On The Road: A hot, oily overhaul for body, mind and soul in India
Saturday 15 August 2009
It's a baking pre-monsoon afternoon in Lonavla, a dishevelled Indian hill town that lures Mumbai's weekend crowd out of the city with vague and unfulfillable promises of cool air and mountain vistas. I'm lying prone on an oil-slicked plastic mattress, a pair of swimming goggles strapped to my head. Through the holes that used to be the front lenses, spoonfuls of hot ghee are dribbling on to my eyelids. Then just as things appear to have reached their freakish peak, Mayur, my 20-year-old torturer – sorry, therapist – issues the quiet instruction: "Now open your eyes."
This weird branch of the healing arts is netra basti, a subsection of the Ayurvedic medicinal tradition known as panchakarma, which translates as "five actions". Panchakarma is the extreme sports department of Ayurveda, constituting nothing less than a full-system reboot for the body. Many Indians, and no small number of Westerners, submit to it as a cure for anything from boils to diabetes.
While most travellers to the region are keen to retain possession of the stuff they've chosen to digest, panchkarma gleefully sluices it all out in the name of purification. Its chief weapons are vamana chikitsa (drinking litres of medicated ghee until your stomach's fit to burst and letting the gag reflex take its course) and virechan (a full wash-and-brush-up for the lower intestines, which involves consuming an escalating quantity of ghee over three lunchtimes, with a laxative chaser on day four). "Go straight to your room," Mayur commands after I've swallowed the cloying herbal mix, "and count your motions. Count them!"
Initial discombobulation aside, the hardest thing Panchkarma throws me to deal with is boredom. Physical and mental exertion are off the agenda (even the refuge of a good book goes out the window when your eyes are blinking butter), and the good doctors forbid any discussion of deep spiritual matters – something of a challenge when the ashram's bookcases hang heavy with Patanjali, Sivananda, and other eminences of Yogic philosophy.
With no other exit open to it, my brain finally finds the rarely used door marked "relax". Boredom and agitation fade away, taking with them stress lines and migraines, while my skin aquires a smooth sheen that will earn me compliments for weeks. I shouldn't be surprised: life looks good through golden goggles.
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