vikriti), which could manifest itself in any number of ways, from dry skin to digestive problems to serious illness. After an hour-long consultation to determine your vikriti, a vaidya creates an individualized course of treatment to bring you back to your natural balance.
To tame my excess vata, the vaidya prescribed a 14-day course of treatment involving daily massages with herb-infused oils and leafy poultices meant to lubricate my stiff joints; a diet of mild foods and no raw vegetables; and a few herbal pick-me-ups to restore my vitality. His prescription was tailor-made for me and my imbalance. A person with a different constitution or imbalance might be prescribed a different formulation of oils and tonics; and if you needed serious detoxification, you would have to sign on for a much longer, more intense course of treatment involving some serious purging. But most vacationers, like me, opt for Ayurveda's preventive "relaxation and rejuvenation" therapies. These are offered by many Kerala resorts as a package, usually involving a doctor's consultation, oil massages, herbal steam baths, and a relaxation therapy called shirodhara, in which a continuous stream of warm oil is poured onto your forehead.
The range of Ayurvedic experiences available to a Kerala visitor includes everything from simple family affairs to world-class luxury hotels and resorts. There are Ayurvedic hospitals for the seriously ill, where you can find relief from chronic ailments such as rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia, for which Western medicine has no cure, and there are coconut-thatch beachfront shacks that offer oil massages to backpackers for less than a dollar. In my sampling of Ayurvedic facilities, I gave the beachfront shacks a pass. The experience, a vaidya told me, would be the equivalent of going to the movies—two hours of relaxation and nothing more.
I came home from Kerala with a bottle of herb-infused coconut hair oil, a recipe for an at-home sandalwood and honey facial, and skin that glowed for weeks. More important, I carried back with me a new understanding of myself. Armed with the knowledge about my constitution, I've tried to develop some semblance of an Ayurvedic life in New York: a more regular yoga practice, a diet of warm, moisture-rich foods, and the occasional self-administered oily rubdown. But there are a few things that just don't translate well. For one, my tiny bathroom doesn't have any windows, let alone a banana tree. And I miss the thump of an ancient machete cracking open a tender coconut, the splash of a boatman's pole in the river, and the moist, leafy murmur of Kerala's tropical rain.