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,



The Journey Begins ~ India 2023

Karin and I board the Delta ~ KLM flight from Boston to Amsterdam an hour before departure. My new Osprey backpack, which I chose for its compact profile, already feels heavy. The plane fills slowly, and we find there are many center rows completely empty, so once the plane is aloft, we snag a row each and plan our rest. After a quick dinner, I make a pile of pillows, cover myself in a blanket, and I’m out. This is only flight one of eleven we’ll take in six weeks, so four hours of uninterrupted sleep is a blessing on the beginning of this journey.

As we approach Amsterdam, the neon red sun is rising. I catch this snap as we taxi to the terminal:

Our 5-hour layover begins with a black coffee and a perfectly crisp croissant with butter and jam. We chat for a bit, then find a nook to sit and check emails. I lay down on the green vinyl couch and fall fast asleep. Karin has to shake me to wake me. Our departure gate has changed, and by the time we get there, it’s a pile up. Our section is already boarding, and we are miles from the top of the cue, so we wiggle up and pass through. Thank goodness. It’s a full flight and the overheads are bursting long before boarding is complete. I am in a window seat behind Karin with two Indian men to my left. It’ll be 8 hours to Mumbai on the inside, and I know I’m going to have to pee at least twice on this flight, so I make friends with my neighbor, Rajat, who immediately asks if I’ve been to India before, followed by his wondering about my favorite Indian meal. He tells me to try Pav Bhaji and Vadapav. I write it down, and a few minutes later ask if I can get by to go to the restroom.

We touch down in Mumbai on time at 2:15 am, but the plane is chockablock full, so it takes an age to disembark, and by the time we get to customs, the lines snake around in long coils and don’t seem to be moving. We have 3 hours ‘til the next flight, so neither of us is concerned, but then we learn our connecting flight is taking off at a different terminal requiring a taxi or bus ride. Karin asks a customs attendant about the wait line and if there is a way to expedite our getting through to our connection. We are directed to a different line with a half dozen or so people ahead of us (which was like a dream when looking back on the crowd of easily a thousand travelers all waiting in the snake coil). 

Ahead of us is a couple who can’t seem to get through customs. They have to do their fingerprint images over and over on the little machine. The customs agent barks commands. By the time we get up there, another 15 minutes have gone by. No movement in the coil to our left. Three tries and my fingerprints are finally accepted–I’m through! Then Karin. We literally take off through duty free, which forces you to wander in a zig zag through chocolate and perfume. People stroll leisurely, but we need to book it, so we carve our way through, and sprint out of the main terminal to the bus lot. The driver and baggage attendant care nothing about our attempt to make our connection, and in fact say we have “plenty of time,” but by now it’s 4 am and our next flight is at 5. No worries, I tell myself as Karin and I sweat in the pre-dawn heat. Another 15 min, and the bus finally pulls out, packed full with foreign nationals just like us all trying to catch connections. 

By the time we get off the bus, the “Go First” check in line is out the door. We report to the ticket counter, and the receptionist tells us the gate is already closed, but tells us to “cut the line,” and get to the front fast. No one bats an eye as we again maneuver our way through the thicket and up to the MP checking passports and boarding passes. Karin doesn’t have an official pass, and I don’t have a seat declared, so once we are through, we run to the next counter, cut the line, and the girl calls the final gate to hold what we think is the boarding gate while she prints us tickets. Another sprint, and we are directed to get on another bus (yes, another bus), which takes us ALL the way back to the International terminal to board our domestic plane. We had literally left the main terminal 90 minutes before, took a 10 min. ride to the domestic terminal, only to get a boarding pass and get back on a bus to our origin point. Only difference is that we board the plane on the tarmac. The most ridiculous time wasting travel situation I’ve ever seen. And this is normal. Once we are in the air, I look back to see the lights of Mumbai over the wing.

An hour later we arrive in Goa as the sun rises and our cab driver, Sarvesh, greets us with a smile and immediately takes Karin’s pack, and off we go. The air is thick with dew, and we drive into the morning with the windows down. Statues of Ganesh and Shiva sit on the dash, so I know we’re in good hands.

Sarvesh takes us to the pathway to our hotel in Mandrem, but it turns out to be a different place than Karin remembers from her previous trip, so we get back in the car and proceed to Morjim. The hotel is under new ownership and has a new name, but we stay anyway, and decide to give it a try.

Morjim is a bustling little town with beach bars and seaside restaurants that open onto the sand, and although our quiet little retreat is on the other side of the busy street, once the heavy bass beats begin at 1 pm, we quickly realize we’ve landed in the party zone.

The beach is lined with shade huts and chaises upon which are scantily clad sunbathers from Russia. They clearly own the beach; even the street signs and menus are duo-lingo Indian and Russian. By the time we lay down our heads just after 8 pm, the music is full tilt across the street. Regardless, I fall into a deep and long sleep. 11 hours later we awake to sunshine and crows. It’s our goal to practice yoga at least once a day, so we head to the shala, roll out a pair of mats, and practice as the sun rises. It’s hot by 8:30 am. We finish with a half hour meditation, then head to breakfast.

Our waiter brings us a bowl of fresh fruit: watermelon, kiwi, strawberries, pineapple, and dragonfruit. We order masala omelets and share a plate of aloo paratha. Oh and an espresso, which I mix with a cup of hot water to make a short Americano–just enough to brighten me up on this beautiful morning in Goa.