A day at Vaidyagrama, an Ayurvedic Detox Retreat
As you may know, I was studying Ayurveda in Sydney over the past 9 or so months before I left on my traveling adventure. Ayurveda is the wisdom of life and longevity and perhaps the oldest existing body of knowledge on the healing process. It is not just a medical knowledge system, but an art of living in harmony with the laws of nature. When Ayurveda talks about wellness, it includes physical, mental/emotional, spiritual, social and environmental wellbeing - as holistic as it gets! It encompasses diet and nutrition, lifestyle, exercise, rest, relaxation, meditation, breathing exercises, medicinal herbs, and cleansing and rejuvenation programs for healing body, mind and spirit.
As I had been studying the principles of Ayurveda, as well as learning the various treatments to bring the health of a person back into balance, I wanted to see Ayurveda is action in India, where it originated. My teacher in Sydney suggested that, if I wanted to experience the real deal panchakarma process (body, mind, spirit cleansing/detox treatment), I should go to a place called Vaidyagrama near Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu, southern India. Vaidyagrama is an experimental green Ayurveda healing community born out of the desire to “live simple, live well, live healthy and live happy!” How cute is that? It is a small, but lovely, eco-retreat in the middle of nowhere….which helps with pacifying temptations to sneak out and get myself some chocolate and a cappuccino! I stayed at Vaidyagrama for the month of January. Sounds like a really long time, but it went by so quickly - I could have easily stayed another few weeks!
In case you’re curious, here’s what the schedule looked like on a typical day:
5:30 - 545am - Wake up
Awoken to the sound of a girl buzzing the door to deliver my morning kashayam, a bitter-tasting "herbal decoction" served in a stainless steel shot glass. Everyone’s kashayam is slightly different, but equally as repulsive tasting. Mine tasted like tree bark boiled in burnt coffee with a hint of ghee. Mmm…just what my taste buds were asking for at the crack of dawn.
6:00 - 7:00am - Morning Prayer and Agni Hotra
Morning prayer is led by one of the doctors who chants the 1000 names of Lord Vishnu in Sanskrit. Even though I am not Hindu nor did I understand a word of the chants, I found that just listening to them (the soothing sound vibrations) was a peaceful way to begin the day. I’d often arrive late to the chanting, just in time to catch Agni Hotra, which means fire sacrifice. This short ritual helps to balance and prevent any negative impact of the climate on us at the dawn of the morning, an auspicious and transitional time of day. Agni Hotra is followed by mantra chanting - 108 times, and finally a short pranayama (breathing exercise) before finishing at 7am. I very much enjoyed the daily pranayama, which was usually the practice of Alternate Nostil pranayama. I learned that this breathing technique is excellent for balancing male and female energies which helps faciliate pure awareness in the mind…Something I’m sure we all need!
7:00am - Herbal tea (ginger, black pepper, cardamom, coriander) was always waiting in my room for me by the time I returned from Morning Prayer. This lovely, and stimulating, tea served to tied me over until breakfast. Between 7:00 - 8:30am, people are having consultations with their doctor, getting treatments and/or having breakfast, depending on each person’s personal schedule.
8:30am - 12:30pm - The rest of the morning pans out differently for each person. People can be having consultations with their doctor, treatments and resting/relaxing. I had breakfast around 8:15am which usually consisted of green gram (mung beans), grain porridge, and vegetables, and - if I was lucky - coconut chutney (my favourite accompaniment to any meal). Breakfast was followed by an arishtam, fermented herbal medicine, that tasted like sweet red wine and made me feel smiley and buzzed like I’d just taken a shot of tequila on an empty stomach. Don’t mind if I do! After breakfast, I would read, listen to music, lay on my patio daybed daydreaming, organise photos on my computer, etc. - essentially what I would call “resting” and what the doctors probably considered “doing too much.”
