There is a slither of daylight creeping through the windows that are covered by heavy red drapes. I stay in bed to keep warm. My room is just as bad this morning as it was in the dark on arrival last night. There’s a draught from the chimney, so I adjust the wood cover to prevent cold air from entering. The hard floor is ice cold when I put my feet down. From my window, the sky is misty over the hills outside. The window is slightly open and I cannot close it fully. If I survive two weeks in this place, I will definitely be a changed person. I envisaged two weeks of blissful meditation and Ayurveda massage in a tranquil paradise, but, in reality, I’m in a trashy motel room in the cold. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
As I stand outside my room, there are two women in the green bushes with baskets on their backs picking tea. The smell of the plant is strong. I take in the view now that there’s a little sunshine. To my surprise the place looks incredible. The retreat is perched on the green hillside in the middle of the tea plantations of Southern India. The broken sky has finally turned blue with white and grey clouds hanging low. I can hear the pleasant chatter of the tea pluckers as well as low humming from the gardener already busy at work.
I’m summoned to meet the resident doctor. The Doc sits in a basic room behind a large wooden desk. He’s wearing a white coat and has a yellow Hindu dot on his forehead. I find him quite awkward at first. He asks me why I’m here. It’s a bloody good question. I’ve been questioning my motives all morning, but, what the hell, I’m here now. I tell him what I want. I want to meditate more. I want some inner peace. I want some guidance for my life ahead. I want to feel comfortable with the decisions I have made. The Doc makes no comment. Another Western nutcase has come to India for answers. He asks about my physical health. I tell him about my recent knee surgeries and my shoulder surgery. I explain that I would like to be less tense and more flexible. I would like to lose a little weight too; not much. I surmise by saying that I want to feel clean in my head and in my body.
The Doc wobbles his head from side to side all the way through the discussion in the Indian way. Abruptly he says that he can help and sits back in his chair in silence. So I do the same. We look at each other until I ask, “How long will it take?” Ten minutes, ten days or do I need to book for another six months? He asks me how long I am staying. I tell him, “Fourteen days.” “No problem. I can do this.” I’m not sure whether I’m a basket case or an easy date.
After a short pause, the Doc shouts to Sunil, his harassed assistant, who brings him a pad and pen. Then he asks for my hand and checks my pulse with his fingers on my wrist. He then writes and talks quickly. “Your body type is pitta kapha – fire and earth. This is what determines your physical and mental characteristics. We will use these doshas to concoct your treatments. Your pulse shows poor circulation, a weak metabolism, digestive issues and tension in your back, shoulders and knees. You have anxiety, mild depression and sadness. Eighty percent of it has gone but twenty percent is still there.” Without a breath he concludes, “You have a sluggish colon.”
I’m not sure what to say. I can’t argue with it. I’m sure he could have added a few more to the list.
He explains the treatments. There’ll be a morning treatment and an afternoon treatment. In the mornings I will have a relaxation massage, but he warns me that it will not be what I expect. The afternoon treatment will be podikizi. This will go on for five days and then it will switch to a powder massage in the morning that is good for weight loss, for circulation and for joints. In the afternoons, I will be given herbal steam baths and colon cleansing. These will also go on for five days. After this, I will be purged and will sweat all my toxins out. For the last few days of my stay, I will have oil baths for bodily rejuvenation and oil on the forehead for spiritual rejuvenation. He will also administer natural medication for me to take five times a day, at six o’clock in the morning and at five o’clock in the evening, after lunch and dinner and also before bedtime. Medication is to be taken with hot water only. Further, he tells me to attend yoga classes at half past six in the morning and at midday and also the group meditation at half past five every day. I’m not sure what to say or to think, so I retire to my room.
Before I have had a chance to take all this in, Sunil comes to my room to escort me to my first treatment. The masseur looks like a butcher (although there is no need for one here as no meat is allowed). He wears a brown leather apron over his white coveralls. As always with massage, the protocol is never clear. He holds up a pouch and then takes my gown and puts the pouch around my waist and it just about covers up my nether regions. Already I’m uncomfortable. He tells me to sit on the bed, which is basically an old wooden table. The small room is cold and dimly lit. He then stands on a stool in front of me and begins to massage my head powerfully. He then uses oil and pounds even more strongly to the extent that I can’t concentrate on my fears. He chops into the sides of my head. No thoughts can fight against this so I go with it. His able assistant then enters, which brings some warmth from outside. I’m pushed down to lie on the cold table. The two masseurs stand either side of me and cover me completely with oil and then, with the strongest of strokes, they begin to massage me. Each uses long strokes up and down the sides of my body, from my feet to my shoulders. It feels like I’m being stretched, up and down. I am also being rocked from side to side by the motion. I feel sea sick. I really want to leave.
