Oiled up: experiencing Ayurvedic massage in India

Uday Samudra Beach Ayurvedic treatment center Kerala (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

The warm herbal oil ran in a continuous stream from a bit of cloth poking out of the bottom of the round, coconut-sized holder suspended above my forehead.

With my ears plugged with cotton, my eyes covered with cotton patches and my head resting on a support made of wood that also collected the oil runoff, the hypnotic flow of liquid streamed across my “third eye,” back and forth, for what felt like hours but was really only 30 minutes.

Swoop, dribble dribble dribble, swoop, dribble dribble dribble, swoop….

This was a treatment called shirodhara, designed to bring me into better mental balance as part of the 5,000-year-old Ayurveda health care philosophy that is focused on wellness and disease prevention through healthy living and daily routines, including massage with herb-infused oils that have a distinctive smell, almost like menthol.

The Ayurvedic doctor at the Uday Samudra Beach Ayurveda Ayur Ashram in Kerala called my shirodhara session a “brain-cleansing.”

I certainly needed something to calm a head that swirls with a daily cocktail of thoughts, ideas, excitement, fear, highs, lows, memories and the occasional lizard brain screech. Ayurveda says that we are all a combination of dosha mind-body elements: Vata (wind), Pitta (fire), and Kapha (Earth) and that keeping them in balance is key to good health. Here is a dosha quiz if you want to see your predominant element.

As a Pitta myself who seems to have forgotten where to find her OFF button, I jumped at the chance to re-sort the jumbled garage that is my mind, since my body had already been worked over with a traditional full-body massage with more of the medicinal oils.

What a 52-year-old woman looks like after Ayurvedic massage.

You strip down to nothing (if you’re modest, you’ll need to get over it) and the therapist ties on a sanitary napkinish fabric thing to cover your genitals and not much else. We started with a head massage with oil that smelled like coconuts, then went to a padded mat on the floor where the therapist massages with both hands and feet in sweeping strokes that are lubricated with even more oil.

I’m here to tell you that being massaged with feet is not as odd as it sounds; for balance, the therapist held onto a rope hanging from the ceiling and her feet were very strong and limber. They had no patience with various knots in my shoulders and back, either.

Between the body massage and the shirodhara stream in my forehead, punctuated by palm tree frond-rustling sounds and birdsongs coming through the open air slats that substituted for windows in our upstairs treatment room, I had plenty of time to contemplate how nice it was to feel time slow down to a normal tick-tock, instead of the MUST-FINISH-THIS-PROJECT-NOW-WHAT’S-FOR-DINNER-OMG-EMAIL freight train of a normal day.

When we finished all of the treatments, the therapist wrapped my oil-soaked head in thin cotton, wrapped my equally oil-soaked body in a cotton robe, stuffed my clothes into a bag and told me to go back to my hotel room, wait about 30 minutes and then take a warm shower.

I’m not a big spa person at all – I always feel ridiculously self-indulgent in spas – but there in Kerala, the southwestern part of India that is home to Ayurveda, I saw the wisdom of taking some time to renew and recharge both body and mind.

Am I still “in balance” now that I’m back home?

I’m not sure, but I do know that I’ve learned to appreciate taking time rest my brain and recharge my body. Lying on an oil-soaked mat with feet on my back is not how I planned to re-sort my mental garage, but it worked.

Disclosure:  I was a guest of the Uday Samudra resort because I’d been a speaker at the ICTT India (International Conference on Travel Technology) in Kovalam, Kerala, but I paid for my own Ayurvedic treatments.

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