Jungle Doctors

by Angela

Greetings from the ayurveda ashram in Tamil Nadu.

It’s a jungle out there, as expected, but I haven’t seen it. What is visible is the rise of a massive half-dome formation in the haze – a rock-mountain of captivating severity – and the outbuildings of the Happy Valley Business School beyond the ashram’s gardens.

Feline update: you may know I spent the week before departure making mental contact with the leopards Makarand says live around here, in hopes of encountering one directly. As if a little remote mind-melding could summon my muse. Well, the biggest cat I’ve seen has been a yowling, prowling mama cat so skinny she makes Mysore Carlos look like my fluffy housecats. (Carlos is the street cat who I thought I’d merely over-fed when he grew fat in 2012, but then she birthed two kittens in my suitcase three days before I was set to leave India. Long story short, Carlos turned into that season’s Slumcat Millionaire/ internet ashtanga celebrity and, despite my landlord’s view of kittens as rats with especially large scat, the babies lived happily ever after.) Now, as usual, there is a pair of kittens about, easy to find at play in the hibiscus bushes. If mama were more of a leopard, maybe she would figure that out. But instead she wanders the gardens hour by hour, calling for her babies. She, and the jungle doctors’ mantras, are always in the background.

I am here for understanding, not for a health complaint. Krishnamacharya was an expert in ayurveda, and in almost all the Asian embodied or “martial” arts it is folk medicine and healing practice that is the wellspring of the strong bodily disciplines. No matter my intention: this learning is not academic. It takes place through experience. There is a full course of treatment, and a pair of doctors come find me twice daily for a chat. They are present without complication — unrushed, undivided —and want to chat about everything from my bowel movements (always an interesting topic here), to gemology, to my dreams. The meta-theme throughout is how do we cultivate sattva? – a kind of luminosity, insight, aand deep balance and creativity of personality that affects the world for good.

The place is laid out according to Vastu (Vedic Feng Shui – the library has Swoboda’s book on the topic if you’re interested). Straight lines in cardinal directions, careful attention to the expression of the natural elements and the intra-relatedness of differently purposed spaces – cooking space, relational space, sleeping space, and so on. The buildings are terra cotta blocks pressed from local mud; and an overflowing of plants and the most beautifully directed light brings life to the structures. I stay within these walls mostly, internal and quiet, discovering what my mindbody does when it has minimal stimulation and zero stress. Doctors’ instructions. Keep calm. Do not go running about.

But one day, the abhyanga and elakkazhi treatments were a tiny bit rushed. The two therapists, who feel bad for me that I don’t speak at least Hindi, communicated that they had to get to a wedding. Over the course of the treatment, while the therapists thought about weddings, my blood pressure increased, as did the vata in my pulse. (These touch-based indicators of health are monitored many times each day.) So there was more agitation in my system after treatment than before. What an important, embodied teaching for me: the kind of awareness one keeps when holding space for others could have direct and objective effects on them. Anyway, this time I was still grateful to have been rhythmically oiled and lightly pounded with steaming herb poultices, and the vata and BP came back down to barely there by watching the kittens in the hibiscus.

Tuesday was the climax of the treatment.

The experience created a ripple in my extremely reverential and receptive frame of mind where ayurveda is concerned, and with that ripple an opening to share with you about my time here in a relatable way. Before I go there, I want to say what you’ve heard from me so often regarding the yoga. The revolution can not be televised. And post-game recaps are a bit suspect. To the degree that a person can refrain from projection – from seeking outside the experience for some kind of reference point or conceptual grounding, from performing the practices for effect or reducing them to punch lines, or from generating internal experience through reactions to an imagined other – to that degree only, pratyhara is happening. Pratyhara is the fifth limb, and the last one that can be deliberately practiced. The others can be caught but not taught, as they say. With withdrawal of projections through pratyhara, and a setting aside of the mental concepts to which we are kind of addicted, then only can the methods take us into the mystery. Into that which we previously did not know – be that our tissues, deep emotional realms, energetic patterns, a self beneath all of the habits, or (if you suppose something like this exists) a realm of spirit.

