My Ayurveda Experience in Kerala.
I’d heard about Ayurveda through Yoga classes, online research and tales from friends. Planning my travels to India, it seemed natural to take the opportunity to spend a few weeks in Kerala – the home of Ayurveda, and experience it for myself.
Each year, 700,000 foreigners travel to Kerala for Ayurvedic treatment.
Ayurveda, meaning the ‘Science (or wisdom) of Life’ in Sanskrit, is a 5,000 year old medicine system with its routes in Indian Vedic culture, and can be considered as an Alternative Medicine system. Ayurveda is the less well known but inseparable sister of Yoga; Ayurveda being the science behind the practise of Yoga. Ayurveda is based on the 5 elements of Earth, Ether, Air, Fire and Water, and uses these elements as the basis of the 3 Constitutions or “Doshas”. There are 3 Doshas (Vata, Pitta and Kapha) which form the life energy behind all of our bodily functions. To find out your dominant Dosha, or constitution, you can take an online quiz like this one.
So armed with about as much knowledge of Ayurveda as contained within those 2 paragraphs, I booked myself in for Panchakarma (detoxification program – the foundation of most Ayurveda) for 2 weeks in the Western Ghats of Kerala.
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My main goals for my ayurveda retreat were to detox, relax, and to sort out my less than perfect digestive system.
It’s fair to say that I didn’t arrive for my treatments in Kerala in the best of shape. After a 5am flight with Delhi and the inspired decision to not go to bed that night before it, by the time I arrived at Kochin airport that day I was ready to abort mission.
Add to that the news that it was an 8 hour drive to the retreat nearly had my running to the nearest phone.
On arrival, I met the other guests. Some were staying for 2 weeks like myself, some staying for many months to aid recovery of serious illnesses. The first night I met two girls who’d been staying for a month and had gone through 3 weeks of Panchakarma followed by 1 week of Rasayana (Rejuvination). What I remember now is the looks on their faces when I asked them how their time had been. They looked like they’d been to hell and back. When I asked if they felt better now than when they arrived, the answer that I was not prepared for arrived in the form of ‘not really’. I felt shocked – how could that be right? Wasn’t ayurveda supposed to cleanse our systems and make us feel better?
Over the coming days, as my treatments began, I had plenty of time to ponder this.
Travelling for the first time to India? You can read my post here about what to expect.
My initial consultation with my warm and friendly doctor revealed that the 2 weeks I had allotted for Panchakarma was not long enough to do the full programme. Instead, they would do the parts that were most relevant for my constitution and concerns. She expressed concern that I would be travelling after the treatment for another 6 weeks. In my thinking I would be fighting fit and dancing with the joy of life after my stay; in the Doctor’s words it would take at least a month for my body to be back to “normal” afterwards.
Over the next 14 days I went through 3 of the main Panchakarma treatments. I’m not going to go into the details here, because everybody that I met had different experiences with the treatments, and well.. if you’re thinking of trying Ayurveda it’s something you will experience for yourself!
My stay followed a rigid schedule: waking up at 4.30am for 5am Pooja (prayer ceremonies) each day, 6am Yoga, followed by meals, treatment & consultation with the Doctor during the day, then more yoga and evening pooja before bed time. Set in the heart of the Keralan jungle on the edges of a nature reserve, there were welcome opportunities for walking by the river for when things got a little intense (which there’s no denying the treatments were).
As I reflect back on my ayurveda experience in Kerala, especially on the difference between my expectations and what I encountered, these are the things that stand out.
No Pain no Gain. A little dramatic perhaps, but we seem to always look for the easy way. We’re always looking for entertainment, for someone else to ‘fix’ us – whether mentally or physically or both. I assumed that I would feel amazing at the end of the 2 weeks. I assumed that the more difficult/painful treatments would not apply to me. But they did. Ayurveda offers an array of treatments, many of which are totally discomfort-free and relaxing, such as Shiro Dhara (oil pouring over the head in a constant flow); but those treatments have far less impact if one has not been through the initial work of detoxification first so that there is a ‘clean’ body to work on. We have to accept that one day at the spa is unlikely to have a significant or long lasting positive affect on our health unless we also look at how we treat our bodies on a day to day basis. The same goes for my stay. Two weeks’ investment of time would of minimal benefit if I fill my body straight up with ‘toxins’ again.
Take a Little Time. All food on the retreat was organic, with much of it grown in the gardens of the retreat centre or very nearby. Food that was not available organically was not served. It is part of the Ayurvedic tradition that food needs to be prepared, served and eaten with mindfulness and love. Before each meal was served all of the kitchen staff would chant and pray over the food. Compare that with how we typically prepare and consume food in day to day life and is it any wonder that our food, that should be our medicine, has become our poison. It’s taught me that if I want to eat well, I will have to make lifestyle changes when I am at home: switching to eating more often at home as opposed to eating out; planning food shopping for the week or longer vs buying on the go for 1 day at a time.
You May Get More than you Bargained For. I came to the retreat looking for a health booster. What I got was a yoga practice that I can replicate daily (in my own home should I develop enough discipline!), time for myself to reflect (and finally start writing my travel journey), a yoga teacher who inspired me spiritually, and some friendships that have lasted beyond the 2 weeks. Ultimately, our health – as well as being the most precious asset we have – is our body’s way of showing outwardly what our inner state is.
Last but not least…
Did it work?
I certainly feel different. There are some things I can say with 100% certainty made me feel better. Aches and pains in muscles have been banished through application of herbal pastes, which – organic as they are – certainly pack a punch. I will say though that for at least 2 weeks after the retreat my body was very weak, my mind more anxious and my energy levels much lower than before. It’s like being stripped bare. 1 month on though, as I write this, my digestion has definitely improved and the detox has helped me to make different decisions to before about what and how I want to eat.
I wouldn’t go back every year, but for those suffering physically or mentally, or for those looking to spend some time on themselves: I would definitely recommend Ayurveda as one option.
One year on: An update.
What were the lasting effects of the panchakarma detox that I had in Kerala last year? It has definitely changed the way I look at food and my lifestyle in general. I have learned to listen to my body more.
When I returned from my travels in January 2016 I went to see an Ayurvedic doctor at home in the Netherlands. When I’d come home from travelling my face had erupted in spots – something I wasn’t used to at all! After a couple of consultations it became clear that some of the treatments I’d received in Kerala actually had not helped. I’d been given treatments for air (data) dosha problems, whereas my biggest challenge was excess fire (pitta).
After a few months of taking different herbs my trust in Ayurveda has been restored. Through simple changes to my diet (like cutting out / down on red meat), drinking coffee after my breakfast instead of before it, and eating more fruit and vegetables I have more energy and my digestion is a lot better. Whenever I feel overly tired, I know it’s time to do pranayama or yoga in the morning again.
So would I do a panchakarma detox again? Yes. But my advice to anyone is to do your research on where you go and ask for recommendations on doctors if possible. You can also start at home with herbs and lighter treatments before committing to a multi-week detox to decide if Ayurveda is for you.