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I had just jetted back and forth across the country, spending half of a three-day trip riding shotgun in my boss’s rental car and wrangling with reservations agents over botched travel plans. I was frazzled and exhausted, the embodiment of imbalance. My body clock was off, my brain had shut down, and my mood was just plain grumpy. After a sunrise flight, I crawled into bed at 10 a.m., didn’t move until evening, and still didn’t feel like myself.
Ah, but fortune was smiling on me: I’d planned a trip to an Ayurvedic spa for the very next day. I was pretty certain that if anything could bring me back into balance it would be warm oil streaming over my scalp and body, a four-handed massage, and the wisdom of Ayurveda, a 5,000-year-old holistic approach to healing.
Not long ago you could experience Ayurvedic treatments only by checking in to one of a handful of residential clinics around the country. (Or by going to India.) There, a practitioner would inquire into everything from how well you digested food to how easily you perspired before he or she prescribed customized therapies. Between treatments, you would learn about the foods, herbs, and asanas to incorporate into your everyday life.
But these days you can forgo this ancient approach and wander into almost any spa to order Ayurvedic services à la carte. Luxury hotels like the Ritz-Carlton in Pasadena, California, now offer shirodhara—the calm-producing stream of oil onto the forehead. The Sonoran Spa at Tucson’s Westward Look Resort does dry brushing (to exfoliate the skin) and abhyanga (a gentle warm oil massage)—both traditionally part of a daily Ayurvedic self-care routine. And spas across the land are offering Ayurveda-inspired treatments: dosha-balancing facials, “Bindi Body Wraps,” and custom packages often marketed under the name Nirvana.
Ayurveda is on so many menus these days either because it’s the hip new thing in the West-or because the treatments actually can create “a deep sense of relaxation balanced by steady energy and clarity of mind.” That’s the benefit that Melanie Sachs, the author of Ayurvedic Beauty Care, attributes to properly administered Ayurvedic treatments: “It’s different from that ‘spa slug’ feeling people get when they slither off the table and can barely get their clothes on.”
The goal of any Ayurvedic treatment is to bring your mind, body, and spirit back into balance. Of course, rebalancing in the face of serious ailments is no small feat; Ayurvedic practitioners generally work with clients for months, encouraging time-consuming daily self-care rituals and a variety of changes in diet and routine, and sometimes prescribing more radical therapies, like the week- or monthlong detoxification program called panchakarma. But Sachs, who trained with respected Ayurvedic doctor Vasant Lad and who is now based in San Luis Obispo, California, as an Ayurvedic educator for the spa industry, says the medical model isn’t the only approach—especially for people who are basically healthy but feeling off-kilter. “People can absolutely benefit from a one-time treatment,” she says. I was game to give it a try.
My Own Private Imbalance
I was a bit more prepared than many spa visitors; about six months earlier I’d met with Reenita Malhotra, an Ayurvedic doctor and the founder of Ayoma LifeSpa in San Jose, California, to determine my prakriti (basic constitution). According to Ayurvedic tradition, we’re each born with a prakriti, a unique combination of the three doshas: vata (associated with wind; cool and filled with movement), pitta (associated with fire; hot and intense), and kapha (associated with mucus; damp and motionless). While a single dosha may be dominant, most people have prakritis made up of two dominant doshas (I’m a vata-pitta), or even all three.
As you go through life, many things can upset your prakriti—the weather, your sleep cycles, your emotions, etc. At any given time you might develop an excess of one, two, or even all three of the doshas, putting your vikriti, or current state, into a doshic imbalance. If left untreated, Ayurvedic practitioners say, your imbalance will manifest as specific symptoms and can ultimately lead to serious diseases. The treatments address these imbalances so your system functions optimally.
It’s crucial, then, that your therapist determine your vikriti on the day of treatment. At a spa, you can expect a brief interview or questionnaire before you start any Ayurvedic services. “An Ayurvedic treatment is not general,” Malhotra says. “It must be tailored to what you’re going through.” Once the practitioner knows what your imbalance is, he or she can then select an appropriate approach.
At this time of year, with the cold wind blowing and the holiday frenzy beginning, it’s common for your vata dosha—the force that governs movement in your body, including circulation and digestion—to slip out of balance. When that happens, you may feel anxious, overwhelmed, and prone to distraction, as well as more susceptible to insomnia and constipation.
Ayurvedic warm oil treatments make an ideal remedy for vata imbalance. They warm the body, calm the mind, and give the senses a time out. The combination of abhyanga and shirodhara, in particular, is traditionally employed to balance vata; abhyanga releases tension in the body, while shirodhara is known for ameliorating mental and emotional aggravation.
The day I went to the Ayoma LifeSpa I woke up feeling off. I was still exhausted and cranky, and my skin was breaking out. But slipping into a robe and being in the soothing spa environment took the edge off. My fatigue receded as I anticipated my treatments—and then I just relaxed into them: For five hours I luxuriated in streams of warm oil and the pampering hands of massage therapists.
In all, I indulged in four treatments that day. At first it was heaven, but about midway through, I realized I might have signed up for too much. I started feeling antsy and hot, as if I’d had quite enough oil poured over me, thank you. That evening, instead of enjoying a post-spa calm, I stomped around the house feeling irritable and overheated.
“The treatments can be detoxifying and powerful,” Malhotra told me later. “People will respond differently depending on what their imbalance was before the treatment.” Apparently it’s not unheard of (though not common) for people to feel their symptoms intensify for a short period after getting treatments. It’s as if a mild detoxification occurs, and the toxins must be released before you get back into balance. It was like getting a facial: You may not look your best immediately afterward, but give it a day or two and the results can be dramatic.
And yes, two days after my treatments, I felt fantastic. My skin was softer—no more rashy flare-ups—and the whites of my eyes were clear. My muscles felt loose and relaxed, my mind was at ease, and best of all, I felt calm and vibrant, as if a steady fountain of energy was bubbling up from within. I sailed smoothly through the next week with barely a worry.
Well, being a vata-pitta I did, of course, worry just a little—but my main concern was when I could schedule my next Ayurvedic spa day.