I’ve not had a four-hand massage before and, when I have dreamt of it, it is nothing at all like this. I’m in the middle of a nightmare. Nobody speaks. The only sensation is the constant push and pull of the strokes. They turn me over expertly and I get the same from the back. I will be six inches taller when this is done. Suddenly it stops and I’m directed into the tiny room at the back of this torture chamber. The assistant masseur comes with me and takes my pouch and pushes me towards the stool in the middle of the room. This room is much darker. When the assistant closes the door, the only light comes from a small open window. He pours a bucket of hot water over me. Then one of cool water. Then he takes what looks like a tub of Swarfega and washes me with the rough, green substance while the buckets are refilled. With the window open, I’m cold. More tepid water is poured over me. I’m freezing and praying for hot water. It comes now and it feels good. Then I’m told to stand up and more buckets of hot water are poured over me in quick succession. Even though this water is hot, I am shivering. He hands me a small, scratchy towel and tells me to dry myself. I now understand what the Doc meant in saying that the relaxing massage would not be what I expect. I don’t feel relaxed in any shape or form. Have I just been captured and tortured? I collect my gown and leave.
I have no idea what just happened. I sit on my bed for ten minutes before I can move again. I’ve got this every day for the next five days. If this is relaxing, what on earth are the other treatments like?
My first batch of medication is delivered to me as I eat lunch. I have no clue what they are. I ask a couple of my fellow inmates. Neither knows and neither asks anymore. They just take them. After this morning’s experience, there are worse things than drinking some disgusting black, oily liquid and taking three bright yellow pills.
My afternoon treatment consists of being whacked by the same two torturers. Each have two pouches of boiling hot herbs. In fact, they heat them in a frying pan on a stove at the end of the wooden table. The packs are very hot, but soon I am lost in the rhythm of the constant thwack, thwack, thwack as the pouches pound my body. I feel like Pavlov’s Dog already. I can’t imagine what five days of this will do.
At five o’clock, my next batch of medication is delivered. It’s left outside my door with a knock to say it’s there. I get more disgusting black, oily liquid. It’s hard to swallow and to keep it down. I also have three green and white pills. On the back of my door, the rules of the retreat are posted. It’s incredible. I must rest for one hour after massage treatments and take medications on time. I must not ask the cooks for anything unless I ask the doctor first. I must not drink cold water. Eating at restaurants is not permitted. Everyone should spread positive energy. I should avoid the sun and not watch television. I have to finish any meals at least one hour before treatments. I must avoid alcohol, sex and smoking during treatment days. Physical and mental exertions will adversely affect treatments. The retreat gates will close at nine o’clock. It’s like being back in my first marriage, with the exception of the positive energy.
The vegetarian dinner is served in the dining room and I meet more of the other prisoners. At least the food is tolerable. Sunil gives me more black oil and three yellow pills after dinner and I take some green slime paste and two red pills back to my room to consume before an early night.
I’ve been running to the toilet all night. I feel absolutely dreadful. I feel like I have been punched in the stomach. I have hardly slept at all. The medication may be helpful in fixing bowel movements but fixing my sleep would have been much more pleasant. My head is pounding, my back is sore and I have cramp in my legs.
There’s a knock on my door at six o’clock. It’s the delivery of my morning medication. On my doorstep is the now familiar silver cup of black, oily yuk and a silver saucer of pills on top of it. My name is written on the saucer in black felt tip. The oil is even more disgusting first thing in the morning and on an empty stomach. It takes me three attempts to get it all down and still I almost retch. The three green and white pills are easier but not pleasant. Yoga will start in fifteen minutes but I’m not sure I can stay away from the toilet for too long so I remain in my room.
I can hear the birds chirping outside and the sun has broken out. My stomach has settled somewhat so I gingerly head for breakfast at the half past eight bell. Vijay, our chef and waiter, provides me with passion fruit juice and some papaya. The others laugh at my tale of first night woes. Most of them are way past this point. John, another newbie, looks on horrified.
