The Pancha-what? First trip to an Indian Ashram.

How does one summarize 2 weeks  experience of a first-time in India, first-time in an Ashram and first-time doing a Panchakarma program?
With a first-rate smile, I hope.

First, let’s define the terms we’ll be referring to:

1. India, in this case the deep south-west, the province of Kerala. After flying into Trivanandrum (also known as Thiruvananthapuram – I dare you to say that 10 times fast) we take a one hour taxi ride to a village where there is a Sivananda Ashram sitting next to a gigantic river that looks like a lake and where apparently crocodiles abound and tigers can be heard roaring in the surrounding lush greenery. Inside the Ashram everything is peaceful, safe and very orderly. Schedules are set and almost everything is repeated twice daily – morning and evening satsang (which includes meditation, chanting, lectures and more chanting), morning and evening meals, and morning and afternoon yoga (asana) practice. In between our Ashram schedule our group follows the Panchakarma treatments. The Pancha-what? Pour yourself some warm drinking water and read on.

2. Panchakarma, is an Ayurvedic (a sister-science to yoga, Ayurveda is India’s branch of traditional medicine) detoxification program which goes in 3 steps. First, for 5-7 days, you go through a series of daily massages, scrubs and steam-bath treatments all meant to drive toxins into your GI tract for further elimination. Starting from Day 1 we all go on a twice daily calorie-limited, veggies and rice dominant, gentle meal plan. We drink herbal teas twice daily, and in between meals, if you’re like me, you feel empty, light and hungry. Which is fine because you meander your way over to yoga practice, attempt a headstand, do some meditation, have a scrub and then lie down for a nap. After the first week starts the elimination of toxins from the GI tract and this is achieved primarily through: one day of drinking castor oil + medicine (easily the most disgusting thing I have ever swallowed in my life) which cleans your gut out thoroughly, followed by several days intermittent small-oil enemas and larger-herbal enemas. Yup, that’s right, this involves having various fluids put up your bum and running quickly to the loo. The third part of the cleanse happens outside of the clinic (and in our case, the Ashram) as you follow up the treatment by keeping to a restricted veggie diet, and do your best to avoid coffee, wine, cheese, bread and all of the other culinary joys that life holds for at least 2 weeks to a month*.

3. The Ashram. Is a place of peace and spiritual retreat. They also run a tight ship with a strict schedule. See point no. 1 for the general schedule.

We were lucky in that several days after our arrival there was a separate dormitory space designated for us Panchakarma ladies, and since many of our fellow detoxifiers had private rooms, these dorms were pretty empty and peaceful and just for us. That put me at ease for the shitty part of our program because at least in this way I didn’t have to disturb my fellow yoga vacationers with my personal orchestra of sounds and smells.

I would recommend spending time at an Ashram for anyone looking for a place of retreat far from the hustle and bustle of the modern world. Requirements: adaptability to a strict schedule, open-mindedness to questions of religion and faith (if you’re singing “Jaya Ganesha, Shree Ganesha, Siva Guru etc.” and feeling at odds with the God of your own religion, then this is not the place for you) and a general good, positive attitude. The Internet is limited, the lush-greenness ever present and the opportunities for meditation and reflection abundant. You’ll also need to get used to doing yoga in loose-fitting clothing since tights and what we in the West would normally classify as yoga clothes are not allowed.

I loved being there and soaking in the meditative vibes (except for the evening satsang and meditation which was misery for me as I would consistently fall asleep!) and some of the realities of the Ashram life were also quite amusing:

– while at morning meditation, in my attempts to practice Ahimsa (non-violence) I transformed myself into a living mosquito buffet as I was besieged by our buzzing brothers. They went for many of us seated there that morning, undiscriminating in their choice of breakfast. Initially, I hesitated to slap and squelch. While my survival instinct is strong I admit there was something that felt very sacrilegious about killing anything in an ashram temple surrounded by the smiling images of the divine (wave hello to Krishna!). So I grinned and bore it, that first time, and 40 mosquito bites later I abandoned all pretense at meditation. Every time after that I doused myself in deep forest mosquito repellent beforehand in order to save my exhausted mind from early morning philosophical dilemmas

– our Ayurveda doctors strictly forbade the consumption of sugar and caffeine, a restriction that was made troublesome by the offering of morning post-meditation masala chai tea (oh heavenly beverage!) and crunchy cookies and other goodies coming fresh from blessings at the alter, then offered to the participants. Many a time we would go up for our cookie and receive raised eyebrows in return since some of the staff knew that we were following a Panchakarma program. We would then have to convince them to hand the cookie over while reassuring them that we were fully aware that the cookie was not allowed. I savoured every little morsel of that forbidden sweetness! I’ve never felt less guilty about breaking the rules since I considered this treat my reward for waking up so darn early.