So, later I’ll forget I ever passed through this jaunty state of mind and will reply to requests for more information about my experience by saying something like, well it was kind of deep and I don’t know what to say about it._But for today, for your amusement I’ll say a bit about the formal treatment of panchakarma. Read at your own risk. Really. If imagining me in a bathroom moment is too much for you, you have to stop right here.

Tuesday morning one of the jungle doctors came to my room at six, a concerning two hours before his shift should start, and a lucky one minute after I finished ashtanga practice on the bare slate floor. (Learning to practice for real without a mat – and without pants for that matter – has been one of the several benefits of Air France having sent my suitcase to Mumbai rather than Mysore; one might say that lost luggage is just part of the vinyasa when flying on a new moon. The same person might also say you study the planets to become aware and eventually free of their influences, not to fear them.)

“You have to come with me now. I have special medicines for you today.” These Doctors have the bedside manner of Ram Dass – equanimous in the extreme, but radiating adoration as if you were their own child – so the severity in his face sent my heart pounding. Hello, fear in the body. Not a mind-modification I get to work with often at all. It was interesting to witness the limits of my ability to keep my physiology in check in the ayurvedic face of doom. Clearly more practice is needed.

He takes me in a back room, sits me down on a chair in front of an altar, and gestures to a mug waiting next to a burning ghee lamp. “Today you take purgation. Virechana.” Then we chant together and he hands me the mug.

I am braced for castor oil, which is the customary purgative for seasonal cleansing. Though I promise that castor oil is the unguent of the gods, by mouth it can be a bit disgusting. Taking it back home goes like this: fill two shot glasses, chant to Vakratunda (which, when you learn what that means, might strike you as adorable), paste a phony smile on the face and toss the the shots back, immediately to be chased by orange juice. Mmmmmm. You can do that with us come April, no problem. But by contrast, Tuesday’s purgative was delicious– more or less a warm cup of chili powder and dirt, maybe a touch of jaggery.

After the first sip, my thoughts went to you all, and how we really must replace the castor oil with this stuff for the next cleanse. I tell the Doctor how much I like this purgative, and the stern look returns. “This is… more deep… than what you are used to. It is a lot.”

Two hours later, when I’d had only nine gentle “movements,” he frowns. “You have miles and miles to go.” Impatience arises.

Next thing I’m in the bathroom, getting on with it, when roiling pain fills my abdomen and cold sweat starts to seep from my thighs and pour from my head. I simultaneously throw up and begin to black out, filling with gratitude that Indian bathrooms are covered floor to ceiling in tile (no cloth or paper anywhere). Blackness roaring in my head and a bright piercing in my belly, I intend to fall backwards. This all happens in super-slow-mo, leaving opportunity to savor the full palate of the pain and remember this is practice for meeting future pain. Which is inevitable. Future suffering can be avoided (that’s in the second pada, worth memorizing; if I remember correctly, Iyengar’s translation – which is in our library – is “future grief can and should be avoided.”). Specifically, one way to avoid future suffering is through studying empirical pain. Because the suffering is what can be avoided, not the pain.

Last thing before I lost consciousness and tipped over, I hallucinated an American rishi who may be related to Vakratunda. There’s a scene in Back to the Future where Doc Brown looks Marty McFly full in the face, just before McFly’s first ride in the flux-capacitated Delorian. He forebodes, “Where we’re going, we don’t need… (flips down sunglasses) roads.” And in the second before consciousness checked out I was McFly, staring at Doc agog as he said, “Where we’re going, we don’t need… toilet paper.”

Saturday I’m off to Mysore, possibly to be reunited with my pants. And toothpaste. Chewing neem twigs has its limits. However, the jungle doctors’ fulminations against chemical shampoo have done their work. If, as they promise, a little green gram powder can sort of get two weeks’ of daily oil treatments out of this hair, I’ll toss out the Kiehl’s and go natural that way too.