I catch the Doc after breakfast. He says that the night’s activity was just my body’s way of getting rid of the poisons and to let the process run. He advises that I catch up on sleep during the day. He will check on me tomorrow but that it should settle and I should stick with the treatment plan. In for a penny, in for a pound.
My morning massage is less intense today. I guess they have their fun with every first-timer. I even survive the water treatment. This time only hot water is used and I get the bonus of two full buckets of water over my head to end the treatment. Whilst I don’t feel relaxed, I do feel clean. I act as an imitation horizontal punch bag for my torturers with their pouches of herbs again for the afternoon treatment and then I sleep. Groggy from my tiredness, I join the meditation for the first time. I follow the sound of the ticking clock to try to halt my thoughts of escaping.
I’ve taken another dose of my medication and my stomach is off. I feel so unwell in my room before dinner that I’m not sure how much of this I can take. It’s half past seven on Saturday evening and I’m back in bed. I have no motivation to do anything. A bit of friendly advice at dinner was to become a robot here: medication at six o’clock, yoga at half past six, walk at half past seven, breakfast at half past eight, morning treatment, lunchtime yoga, lunch at half past one, afternoon treatment, afternoon tea at four o’clock, meditation at half past five and dinner at seven o’clock. I will try to stick it out until my purging in a week’s time but I’m not sure I can.
I’ve hardly slept again, but this time there’s no running to the toilet. I just can’t sleep and I spend the night tossing and turning. Just as the Doc advised, at six o’clock I have stomach cramps and I make my way across the cold floor to the toilet. I’m now supposed to do yoga then take a walk. With two nights of no sleep, I’m too tired to do anything.
I don’t recall a knock on the door but like a well-trained dog looking for the Sunday papers, I check outside my door for my delicious medicine. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry as, of course, it’s miraculously there. Everyone I asked yesterday has given up asking what we are taking and now I’m just taking it too, not worrying what it is or what it’s supposed to do. I look at myself in the bathroom mirror. I look awful. I’ve not shaved since I’ve been here as the mornings are so cold. My eyes are sunken, with dark circles around them. Any good from the cycling tour I have just done in Sri Lanka has gone.
I want to go to yoga to fully embrace the timetable but my legs and brain don’t coordinate and I remain in bed, deep in thought. The word ‘retreat’ is a strange one. I think I actually like the word ‘retreat’; ‘treat’ is a pleasurable word and, with the ‘re’ in front, it has the suggestion of something good experienced again. So where is the treat so far? Oliver Smith, a veteran of World War II and the Korean War, is known for the quote: “Retreat, hell! We’re not retreating; we’re just advancing in a different direction.” At the moment, the only direction I’m going toward is the toilet.
After a couple of similar days and nights, finally I get a decent night’s sleep sufficient enough for me to attend morning yoga for the first time. There are only four of us, which takes away some of my guilt for not previously attending. There’s a roaring log fire that adds a beautiful red glow to the room. I try to follow the instructions but mostly just watch the sun rise through the windows.
I also have a routine now. I do my own guided meditation in my cell after breakfast, then go to my morning treatment, then midday yoga before lunch and a chat with the other prisoners in the garden. The Doc catches me after my afternoon treatment and tells me that I will move to a powder massage tomorrow, two days early. Top student or what? Still I am feeling better than I have felt here so far.
I wake to the wind howling outside. It’s still semi-dark, low grey clouds outside provide the only light. It’s incredible how my mood swings with the weather. The weather here in the mountains is so interchangeable that I could be in Scotland or North Wales. I force down my morning medication, wrap up and trudge reluctantly to yoga.
Yoga is tough again today. I enjoy the aerobic exercises but I fail miserably at the more complicated positions that require flexibility of the body. I’m not built for yoga and I can feel every injury I’ve ever had as I try to contort my limbs into the weird and bizarre postures. I want to hang a sign around my neck saying ‘Fragile, do not bend’.