Around 10am, I would expect a knock on the door from my doctor who would go through a full set of questions each morning, ascertaining information from me about my sleep, bowel movements, urine, hunger, energy level and any aches/pains I was having before checking my pulse, tongue and eyes and scribbling in his notebook. Very thorough. Upon meeting him for the first time, I felt instantly at ease and therefore, during our daily consultations, was comfortable speaking with him about anything I was thinking and feeling. Such a type A, I would usually have a piece of paper with a list of several questions for him each day :) As annoying and tiresome as it probably was for him to have my incessant inquiries, he never once made me feel like he didn’t have all the time in the world for me. This is an amazing, and highly rare, scenario between doctor and patient, and one of the reasons why I think this kind of relationship can be incredibly meaningful and healing for the patient.
Post-consult, I would have my mid-morning snack (a cup of pureed vegetable soup) and meander back to my daybed for more “resting,” or, if I was feeling energetic and patient enough to deal with the dodgy wi fi connection, I would go to the office to purchase a voucher to use the internet. 1 hour for a little less than $1. Usually, I would stop by my German friend Netti’s room for a chat and a laugh, or perhaps take a small walk around the property - go check out what the cows and peacocks were doing or something - before heading back to my room. By the time I had returned, the housekeeping ladies would have cleaned and tidied my room which was always a welcomed treat.
12:30 - 1:30pm - Lunch
The main attraction when it comes to food! The lunch meal was the biggest of the day as midday (between 10am and 2pm) is when our digestive fire is at its peak and can digest food the most effectively. After a few days here, I quickly gathered there was certainly a ‘theme’ to the vegetarian lunch. It always consisted of a grain, a cup of buttermilk, soup or dal, and two types of vegetables. The grain was usually unpolished red rice, a type of millet (there are several variations!) or oats. A cup of organic, fresh-from-the-cow, un-homogenized, and spiced buttermilk was never left off the lunch menu. I initially wasn’t such a fan of its slightly sour taste (because it’s fermented) but quickly grew to love it. The dishes were seasoned with rock salt, black pepper, and several different mild herbs and spices (i.e. cumin seeds, curry leaves, coriander, ginger and coconut) but never anything too pungent, like chillies. The oils they use are ghee, coconut oil and sesame oil. All the food is cooked and pretty much the consistency of baby food - you only need a spoon and barely need to chew! This is because they want everything to be easy to digest. The Ayurvedic belief is that undigested food creates ama (a toxic, morbid substance) which is the root cause of many diseases, and therefore lightening the burden on your digestive system is the best way to minimise ama accumulation. Lucky for me, I love mushy, mild food so I was quite content! After slowly and mindfully savouring every morsel of this big and scrummy meal, I had my red wine chaser to look forward to once I finished. In Ayurveda, it is recommended to do a short walk after a meal to help the food settle and, if you feel like it, have a little rest by laying down on your left side (stomach is on the left) to aid digestion.
1:30 - 2:00pm - Yoga Nidra
Yoga Nidra is 'psychic sleep.' If you’ve never done it before, try to find a class - it’s so nice! It’s not really “yoga” in the form most of us think of yoga, e.g. asanas, or stretching postures. Yoga Nidra is, in fact, a profound form of relaxation in which you lay on the floor in savasana with your eyes closed but urged to remain awake, with your senses still alert, while your body relaxes, mind rests and consciousness remains active. The lady who takes the class prompts us to bring our awareness to each body part to facilitate the relaxing of each part. She follows by taking us through some lovely visualisations before bringing us back to full consciousness. You’re really not supposed to sleep but there are always a couple of snorers in the room!
2:15 - 3:30pm - Satsang
One of the doctors here leads afternoon satsang, meaning learning/discussion, which can take many different forms depending on the participants. It’s basically like an open forum where the patients can ask the doctor questions about anything, as well as a space to share personal experiences with the panchakarma treatment process.
3:30 - 5:30pm - Rest time or treatments
People have treatments throughout the afternoon which, again, depend on each person’s particular treatment schedule. If you had a treatment in the morning, you can take this time to rest — everyone’s favourite thing to do here! Around 4:00pm, they bring you a little afternoon snack consisting of a cup of herbal tea and a small serving of fruit. Another Ayurvedic principle is eating fruit by itself because, when mixed with other foods, it creates a sour and indigestible “wine” in the stomach, thereby creating ama (toxins) in the digestive tract. The fruit varied between pomegranate, papaya and banana. An hour or so later they bring you your evening kashayam, the bitter-tasting, suspiciously murky herbal medicine, that may or may not be the same as the hideous one you received in the morning.