– while attempting a dynamic sun-salutation during asana practice and tripping over my loose-fitting pants between lunges. I’ve found a new appreciation for my lululemon leggings which, alas, were obliged to lay peacefully in my backpack for the duration of the trip.

In other news, here’s a snarky tidbit written during our flight back to Paris while enjoying airplane insomnia:

Ah, the wonders of yoga. I knew it would have practical, real-life applications. Ever mindful of my sleeping neighbours, squished as I am in my seat between dozing Indians somewhere between 4 and 5 am flying above Saudi Arabia, I tap a friend in the seat diagonally up and left of mine so that he evacuates his spot. I then am free to perform feats of flexibility as I crawl above seats and sleeping passengers to release myself from my human sandwich and go pee. And Stretch. I’ve been watching an excellent French comedy and while I’ve been chortling at the ludicrous situations the movie characters are playing out I’m reflecting on the past two weeks and seeing my own hilarity much more clearly. Panchakarma, the Ashram and all of our personalities combined have written quite the screenplay.

I hear a tinkle of glasses in the elite class in front of the plane and imagine the Champagne pouring. Good thing we’re not flying business after all since we are not allowed to drink a drop of alcohol for at least a month after our Panchakarma detoxifying program. The Panchakarma treatment is quite restrictive in what we can and can not eat and do. Mostly they recommend lots of rest and napping. Once you digest the instructions you start to wonder at the irony of actually paying to travel to India in order to:

– eat bland ayurvedic food instead of delicious Indian cuisine (just kidding, it really wasn’t that bad, but just a bit repetitive)

– avoid the sunshine and sunbathing (not allowed in Panchakarma). Five extra points to us for travelling to India during rainy season.

– avoid swimming in cold water and taking cold showers (well, quite frankly, I wasn’t too sure of the local crocodile population in the river anyhow, so…)

– have medically induced diarrhea

(yes, you read correctly, I traveled thousands of miles to a tropical country to pay a doctor in order to get the runs, on purpose). 

The lip-curling, ironic parts of this trip are dripping like honey on my coconut chapati. I actually burst out laughing a few times startling my fellow airplane passengers out of their sleep. Oops.

As I watch the minutes count down to our descent into Paris I wonder just how well our group will do with keeping to the doctor’s orders of no-meat, no-alcohol, no-caffeine and no-bread. I remember nodding keenly during our final consultation and swearing fidelity to the program for the 14-days following our stay in India, as prescribed. But with every minute we speed towards the land of savoury wines, fresh baguettes and over 1000 varieties of cheese. How on Earth will we see our Panchakarma through to the end? Since Pancha means five, in sanscrit, and karma means action, once we land I’m counting to five and taking action at the first boulangerie that I see*!

* It’s 6 days post-Ashram and I’m happy to report that our entire group has failed spectacularly in this last step. Sorry Doctor Vishnu, but the realities and temptations of France were too much to handle! Nevertheless, for me personally, keeping a mostly caffeine and meat free diet and continuing with daily yoga and meditation still keeps my mind and body feeling very good.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Thiruvananthapuram – I tried pronouncing it 10 times but once is enough. haha! I haven’t really thought of visiting India but I’m interested to try the panchakarma…sounds relaxing!

  2. Katalina says:

    Hi ! Lol the name of the town is a wee bit too intense for me too ;-) as for Panchakarma being relaxing.. sometimes it is (massages, oil, steam baths) and sometimes it can be quite trying on the body (after some of my enemas, but not all, I felt very tired and did a lot of lounging in bed and sleeping that day). Releasing toxins can take its toll. But doing Panchakarma in an Ashram environment was very relaxing indeed (these programs are offered in clinics all around India/world and don’t necessarily have to be in an Ashram!). Undoubtedly though it’s great in the long-term for the body!

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