In the humid air of the South Indian monsoon, a faint whiff of fermenting milk emanates from my head. Despite two rinses, the gentle aroma of organic buttermilk lingers from my afternoon Ayurvedic treatment.
I’m here in Tamil Nadu for Pancha Karma, a comprehensive cleansing and healing process that is central to India’s ancient system of medicine, Ayurveda. Pancha Karma (meaning ‘five actions’) can get to the root of health problems that western medicine struggles to manage – auto-immune diseases like Hashimoto’s and Rhuematoid Arthritis, skin problems like eczema, allergies, asthma, Parkinson’s, cancer, addictions and more.
In my case, it’s psoriasis. Over the past ten years, the red, scaly patches of skin have colonized greater swathes of my body and flares have become more frequent. Western medicine has no cure for this auto-immune disease. I’m expected to use topical steroids indefinitely, even though they no longer make much difference.
So here I am at Maitreyi Vedic Village, an Ayurvedic centre in South India, slathered in sesame oil and buttermilk. My fellow guests have travelled from the Netherlands, Italy, Israel and Australia to find solutions to health problems that their own doctors have been unable to fix. They too are undergoing daily treatments using natural oils, herbs and organic milk products in the hope of a cure. We’re also taking Ayurvedic herbal medicines and following carefully calibrated diets that soothe the gut and balance our ‘doshas’.
After a consultation with the Ayurvedic doctor, I arrive at the treatment rooms for my first treatment - a vigorous oil massage called Abhyanga. Two Ayurvedic massage therapists, tiny Tamil girls with deceptively strong hands, firmly rub coconut oil over my body in long, co-ordinated strokes, while a third therapist keeps the medicated oil at just the right temperature by warming it over a portable gas stove. It’s invigorating yet relaxing and I’m looking forward to enjoying this treatment every day. But the Ayurvedic doctor has other ideas.
After a second consultation, the doctor decides that I need to have two treatments each day, neither of which are the delicious hot oil massage. The first will be a massage using a herbal decoction, while the second involves gallons of buttermilk.
Morning Treatment – Kashayadhara
I arrive for my morning treatment where my two Ayurvedic therapists dress me in a cotton loin-cloth, sit me on the huge wooden treatment table and say a prayer over me. A third woman prepares the ominously dark brown and pungent smelling herbal mixture which is sitting in a large brass bowl at the end of the table, warming it over the gas stove to just the right temperature. She repeatedly fills two brass cups with spouts for the therapists to pour over my body.
I sit up with my legs straight out on the table while the therapists pour cup after cup of the herbal mixture over me, massaging it into my joints and stroking it down the lengths of my arms and legs. It feels as if I’m being rubbed with hot tea. I then lie on my back while they massage the herbal mixture across the front of my body and then I’m asked to lie on my belly, followed by each of my sides in turn so the process can be repeated on every part of my body. Finally, I sit up again while they finish by rubbing the herbal ‘tea’ vigorously into the soles of my feet. The treatment is complete and it’s time to wash off the herbal mixture in the adjoining shower room.
All I’ve done is turn over on a massage table a few times, but I feel exhausted. It’s time to head back to my room and rest – we’re advised to rest for one hour after each treatment.
After an hour’s rest, a walk around the idyllic gardens and a delicious South Indian lunch made with organic vegetables grown on the property, it’s time for my afternoon treatment.
Afternoon Treatment – Buttermilk Shirodhara
I make my way back to the Ayurvedic clinic where a foam mattress has been placed on the massage table and a wooden frame set up at one end. A large brass bowl with a thin spout at the bottom is attached to the wooden frame by long, brass chains and, once I lie down on my back, my forehead is positioned directly beneath the spout.
One of the two therapists in the room is in charge of warming a large bowl of organic buttermilk (generously donated by the cows that roam the property) over the portable stove, then pouring the warmed milk into the brass bowl that is hanging from the frame above me. I lie down on my back and second therapist guides the spout so that the buttermilk pours in a thin, continuous stream onto my forehead. She moves the brass bowl slowly from side to side so that the buttermilk streams from one side of my forehead to the other, then drains away down the sides of my head and into another bowl just behind me.
The effect is mesmerizing. The continuous stream of warm liquid pouring across my forehead is soothing, relaxing and has an almost hypnotic effect. My whole body is passive and a feeling of deep calm overtakes me. It is completely wonderful. The buttermilk continues to pour across my forehead for 30 minutes, during which time my regular mind chatter drops away and is replaced by a series of intangible sensations, followed by a deep conscious awareness that transcends my usual busy thought processes.
When the treatment is over, I rinse the buttermilk from my hair and walk unsteadily back to my room. My pace is slow, my senses are heightened, the distinction between the inner and outer worlds seems blurred. Of course, it’s time for another rest, and so I retire for an hour and let the treatment work its magic.
My next consultation with the Ayurvedic doctor is likely to reveal a change in my treatment plan, but for the moment, I am blissfully contented with the combination of my morning ‘hot tea rub’ and my afternoon ‘buttermilk head soother’. Even if, after several rinses, it still leaves a faint whiff of yoghurt in my hair.
Learn more about Adore Yoga's retreats and holidays, incorporating yoga, meditation, ayurveda and more.
Nikola Ellis is the founder of Adore Yoga, yoga therapist, counsellor and teacher trainer. She conducts regular trainings that help people of all ages, shapes and abilities enjoy the benefits of yoga and meditation, including Meditation Facilitator Certificate Trainings; Level 1 200hr Teacher Training and Post Graduate Yoga Teacher Training in Mental Health, Adaptive Asana and the Foundations of Yoga Therapy and a highly regarded professional 650hr Graduate Certificate of Yoga Therapy.