After living as an expat in Bangalore, India has remained on my travel radar. My subsequent journeys were prompted by a desire to see our son and his growing family and to also explore India. As a history buff, I remain fascinated by India’s rich past. Dining experiences filled with an assortment of Asian spices and savory and overly sweet flavors add to my understanding of India’s culinary options. During one of my visits, our family took a weekend getaway to Kochi, a coastal city in the southern Indian state of Kerala. In addition to indulging in delicious southern Indian food and learning more about the region’s culture and history, I stepped outside my comfort zone with an unexpected Ayurveda massage treatment.
After arriving at our hotel, my daughter-in-law suggested that I make an appointment for an Ayurveda massage. Many consider Kerala to be a major center for Ayurveda treatments. I had no idea what to expect. This uncertainty made me feel anxious. But at the same time, I was open to exploring this unfamiliar experience. I was curious to see how an Ayurveda massage differed from the deep tissue and sports massages that I’ve received in the United States.
The hotel concierge recommended the Prana Spa which was located inside the Fragrant Nature, a nearby 5-star boutique hotel in a notable yellow and white colonial-style building with a clock tower. Since it was only a few blocks from our hotel, my son suggested that we check out the facilities before I made my final decision to book an appointment.
As we entered the hotel’s impressive lobby and walked up the ornate staircase to the second floor, my fears dissipated. My observations matched my husband’s quick online research. This hotel was considered one of the top hotels in Kochi and was a Tripadvisor Certificate of Excellence Winner.
Inside the spa, a woman provided a quick tour of the spa rooms. A brass vessel hung from the ceiling over the massage table. The rooms had a private dressing room and shower. I had definitely never observed a setup like this before.
While walking through the rooms, the spa’s representative talked about the benefits of an Ayurveda massage and simultaneously shared a written brochure of options. As I looked through the booklet, I was a bit overwhelmed by the unfamiliar terms and procedures. In a country that is filled with pollution, I was happy to read that the Prana Spa used 100% pesticide and chemical-free products that are produced at their own farms.
I could tell that the woman sensed my apprehensions. To relieve my concerns, she reminded me that the principles associated with Ayurveda medicine date back to the Sanskrit and revolve around the balancing of mind, body and soul. Since my massage was considered part of my health and wellness, I was told in advance that I would be asked several questions when I returned for my appointment. I also learned that massage treatments are most effective when they are completed in a series. I was only in town for the weekend so I could only anticipate receiving a partial response. While it would have been wonderful to have a complete treatment, I was curious to see if there were any benefits after one visit. I put aside my irrational concerns associated with trying something unusual and booked an appointment.
When I returned a few hours later, I consulted with Dr. Thasneem Nizar. She asked numerous questions about my general health. After reviewing my history and discussing her recommendations, I chose to have a Navajeeva treatment that included three different procedures— Abhyangam, Kizhi, and Sirodhara. I listened carefully as she described the basics of each treatment. Since it was impossible to take notes, she kindly sent an email outlining the basics.
Abhyangam is a revitalizing, traditional Ayurveda massage that is customized to a person’s disposition and health. Warm herbal oils (approximately 40-45 degrees Celsius) are used as the masseuse performs long rhythmic strokes. Uniform pressure is provided from head to toe, which theoretically loosens the accumulated toxins in the tissues, improves blood circulation, relaxes the muscles, and counters the signs of aging.
During the Sirodhara stage, the practitioner drips lukewarm oil on the patient’s forehead in a rhythmic manner accompanied by a gentle head massage. Originally, the Sirodhara pot was made of mud and the oil was poured from its center onto the forehead and then stroked right and left in a thin stream. Nowadays, a bronze pot with an adjustable valve is used for greater convenience.
The purported benefits include nourishment of the brain tissues, memory improvement, reduction in tension and blood pressure, the elimination of insomnia, prevention of the premature greying of hairs, lessening of fatigue, and an overall calming of the mind and body.
Kizhi is the last phase. Roasted Ayurvedic herbs that are packed into a muslin bag are pressed on the massaged body. The doctor said that this treatment relieves joint pain, back pain, stiffness, eliminates the toxins through perspiration and provides nourishment to deeper cells.
Since I didn’t have any significant medical issues, classical preparations found in ancient scriptures were going to be used during my treatment. Pinda tailam was used during Abhyangam. During Sirodhara, the oil was switched to Ksheerabala tailam. Kottamchukkadi choornam was substituted in the final phase.
A young woman led me into a massage room. She closed the door. In broken English, I was instructed to undress and put on a disposable white garment. It resembled an adult diaper. Unlike American massage experiences, I was not asked to lie under a blanket. My anxiety level rose slightly when the woman reentered the room and locked the door behind her. I knew it was pointless to ask for a blanket since none were visible and I doubted that I could effectively communicate what, at least to me, was missing. In retrospect, I could have asked for a towel since there was a shower in the room. But, it’s always easy to interject a different line of thinking after a situation is over.
Instead, I overcame my cultural sensitivities and decided that my western modesties would need to be put on hold. I was going to breathe in deeply and reap whatever benefits would come my way.
As the woman stroked my body with the hot oil, I breathed in and exhaled. I relaxed further by counting my breaths. Oil saturated every inch of my skin. Extra oil splattered onto the table and formed small puddles. Now, I felt fortunate that I had a disposable undergarment. Her hands moved up and down my body with significantly less pressure than an American massage. The main target was not any of my major muscle groups. She was using ancient techniques to rejuvenate and invigorate my body and mind.
I was starting to dose off right before the second part of the treatment began. My mind became restless; I struggled to tolerate the oil slowly dripping from the brass container above my body onto my forehead. Once again, I returned to my rhythmic deep breathing and decided that it was silly to resist what I was experiencing. I needed to be in the moment and accept my decision.
Somewhere toward the end of the final treatment, I fell asleep. Someone knocking on the locked door awakened me. Apparently, the masseuse had also drifted off to sleep.
After entering the warm and soothing shower, I attempted to remove the excessive oil residue clinging to my body. Puddles of oil formed on the floor of the shower. I washed my hair five times with the hope of removing the thick layer of goo. As I combed my hair, the lingering oil clung to both my hair and comb.
Despite this short term inconvenience, I felt absolutely amazing. I was energized as my spirits soared. Like many good things in life, it didn’t last forever. Within a week, the positive energy started to slowly melt away. Sometime in the future, I’m going to seek out an Ayurveda wellness center closer to home so that I can renew this remarkable sense of wellbeing. Perhaps, if I follow a series of treatments the positive effects will last longer.
Stepping Outside My Comfort Zone
Since my first trip to India in 2010, I have learned that it’s beneficial to periodically step outside my comfort zone. These challenging experiences allow me to grow as a person and explore different cultural traditions. By being flexible and open to new things, I overcome my apprehensions.
In Kochi, my willingness to try something different allowed me to indulge in a therapeutic Ayurveda massage. When my western views on modesty were challenged, I chose to work through my misgivings. If I didn’t step outside my comfort zone, I would never have experienced the positive benefits of an authentic Indian Ayurveda massage.
CAN YOU SHARE?
Can you describe what it feels like to step outside your comfort zone?
Have you ever experienced an Ayurveda massage in India?
Sandy Bornstein has visited more than 40 countries and lived as an international teacher in Bangalore, India. Sandy’s award-winning book, May This Be the Best Year of Your Life, is a resource for people contemplating an expat lifestyle and living outside their comfort zone. Sandy writes about food, historical sites, family, intergenerational, and active midlife adventures. You can read more stories at sandrabornstein.com.