It is my udvartana (powder massage) treatment too today. Often referred to as the weight loss Ayurveda massage, it is actually also for body strengthening and toning and for removing roughness. Again, it is not relaxing in any way. My torturers cover me in oil and then proceed to massage me roughly with a fine powder. It feels like I’m being rubbed with oily sand. It burns at times and pulls against the hairs on my body. The combination of the strength of the pounding and the roughness of the powder means it is quite painful, especially on my stomach. When I get off the table, it looks like I’ve been rolling around in mud. The George Bernard Shaw quote comes to mind: “I learned long ago, never to wrestle with a pig. You get dirty and, besides, the pig likes it.”
For some reason I can’t settle after lunch. I’m too restless to meditate this afternoon. I feel bloated. I’ve only had fruit for breakfast and small portions of salad and corn soup for lunch. My afternoon treatment is now a steam bath, which is twenty minutes in an upright wooden coffin with my head poking out the top. It’s not particularly hot, apart from the wooden seat burning my arse. The colon cleansing is as unpleasant as it sounds and my mood completely deteriorates. Suitably, it pours with rain for the rest of the afternoon. It is so wet and I am so down that I really cannot be bothered going to meditation or to dinner.
I ran out of toothpaste yesterday and I now have Ayurvedic toothpaste. It leaves a spicy aftertaste. I can taste it all the way through morning yoga, which drags on and on for what seems like hours. Today, not only is it uncomfortable, it’s painful. I swear to myself that I will never do yoga again in my life. I haven’t had shoulder pain since my surgery eighteen months ago but I have it today. I start to wonder whether I am always this unhappy. I don’t think so but maybe I am? I feel very weird. I must escape my cell today and get out of here. I will skip all the treatments. I want to be free of this bloody place and out of my cell for good.
At my fruit breakfast, which has become my favourite meal, the Doc summons me. How does he know? I explain how moody I feel and how fed up I am with it. Incredibly, in his office, all his answers make sense to me. Today it is much warmer and I sit in the sun outside my cell with the beautiful view of the forested mountain landscape and contemplate what he said.
My body and my mind are confused. The Doc is providing medication and treatments that are unknown to me and so I am reacting to these. When it works, I will feel good. When it doesn’t, I won’t. At the same time the toxins are fighting to stay in my system but they are being chased and cleansed away. I will naturally feel tired through this process as my body is working in a different way than it’s used to. He concluded that the first week was all about cleansing which he was forcing on my body and this will end with the purgation. Next week will be rejuvenation. I laughed when the Doc told me that it is easier to work on the body than on the mind as the mind takes longer. At the end of our talk, I asked him for some pills to help me to enjoy yoga. Without any hint of a smile, he told me that he didn’t have any.
Later, when I return to my cell after being beaten and battered by the powder massage, as I undress I notice that my body is covered from neck to knees in a red rash. It looks pretty gross. Back I go to the Doc’s. The Doc takes one look at my rash and diagnoses an allergic reaction to the herbs in the powder. He will alter my treatments and medications to compensate. Sunil gives me a skin cream to apply three times a day.
When I open the cream, I gasp when I see that it’s not white, but mustard coloured. I coat myself in it and my body and upper legs are now dark yellow. It also stinks. Yet, when I sit outside my room again in the sun, strangely I feel great. I am reading “Travels” and there is a wonderful section on change. Michael Crichton purports that perhaps we accomplish change in a matter of seconds and that it only takes longer as either we don’t know how to process it or that we actually expect it to take some time. I guess that change is happening to me but perhaps I can only process it when I’m ready.
It takes me over an hour to recover from this afternoon’s colon cleansing. It’s worse than normal. It really is not pleasant and makes me feel very sick and dizzy.
I sleep really well again. I don’t think there’s much chance of me going to yoga but, amazingly, I get up and make it. After some quiet time in my favourite spot outside my cell in the sun, I make my way to morning treatment. My treatment has changed again. It’s pizhichil, otherwise known as an oil bath. Warm medicated oil is squeezed on to the body from a piece of cloth soaked in oil, followed by a soft massage. Apparently there are seven standard positions the patient should adopt in receiving the oil. I get four and each one becomes more difficult to get into because of the amount of oil. I feel like a fish caught on the deck of a trawler, splashing and flapping around. The only thing stopping my complete relaxation is wondering how on earth I will get off the table at the end.
