As the title suggests, this is not a typical yoga retreat. Ayurveda is medicine for the body and mind, and most of us have been turned upside down (and inside out) in both of those respects. “It’s all good,” the saying goes, but clearing your body tissues and your monkey mind is deep work. Let me give you the day in a big nutshell.
We begin at 6 am with herbal formulas made specifically for each of us by Dr. Mouli and Sunny, his pharmacist. Sunny delivers the goods to our doors in the dark; he smiles kindly, his name the perfect fit for his sweet disposition, especially at this hour of the day as the first bluish-pink light signals the coming day. I say thank you and bless the herbs before I down them with cumin-infused water and dress for the optional silent meditation walk we offer each morning. Walking sticks in hand, we step over tar, red dirt, broken ground and patches of grass, alongside the tea plantations and through clusters of homes or small villages, oftentimes uphill to a lookout over the magnificent valleys below.
Various dogs bark at us or stare quietly, while others follow alongside us for awhile. I may have to do an entire post on dogs, as they are literally everywhere, in the streets, in doorways, on the paths… Some are known to bite, so we carry sticks for safety as much as for steadiness. This little guy just watched as we went by, as silent as the four of us who ventured out on this chilly morning.
The road continues up an up, and soon the views give us both the sunrise and moon set in the same vista. On most of the hilltops sit the whitewashed weekend country homes of the wealthy, while down below and lining the roads are the pastel painted cottages and the huts of the villagers.
This morning, however, we pass all the homes; even the road ends, and we enter a rocky field that looks over the multicolored villages below. Morning fires send up a river of smoke between the rooftops and low-lying hills. We sit and drink in the air, the sun, the moon, the colors..
When we return, the group gathers at 7:30 for yoga. Encased in glass and wood, the studio is beautiful–its wooden floors lit with the buttery-yellow of morning. I offer a moderate practice to get us all going, a hearty handful of sun salutations, standing poses to ground down and grow some roots here, and a group tree to add threads to the first strings we’ve woven together here in this beautiful place.After yoga, Chagan, Vijay, and Mohan, the resident chefs, are there waiting for us with fresh pineapple and guava juice, papaya, hot chai, and a dosa (rice & lentil crepe) filled with coconut potatoes. There is always a chutney, which is quickly devoured. There are dates and pomegranates and guavas, and oranges fresh from the trees on the grounds.
For those who don’t have abhyanga (hot oil massage with two therapists) this morning, time is spent lingering over chai under the clearest blue sky. Others change into the robes supplied in our rooms (some have polar bears, others are flowered, some are typical white spa robes, and still others are fleece) and get ready for the first massage of the day. The garden is full of adults in silly robes, but this is just part of the fun, and I wouldn’t change it even if they offered us ritzy ones instead. We have become a family in these past few days, so it is easy now to sit in the garden together awaiting our treatments in just these robes.
“Miss Katie,” Lali calls my name, and I enter the treatment room where a solid wood table, pots of herbalized sesame oil, and the four most wonderful hands await me. It’s worth a note to explain the treatment room: gallons of oil specifically herbalized for each guest at the retreat line the front wall. The massage table is a stern-looking and massive piece of wood with strong side rails to keep the copious bath of oil in what becomes somewhat of a boat where the patient reclines. No padding, no sheets or cozy coverings. I admit, it’s a little intimidating the first time, but I take a deep breath and surrender.
Lali and Parvathi smile into my eyes and ask me to disrobe. One of the girls makes a simple loin cloth out of linen and ties it up around my waist. Can you remember being bathed as an infant by your own sweet mother? This treatment brings me back to a time beyond my first remembered memories–but the experience is in my heart somewhere, and Parvathi brings me back my memory: my mother’s warm hands, her soothing voice, her gentle fingertips over my baby chest and belly. Nothing is more loving than this giving touch with nothing expected in return. Lali and Parvathi have become this mother, working in tandem with loving strokes, circles, and infinity spirals from head to feet to undo the knots in my body, mind, and heart. Tears come easily, and soft fingers wipe them and tell me crying is good, so I let it flow for a very long time.
When I emerge from the womb of this first Abhyanga experience, it is as if I have opened new eyes. Lali and Parvathi both kiss my cheeks and smile deeply into my face; I hug them both and thank them for their loving touch.
Lunch is a feast of spiced kitchari, chapatis, steamed veggies, black eyed peas, and another savory chutney. We laugh over our new permanently sesame or ghee oiled hairdos, and sink even deeper into this shared experience, knowing the healing has only just begun.
Speaking of healing, the herbal capsules are as colorful as the villages, and every meal is an opportunity to investigate what everyone is taking. “I think the red ones are laxatives,” Alexis says. “And the green ones are sleeping pills,” someone else pipes up. “Anyone know what these are?” Blue, yellow, pink, every shade of brown, even silver and gold pills. On top of that comes the tinctures–the syrupy herbal tonics that come on the heels of our lovely lunch; and I can tell you, my concoction is a lip-curling, nose-wrinkling experience, but we are supposed to offer love and thanks to our herbs. One of our pamphlets even says: “Herb has consciousness in it, so please try to connect with it… take any medications with trust and affection; it will help you achieve the best results. Try to respect the medicine/plant so try to avoid these words: disgusting, smells like shit, bad taste, etc. Of course it’s no pizza or khebab–these are medicines!” So we raise our cups and I teach my mates the Irish word Slainte, “To your health!”
The rest of the afternoon is filled with treatments, naps, and hanging out on the lawn sharing our stories. Lots of sunburns on these first few days, but there are balms and salves, and Chagan comes round with his homemade ghee to rub on our pink noses and cheeks.
Some of the crew have already spent time overnight or in the wee hours of morning becoming great pals with their toilets, whether from exhaustion or the request for laxatives after traveling for days with no elimination. Triphala, the herbal threesome of Amalaki, Haritaki, and Bibhitaki is given to just about everyone in the beginning, and the effect is pretty quick. Other guests at the retreat who are not in our group are already at the point in their cleanse where they are doing oil enemas or full purgation, but they say they kindly will not share the details with us newbies, so we are left to discover that some other week. I hope you will join me for my next installment “The Purgation Blues,” coming soon to a loo near you!! Just kidding–what happens at the retreat stays at the retreat. For now, we are feeling pretty happy, and we are just going to sprinkle that shit everywhere.