Ayurveda: Experiencing an Ancient South Indian Tradition

2nd April 2016

Ayurveda is a system of healthcare and healing that is known worldwide, and originates in Kerala, India.  It was what I heard most about before arriving.  Scholars think Ayurveda has been around since 5,000 BC, and the majority of practitioners worldwide train in Kerala.  Ayurveda doctors evaluate patients by using all of their senses, and consider a person holistically: mental and physical health as well as diet.  Recommendations for treatment often include dietary changes as well as physical treatments, and it’s common to treat things like weight gain, migraines, and general aches and pains as well as more serious ailments that Western medicine would say requires surgery.

The grounds of an Ayurveda spa. Guests are expected to speak softly and respect the treatments that are taking place.

Ayurveda practitioners use a variety of herbs and spices in their healing, as well as other natural elements like milk, honey, and oil.  Some are mixed in a poultice and rubbed over the body while others are applied and wrapped on parts of the body.  Warm oils are a major component of Ayurveda, and it seems most procedures involve covering the person in oil at one point or another.  There is also quite a bit of massage in Ayurveda, and, of course, this is the component that carries over to the casual consumer like myself.

Unlike western massage, the focus is on rhythmic rubbing, sometimes with two different masseurs at once.  Patients are always treated by someone of the same gender, and most procedures involve a high degree of nudity.  Genuine Ayurveda can also involve leeches and enemas, although I’m willing to bet few tourists get involved in that.

While on the Kerala Blog Express I had two complimentary Ayurvedic massages, one from the Kumarakom Lake Resort in Kottayam, and the other from Vythiri Village in Wayanad.  Nelson was nice enough to give me a heads up on the overview (including the minimal attire), but I essentially jumped in feet first, figuring that if it was terrible I could at least write about it.

The lobby of an Ayurveda spa. No photos are allowed in treatment areas, even if they are empty or you are the one undergoing treatment. Practitioners are asked to unplug.

Each Ayurveda massage lasted an hour, starting with a phenomenal ten-minute scalp massage.  She rubbed oil into my head (much less than on the body but still more oil than my hair usually encounters) and moved on to what I call the travel blogger muscles: the neck and shoulder muscles that become aggravated by carrying a backpack full of tech, hunching over at a computer, or riding for many hours in the world’s coolest/craziest bus.

Both of my masseuses were completely professional and relaxing.  I feel like I will literally never be cleaner than I was after my massages–although I did keep finding oil on my ears for a couple of days.  So many nooks and crannies!  The way they used their hands I actually forgot there was a person massaging me.  During the first one, I almost fell asleep a few times.  The first massage also included a mud body scrub, which I washed off while still in the spa, but for the second one I stayed oily (after wiping off the excess) for an hour or so before bathing, in order to let the oil sink in.

After both massages I was completely relaxed, and my face is the smoothest and softest it has ever been.   Both also involved a lot of movements that were confusing and jarring at first (like lightly hitting all over my head, or abrupt finger flicks and squeezes) which turned out to be weirdly pleasant somehow.  I don’t know who the first person was to think of hitting tourists and charging them for it, but they were one smart cookie.

Weight loss supplements for sale at an Ayurveda shop.

Some other members of the group had a more…invasive experience.  That was not how it was for me, but it was still a full body massage while you are as close to naked as you can get, so it is not for the faint of heart.  One member of our group had un-requested assistance bathing themselves after the massage.  Yowza.  It’s interesting to me that of the people who were uncomfortable (and rightfully so, it sounds like some masseurs got up close and personal) no one really said anything to the masseuse.  I think when humans feel like something is “supposed” to happen they will keep their mouths shut through a lot, perhaps out of surprise or not wanting to offend or do it wrong.  What an interesting manifestation of consent (or lack thereof) and a common reaction to unwanted touching: paralysis and silence.

I only personally experienced the quick, tourist version of Ayurveda, so it’s the only one I can really evaluate.  Some tourists, like a woman I met on the flight over, go through procedures in depth, but that requires a greater commitment.  That woman and her husband were going for 2 or 3 weeks, which she considered the bare minimum to do it right.

The greater commitment is not only an issue of time but also of behavior.  Patients are expected to eat vegetarian food and refrain from sex, among other things.  Most Ayurveda hotels had a completely separate section for those experiencing treatment, so they would not be disturbed by regular vacationers.  It was quite clear from the expensive, all-inclusive nature of Ayurveda spas located inside hotels that their target demographic is not Indians, but rather wealthy tourists.

A tranquil pool at an Ayurveda spa. The entire environment is designed to relax.

I wish I could have had time to see an Ayurvedic hospital, which is how local people experience Ayurveda.  From what I understand, for many Malayali (ethnic Keralans) this is their main form of health care.  We spoke with a few different practitioners of Ayurveda, and both seemed prepared for cynicism.  One was asked whether Ayurveda can cure cancer.  His rather sensible answer was that it cannot, but no system of medicine can.  What it can offer is relief from some of the negative side effects of chemotherapy.  He said he’s seen patients able to return to chemotherapy much quicker with the help of Ayurveda since it shortened the recovery time.  I don’t know if that’s true, but Ayurveda is certainly profitable and long-standing, and a central part of Kerala’s identity as a state.

Have you ever heard of (or experienced) Ayurveda?  What do you think of non-Western medicine?

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