My afternoon treatment is shiro dhara, which is the pouring of a continuous stream of warm, medicated oil on the centre of the forehead to relieve tension, anxiety, stress and headache. I lie on the wooden workbench and the masseur places a band of cloth above my eyes and then oil is poured out of a chalice moved by hand across the forehead. The sensation is wonderful. The lightness of it astounds me. I’m like a baby at a Christening that doesn’t cry at all, but just accepts the water on his head from the priest. It’s incredibly relaxing. After thirty minutes of bliss, the treatment is over.
Most of us are on purgation tomorrow and so, despite feeling much more at ease due to the more pleasant treatments, I go to bed with a sense of anxiousness.
I wake at four o’clock. It’s very cold. I walk to the window and look out. It’s black with no moon and no hence light. I have a deep realisation that there is nothing more to understand. I don’t know what I’ve been searching for. Actually, it’s not the what; I don’t know why I’m looking for answers at all. It seems the more I know, the less I understand, so why search? Just be pure, clean and happy. Quickly, however, my thoughts turn to my nervousness regarding today’s purgation. The others have told me their horror stories of vomiting and defecating for hours on end.
The benefit of purgation day is that there’s no morning medication and no six o’clock wake-up knock. I have a real desire to be warm today, so I open the heavy curtains to let the early morning sunlight in. Heaven forbid if it was raining and dark today. The Doc’s errand boy, Sunil, arrives with my purgation paste and hot water. Thankfully the paste is not as foul as the oily slime I usually have. He watches me swallow the gunk and then tells me to rest. He explains that my body will take over and to make sure that I drink plenty of hot water every twenty to thirty minutes.
I lie down again and wait. Incongruently, I feel absolutely fine, perhaps a mild headache only. I’m back in bed and I take turns reading and dozing. Nothing happens. After ninety minutes, I get mild stomach cramps and I go to the bathroom normally and easily. Then back to bed. There is either nothing left to purge or the paste is not strong enough as nothing else happens. At eleven o’clock, the Doc checks in on me. He says that it’ll take time and that I only need a mild purging in any case. Is this true or has his paste not worked? I sit outside on the balcony in my favourite chair. I feel good, completely the opposite of how I thought I would.
Since purgation day, I have slept fantastically well and I now seem to automatically wake before six o’clock for my medication and then go back to bed and fall again into deep sleep. I then wake just before the breakfast bell. My routine now is to miss yoga, sleep in, dine on a delightful fruit breakfast, chat in the garden, have my morning treatment and sit in the sun. I’ve come a long way from last week when I was scheming to cut my stay short. It is also apparent that as my mood wavered and I struggled to settle, the weather was also interchangeable. Since I have accepted being here, the weather has been bright and sunny. The last couple of days have been so good.
I feel so anti-thinking. I have a resistance to meditating, thinking too much or working stuff out. I enjoy the interactions with the people here now too. They’ve grown on me incredibly but mostly I enjoy the solitude of just being with myself. I don’t think I’ve ever felt this way before. There’s always been something to do or someone to see. In my chair outside my cell in the sunshine, I feel an incredible sense of peace. It’s nice to be alone with me.
The overriding sensation is the feeling of not having to do anything. I mean it this way, in comparison to not having anything to do. I don’t remember a time like this. I don’t have to go to yoga, I don’t have to go to treatments and I don’t have to go to lunch if I don’t want to. Last week, I had to get up at six o’clock for yoga and I had to go again at midday. At home, even on the laziest days, I have to make the dinner or watch the football or cut the grass or get the newspaper. I don’t have to do anything at all here. What an amazing feeling!
It has rained all night. Despite the constant downpour, the six o’clock medicine fairy has still delivered. It really is my last day here. My last six o’clock wake up knock. It will be my last meal bell. The last time being confused that every clock here is set to a different time and nobody bothers to correct them. The last of the warmest of interactions with all the staff here and the last time I will watch the old gardener chase the monkeys away with his stick. These little daily rituals are as much about being here as the treatments, the medications, the yoga, the meditations and the natural food. No more sitting outside my cell in the sun fully in peace with the world. I feel like I’ve been here forever and it feels like I’ve been here for the shortest time too.
So this is the end of my stay here. Here I am in my cold room with the noise of the pouring rain outside. I’m happy I’ve done this and I’m even happier I have reached the end. Would I recommend it to anyone else? It’s the weirdest and toughest thing I think I have ever done. And I’m a bit afraid of joining life again.