A veteran, that’s me. Of Panchakarma that is, having done 18 of these annual Ayurvedic cleanses.
The difference is that up till now, I didn’t need one.
This time my throat is so sore that swallowing anything is torture. I’ve been living off mouthfuls of soup for two weeks and have lost so much weight that I can fit into skin tight trousers again. Which delights me until I catch a glimpse of my face in the mirror. It’s come off the wrong cheeks. Whilst my neck looks as if I have mumps.
We land at Denpasar Airport, Bali, from my native Amsterdam. Founder Claude Chouinard, whom I met whilst doing a Panchakarma in Sri Lanka two years ago, is there to greet me. “You look terrible, like a walking skeleton,” he tells me, always – thankfully – being given to speak his mind. “What happened?”
As we drive through endless – and timeless – watery rice-fields, on our way to Oneworld Ayurveda for a 21-day Panchakarma the story unfolds:
My boyfriend of one year – following five of widowhood – and I were to go to Egypt for a fortnight at Christmas, a keenly anticipated trip on both sides. On the morning of departure, he texted me from the train to say he wasn’t joining me. Once at the airport, over a cup of coffee, he told me he was too scared to come.
There were no scenes, no tears, we held hands, he told me how lovely I was, how he enjoyed being with me, did I know that I wrinkle my nose when laughing? But that he wasn’t coming.
I asked if there was anything I could say to make him change his mind. And then calmly told him I had a plane to catch. We hugged and hugged. Even once in the plane I expected him to come running in at the last moment.
That was the last I saw of him.
By week’s end I had a sore throat, overshadowing my trip up the Nile.
The world around me seems to be standing still. Surely these rice-fields have looked like this and been tended by people looking like this for millennia? Up to their knees in mud, rice farmers in their conical banana-leaf hats are working their paddies, accompanied by a flock of ducks pecking insects and seeds from the water.
The next morning, at six am, I awake to the sound of a gong.
Whilst some have a yoga class and other recently-arrived get taken to Tirta Empul – meaning holy water spring – one of Bali’s holiest temples, in order to start their cleanse with a symbolic, purifying dip, I’m unable to join either due to my throat.
Which gives me a good chance to look around. Located on the slope of a hill, overlooking spectacular rice-fields some 20 minutes north of Ubud, Oneworld Ayurveda consists of just twelve rooms. Which lends a certain intimacy to the place.
In the course of the next three weeks their occupants and I were to bond, ‘family’ was a term I was to hear often.
After an initial early-morning consultation where resident Ayurvedic physician Ninnu took my pulse, I join the others for breakfast. The food here is surprisingly good, breakfast is a colourful fruit platter followed by something hot, usually porridge, I’m told. Today it’s semolina with dried fruit toppings and coconut milk.
Afterwards it’s time for my in-depth, one hour-long consultation with senior Ayurvedic physician Aparna. She does the three parts of Ayurvedic diagnosis, being observation, palpation and questioning. When she asks me how much I drink, I reply: “not much, perhaps a glass a day. Or two. Sometimes three but never more than once a week.”
She doesn’t have to say anything, I just look into her compassionate eyes and realise the error of my ways. Her conclusion is that my fire and water elements – known as the Pitta life-force – are too high, hence the inflammation in my throat. And that ether and space, constituting the Vata life-force, are also out of balance. No wonder, Vata is sensitive to emotions such as grief.
“A bee yanger followed by a bag of ham,” she mentions to one of the therapists, who, smiling sweetly at me, ushers me into one of the treatment rooms, most with breathtaking views of the rice-fields, surrounded by jungle.
My Abhyanga is a four-handed massage with warm oil. Why two masseuses? The idea is that the brain cannot concentrate on two places simultaneously, so just gives up completely and relaxes into a deep trance, making the massage much more effective. It’s the same thinking behind the blacksmith’s assistant squeezing the horse’s lip whilst it’s being shod.
Then comes a delicious lunch, again surprisingly so, consisting of flax-seed pizzas, smothered in vegetables. Followed by dessert, two ‘yoga’ balls of dried fruit and coconut, with a dipping sauce of honey, lime and mint.
After lunch comes the Avagaham: a warm herbalised bath – at OWA in a hand-hammered copper bath tub from Java – consisting of warm water with herbs continuously being poured over me, again by two therapists.
I feel like a child again, bathed by my mum and I want to cry. I do.
The days follow each other, each punctuated by the same rhythm: two daily yoga sessions, two daily treatments, a daily consultation. Almost every day sees some form of distraction, talks on various aspects of Ayurveda: origins, food, lifestyle and beauty. Cooking demonstrations and rice field walks.
The therapists care for me as if I were their child, whereas the truth of the matter is that I’m old enough to be their granny. They give me various forms of massage – abhyanga to the initiated – as well as shirodhara (warm oil dripped unto my forehead); swedana (a steam cabinet where my body is covered by herbs) and pinda sweda (being pounded by herbal boluses in muslin bags.
I knew it was too good to last, on the seventh day I start my day with a bitter tasting drink: avipatti. I’m supposed to stay in my room today and I soon know why. This is purgation day, when toxins, both physical, mental and emotional which have been loosened by the various treatments are evacuated from the digestive tract.
The pay-off comes immediately. The next day I feel light and energetic. My appetite is voracious and I have seconds of everything.
Soon, too soon, it’s time to go home. The sore throat is a thing of the past, together with its cause. My weight is back to normal, there is colour in my cheeks again. I feel healed, not just physically.
Dr Aparna has observed that my Pitta is nicely in balance and that my Vata is well on the way.
I leave knowing I’ll be back, next time, please, just for maintenance and not with a diagnosis.