Mornings @ Mountaintop

And… What Is this thing called panchakarma?

Here on the top of the mountain, the sun rises early between two bumpy hilltops I can see from my bedroom window. I draw the shades open before dawn, when just a thin red line slices the horizon in half. Below is the valley, stretching out for hundreds of miles and through layers of gray pre-morning light; above there are still stars and a sliver of moon hanging in the eastern sky. The villages in the hillsides below are half hidden in the dark, except for a few twinkling street lights, and the first bulbul has begun to sing his song. 

With every moment that passes, the sky becomes redder, then a deep peach rises upwards, and before long, the orange sun squeezes up between the two hills and pours light over the tea on this side of the mountain. Birds sing from every tree, from all the rooftops here, from the tea plants, from the lantana flowers–a bird lover’s paradise! Green swallows, tiny chipping sparrows, demonstrative crows, a wren of some kind–even a trio of peacocks walked through campus the other day!

So what IS this place where we are parked for three weeks in the middle of the wilderness? Mountaintop Clinic is a residential Ayurvedic facility that hosts people from around the world who are on a quest to restore health and balance in their body, mind, and spirit. Ayurveda is the world’s oldest medical system, born here in India and is said to have been received intuitively by the ancient Rishis (a Rishi is an Indian seer or mystic who obtains and reveals divine knowledge), in this case directly from all of the plants in Nature. If we break the word Ayurveda down, we get: Ayur = life and Veda = knowledge. This venerable, intricate, and beautiful system of medicine is based on the idea of balancing the body via diet, herbs, treatments, and yoga practices; in fact, it is often called the “sister science” of yoga.

Most of us begin the day with some kind of herbal remedy, whether it’s in tablet form or kashayam (a potent herbal blend we mix with water and then drink). Mine are bitter and the liquid is a bit hard to take. I pinch my nose and thank the herbs as I drink them down in one gulp.

We dress in layers and head to the chilly yoga hall by 6:30, roll out our yoga mats, and practice our pranayama, some warm ups, and then sun salutations as the hall fills with light, and the first heat of the day allows us to peel off a layer. I love teaching here, and our wonderful group loves yoga, so we have fun and are playful, each one of us listening to our own body as we move, breathe, and explore. 

By 7:45 Mahaeshwari, Mahalakshmi, and Indrani are ready to serve us fresh fruits: juicy papaya and ruby pomegranates. We pour cups of ginger and fennel tea, and there is a porcelain bowl of crushed jaggery to sweeten it up just a little if we like. I relish every bite of fruit, and listen to the chorus of happy voices as we eat with pure joy. Some will stay for a breakfast of oatmeal or dosa and chutney or grains of some kind, and others are doing a deeper dietary cleanse and will only have the fruit in the morning. 

The sunrise, yoga, and fruit might make it look like a resort, but I promise you, it is a challenging undertaking not only to commit to this program and to get here, but to be present with all of the things that come up when you experience what we call the “deep dive” into your health. All of us here at the retreat will experience the benefits of Panchakarma therapy (pancha = 5; karma = actions), a powerful and dynamic protocol of Ayurvedic practices to cleanse the body from the inside out to rid the body of toxins (Ama), and then to rebuild and heal the body & mind. The first three prepare and then cleanse the body, and the last two are considered rejuvenative actions:

  1. Snehana (literally means “love”) Abhyanga (warm oils are applied over the body to induce calm and relaxation, generally by a team of two therapists)
  2. Ghee cleansing (internal oiling with medicated ghee to remove toxins from the organs and tissues) for 1-5+ days, followed by
  3. Virechana (purging the body of toxins, generally via the bowels), induced by an herbal decoction
  4. Vasti therapy (oil or ghee enemas), which nourish the colon and surrounding tissues; and finally
  5. Nasya (nasal oiling), which not only softens and nourishes the nasal tissues, but calms the mind and is known to help clarify the third eye.

Many other therapies are used to support these primary ones, including svedhana (or steam baths to promote sweating out toxins during the taking of ghee–see me sitting in the steam box, left), Shirodhara (the pouring of warm oil over the forehead in long, even strokes), or rejuvenating eye treatments, for example (I did those for two years in a row–amazing!). All of these therapies intend to provide rejuvenation and promote longevity by curbing and potentially eradicating (with regular panchakarma) diseases in the body and mind.

One of the things I love so much about this medical practice is that it includes not only curative advice (when we might really need to work on a chronic imbalance or ailment in the body or mind), but also preventative suggestions from the doctor that, together, over time, bring us closer to a state of balance and harmony. 

Abhyanga massage is standard for everyone the first week to help us ground and to soften our tissues for the days ahead when all of us will be taking medicated ghee for 1-5 days, followed by a day-long purgation, before our other treatments and rasayanas begin. Most people have one of these in the morning before lunch

When it’s not our turn for a therapy, there are consults with the doctor, beautiful nature walks, time to read a book on the patio or have a nap. In the early days of the retreat, our mornings are pretty sweet. We settle in together to begin a journey that is hard to put into words, but I’ll keep trying to give you a taste of what it is like to be here. SO much more to share on the treatments we experience–just wait!

For now, the morning is calling, and I’m headed out to watch the sunrise.

With love,