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How a Panchakarma Retreat Encouraged Me to Be Vulnerable

I have come to see vulnerability as the key to living life in a sustainable and balanced way

Photo by Nandhu Kumar on Unsplash

The power of nature is humbling

Have you ever been caught up in a deadly cyclone storm? Well, back in December 2015 after the first leg of my Yoga studies at the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram (the KYM) I found myself in South India Chennai’s emergency state of affairs which ensued after the heavy rainfall and the severe floods generated by the annual northeast monsoon. If you have experienced a natural calamity then I am sure you can relate to the shock and the physical vulnerability one becomes exposed to in such adversities, especially if one had not seen it coming. The power of nature is so humbling. Grace had it, I escaped unharmed and then I headed to Kerala where I booked myself into an Ayurvedic clinic on a 14-day panchakarma detox.

I had a pterygium on my eye and the unwanted cellulite deposits I hoped to get rid of but mostly I wanted to understand better how Ayurveda and Yoga relate and cooperate through real-life experience. The sound of getting a daily full-body massage appealed to me too I must admit. Along with my obvious health status, my initial consultation considered my entire lifestyle in great detail – it was an open conversation between me and the lovely lady doctor, who ran the clinic alongside her husband and a handful of ayurvedic therapists. My diet, as well as the herbal medicine during the two-week retreat period, was to be carefully selected and daily prepared by the doctor herself. How different is that from a western approach to medicine! I was in awe and eager to dive into my chosen therapies. I was in a perfect state of mind to trust the process that was about to begin as I felt spared and saved from the Chennai’s raging storm, nature to be revered, on the other side of the Indian subcontinent.

Panchakarma is a process that peals off layers of perception

The major part of my first week at the clinic consisted of the daily warm oil massage – abhyanga. It was required of me to strip down and lie on a wooden massage table in nothing but paper thongs that my therapist tied around my waist like a diaper. This was the beginning of my gradual comfort zone meltdown, as not only was I mostly bare around my therapists, I felt I was their baby too. A very interesting human connection was built this way. I was there to receive the healing and observe the feelings and thoughts that were arising within me throughout the process. Another layer of my perception was peeled off when I sat outside in a wooden steam box with my head sticking out. It was truly refreshing for me not only from a physiological perspective (it’s less strenuous than a sauna) but also a sensory one. I could hear the birds chirping from a tree right above me and I could feel the gentle wind caressing my face. Ayurveda truly does mean living in harmony with nature.

Photo by Anika Huizinga on Unsplash

My body was softening up day after day. I felt so limp, tender and loose because of the daily oleation therapies and massage handlings. I developed this defenseless sensation of becoming a patient. I reached a very vulnerable state emotionally, where I was completely at the hands of my therapists and the process itself.

I broke down on day 5

I was also instructed to eat a tablespoon of an infused herbal ghee from day one and double the dosage every next day. The ghee was not tasty as one would imagine, after all, it was medicine. On day 5 I needed to ingest 8 spoonfuls of ghee in the morning and then proceed to a water intestinal wash (drinking large amounts of slightly salty water to flush out the entire digestive tract).  The great T Krishnamacharya was an Indian yoga teacher, ayurvedic healer and scholar. During my studies at the KYM my teachers, some of them were students of the master himself, would tell us stories about master eating 8 spoons of ghee daily. I can say now that the proof is in the pudding. They had recalled the time when he injured his hip at the age of 96 and how he had refused to see a doctor and healed himself. It inspired me to learn more about the science of life – Ayurveda since it was such a big part of my Yoga lineage.

I broke down on day 5. The water flush led to a few hour water retention, I had consumed at least 5 liters of water within 2 hours and felt bloated to the point of crying. The emotional release had come before the physical and my doctor who was by my side ensured me that everything was alright and that sometimes it happens like this. At the peak of my turmoil, she brought me a huge bowl of cooked rice porridge and asked me to eat it. My mind was strong as you might have noticed if you have read this account of events down to here, but doing what the doctor said happened only because I was left with nothing else but trust at that point. I had to let go of my mind to be able to fit anything more in my overly swollen body. With each spoon of porridge, I experienced a deep inner dialogue with my Self which seemed to be my only solace in the heat of that moment. I overcame my limits by being able to be utterly fearless in exposing myself to the core of my being. I was fully relieved hours later with an enema administration. I felt emotionally raw yet protected and wiser.

The very nature of the body is to age and slowly break down

My programme in the following days continued with several warm herbal oil enemas, that made me feel quite uncomfortable as I felt like I was truly being hospitalized thereupon. My body felt so helpless and formless by the time I was given ‘pizhichil’ – warm medicated oil continuously poured over the body while it is being simultaneously massaged. I was able to contemplate the preciousness of this time that I dedicated to becoming an in-patient whilst I was ‘healthy’ and endured the treatment before any debilitating disease could have taken over my body. A fact of life has it that illness inevitably seizes our bodies since the very nature of the body is to age and slowly break down.

Photo by Fred Sprinkle on Unsplash

Understanding the bigger picture of an ayurvedic healing process

Shirodhara had rounded up my 2-week retreat. This therapy involves gentle pouring of medicinal oil over the forehead. When the oil had hit my forehead I floated away into a half awake, half asleep lucid state, where all that I had endured throughout my stay at the clinic came magically together into an incredibly sublime happening.

What is left to say is that there is an undeniable presence of immense gratitude for the ancient tradition of Ayurveda within me, that has only asked me to take time out of my usual life routine and supported me each step of the way to be a witness to my healing. The bond of trust between the doctor and the patient is the medium of that healing. The connection that we all share with nature upholds us in our multidimensional healing attempts since we are made up of the same elements as nature. I could feel a very deep physical, emotional and spiritual change inside, which I understood intuitively will take its proper effect on the long run. Seeing how vulnerability really fits into the bigger picture of a healing process helps me project my courage to be vulnerable with the greatest precision into any life situation.  I have come to see vulnerability as the key to living life in a sustainable and balanced way.

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