4:30 - 5:00pm - Yoga
The yoga class is, again, nothing like the vinyasa flow asana classes we’re used to. There is no twisting, inverting, straining or sweating. This is like the gentlest of all gentle yin classes. I attended every now and again but usually preferred lazing around during this time.
5:30pm - Satsang or AV Presentation
This is a half an hour talk or a Powerpoint presentation from one of the doctors. The topics related to Ayurvedic suggestions for creating and maintaining good health.
6:00 - 7:00pm - Evening Prayer and Agni Hotra
Similarly to the Morning session, Evening Prayer consists of about half an hour of chanting. This time, they are chanting the 1000 names of the Goddess. Unless it was a really good day and I was on my spiritual game, I’d usually skip it or sit here zoned out thinking about what’s for dinner! Oops..
7:00 - 7:30pm - Dinner
Dinner is the smallest and, I must say, least exciting meal of the day. Once the sun goes down, our digestive fire also dwindles and therefore is unable to digest food as easily or efficiently as earlier in the day. The food for dinner is very simple usually consisting of a grain dish, such as rice congee, a cup of vegetables, and perhaps a pompodom or two. At least I had the post-meal wine chaser to look forward to though right?! Ha. After I got over the fact that dinner wasn’t anything to particularly look forward to, I really didn’t mind the wah-wah food. I think we (perhaps it’s just me?) build dinner up to be the main attraction of the evening and are thoroughly disappointed without a full spread of food. Vaidyagrama follows the principle of “eating to live rather than living to eat.” When you start to think of food as nourishment, instead of entertainment or a way to fill a void, you just simply eat the meal and move on without feeling like you “need something more.” Ayurveda believes we only need to eat two meals a day (some experts actually say only one!!), suggesting dinner is a superfluous meal anyway and therefore doesn’t need to be anything large or extravagant. As hard as this is to get used to, considering our culture isn’t conducive to this kind of mentality, the times I have had a massive lunch and given dinner a miss, replacing that time with something else I find nourishing (a bath, massage, etc.), I woke up the next morning with so much energy and clarity. It’s interesting. Not trying to suede you at all; just a little food for thought…
7:30 - 9pm - Bedtime
Seems so early, but when you’re waking up between 5:30 - 6:00am every morning, I found it very easy to start making my way towards the bed soon after dinner. There were only a few nights out of the 30 I was there where I stayed up past 9:00pm! So wild, I know :)
Most days also have an additional activity not listed in the standard schedule. On Mondays, there is a garden herb walk during which one of the doctors points out many of the plants and herbs they grow on the property and advises what they’re good for and how they are used in medicines and food preparation. On Tuesdays, there is a cooking class which, of course, I loved. Each Thursday is community dinner where all the guests eat together in the yoga hall. Fridays, there is a cow puja (puja = Vedic ritual or ceremony) honouring the sacred cow which provides them with the milk to make buttermilk, curd (yogurt) and their beloved ghee. Throughout the week, there are other impromptu events such as various pujas to celebrate and honor the full moon, deities, stars, auspicious days of the year and even snakes. These are always very elaborate and interesting to attend as the practices of the Hindu religion are very foreign to me. Not to mention, no puja is complete without each person receiving a helping of delicious prasad (consecrated food), which is the only sweet we get here! It’s made from rice, jaggery (unrefined sugar made from the juice of crushed sugarcane stalks) and ghee (clarified butter), plus other yummies like raisins, cashews, and coconut. Quite the treat!
None of the activities on the schedule are mandatory. If you wanted to come to Vaidyagrama and spend the entire time 'retreating into yourself' and never leaving of your room, except for treatments, you very well could. In fact, I’m sure the doctors would be very pleased with you! Unless someone was on a very intense part of their treatment where social interaction was discouraged or too much to handle, I found that everyone was very friendly and social. The other patients were mainly from the US, Australia and Europe.
If you’re interested in finding out more information about Vaidyagrama, or Ayurveda in general, I’d me more than happy to chat! I’m thinking about booking in again next year.
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