Wednesday, March 25, 2015

India Travel Journal Part 5: Ayurvedic Massage in Alleppey

I don't know how I managed to skip over this recap of such an interesting and authentically Indian experience. Perhaps I was just tired of writing after reliving the cell phone into canal drama. Anyway, Kerala is the ancient home of Ayurvedic medicine. If you're not at all familiar with Ayurveda, there are plenty of places to get a quick overview (YouTube, Wikipedia, etc.). If I could boil it down to one sentence, I would say that it's an ancient health philosophy that emphasizes balance and considers body, mind, and spirit as integral parts of overall well-being. There are many comparisons between Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine and contrasts between eastern and western medicine. What I find particularly exciting is that while eastern medicine has been handed down from expert practitioners over thousands of years as proven truths, science is making progress in examining these traditions and, through peer-reviewed literature, meaningful conclusions are being drawn about effectiveness. This has helped legitimize some principles and practices of Ayurveda within western medicine and you may hear more about its benefits from western clinicians as more tradition is vetted through the scientific process.

Anyway, back to MY experience with Ayurveda in India. As we've established, my time was limited and I didn't see much of a point in planning anything since I essentially relinquished all control over everything to Mother India the moment I landed in Mumbai. So, when I got to Allepey, I went to the local tourism office to book my boat tour of the back waters. While I was there, I asked about Ayurveda to see if there were any practitioners they recommended. This probably seemed like a weird request because in Ayurveda, you usually meet with a doctor and complete a long intake process before beginning a course of treatment that likely involves lots of different herbs, dietary modifications, and other components. So, I referred to my trusty guidebook and asked if we could call one of the places listed there as offering massages. They said I could come by later that day for a massage, so after losing my cell phone in the canal, I asked my driver to take me there.

I took my shoes off and was seated at a desk where a gentleman explained that the doctor wasn't in, but that I could pick from a menu of options. I debated for a bit, but given the swelling in my foot from the surgery and the heat, and the fact that I was in the middle of a 19-day trip that was probably taking a toll on my immune system, I opted for an hour long lymphatic massage. A young woman guided me up some outdoor stairs to the treatment room, which was quite large. The room was simple with a tile floor and two big wooden tables. I didn't take any pictures, but the tables looked like this (thank you Google images), although they were made of a darker wood and much more ornate.



The therapist asked me to undress, but unlike in America, did not leave the room. I stripped down to my bra and underwear and she told me to take those off, too. At that moment, I thought of the people I saw bathing in the canals earlier that day and of the locker room at Healthworks in Cambridge. I was thankful for the 6 years I spent changing there, as it gradually wore down the modesty ingrained in most of us. Also, I figured, she clearly does this all day and sees no reason why I shouldn't get completely naked in front of her. Then, she proceeded to put a paper string bikini on me, which seemed a little pointless. I mean, she got all up in my business to put the thing on me. I'm sure I could have figured it out myself, you know? Then she had me sit on a wooden stool beside the table and began aggressively rubbing my scalp with a lot of herbal oil, an indication of what would follow.

After my vigorous head massage, I laid face-up on the table and she proceeded with the rest of the massage. I've had many massages in my day and this was nothing like any of them. Soooo much oil. When I asked what was in it (it smelled rather strong), the only answer I could get was herbs. This response from Ayurvedic and Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioners can be frustrating. Yes, I know herbs, but WHICH herbs? To this day, I've never gotten a satisfactory answer to that question. The therapist told me of her training in Mumbai as she used long strokes and very deep pressure along my lymphatic pathways. I flipped over about half-way through and she undid the paper underwear. Again, what was the point of this thing? There was no draping of any kind during any part of the treatment. Something to be aware of if you're ever considering getting such a treatment in a foreign land I suppose!

Towards the end of the massage, she disappeared into the bathroom for a second where I heard her turn on some water which she left running. When the treatment ended, she led me to the bathroom. There was a large bucket under a tap in the corner of the tiled room, which also contained a toilet and a sink. In the bucket, there was a small plastic pail like I saw near the toilets in public restrooms across India. She handed me a bar of soap and a small packet of shampoo and told me to sit on a small plastic stool beside the large pail. I'm guessing this was to prevent me from slipping since I was drenched in oil navigating a tiled floor covered in water. She left and I bathed myself using the supplies she left me with. To dry off, I was given a small muslin cloth about the size of a hand towel. It smelled funky and was not really up to the job at hand but I did the best I could before going back out into the treatment room to dress myself.

There was nothing to brush my hair with and as I struggled to get dressed, I accepted that I would have knotty wet hair for the rest of the day. I made my way back to the car feeling a bit lighter on my feet and grateful that this experience probably only set me back about $20 USD. I doubt I'll ever forget my day in Alleppey and hope that I get to visit Kerala again someday.