Forget Modesty - My First Ayurvedic Oil Massage

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To remove toxins from the system and balance the body’s three fundamental energies (called doshas), Ayurveda employs many internal cleansing programs, one of which is panchakarma.  There are a vast array of treatments used in panchakarma, so it is up to the doctor to decide which of the body’s doshas are aggravated and prescribe a course of treatments to flush the accumulated toxins and restore balance.  At Vaidyagrama, the Ayurvedic retreat I visited in India, some people have very intense treatments and others have quite an easy go of it. For example, my friend Netti had to drink increasing amounts of ghee (up to 200 ml) over the course of 7 days while having no other food except for a little bit of rice water. This week of ghee was followed by a series of purgatives to expel the accumulated toxins from the body. She was basically chained to the bathroom during those days. Meanwhile, I was chilling out eating all the food I wanted and receiving warm oil massages and other luxurious treatments. One of the things I love about Ayurveda is how personalised it is. (Easy for me to say considering I wasn’t the one drinking butter!) But it is true. Not one person at Vaidyagrama (there were about 30+ patients) was doing the same course of treatments, taking the same medicines or eating the same food. Everything that is prescribed for each person is completely tailored to his/her individual nature and to the root of what is causing his/her own bodily imbalance. 

FYI - As horrendous as the ghee treatment sounds, it is one of the best ways of dislodging hard-to-reach toxins in the connective tissues and moving them into the gastrointestinal tract for elimination.  Netti said that after all the ghee and purgation finished, she felt a profound sense of physical lightness, mental clarity and heightened senses. The use of ghee for internal oleation, aka lubricating the body's channels, is good for most people but it is important that you have a strong digestive fire and liver function to process all the fat.  Unfortunately (I kinda wanted to see what it was like), the doctor didn’t think my body could deal with it, so instead I had a very different, more relaxing, regime. I guess I should consider myself lucky!

For the first few days of being here, everyone gets Abyanga treatment, which is full body oil massage, to relax and ease the way into the deeper treatments.  My first experience of Abyanga was unlike any other massage I’ve ever had. When it was time for my massage, I was welcomed at the doorway by a voluptuous Indian woman named Maya who led me into the change room, adjoining the treatment room.  All seemed pretty standard until she handed me some kind of transparent paper loincloth to change into. Of course, I didn’t have a clue how to attach this see-through diaper to myself as it only had one set of strings, unlike self-explanatory string bikini bottoms which have two sets. Embarrassed, I half-naked waddled into the treatment room to ask Maya what to do with it. She flashed me a smile as if to say, ‘oh you dear thing’ and proceeded to place the paper cloth between my legs and tie the string around my waist, tucking the cloth into the string in the back, a method I would have never inferred by looking at this garment. How awkward. 

When I was “ready” in my loincloth, I shyly scooted into the treatment room and was greeted by a second therapist, a small and shy young girl named Shiney, standing next to the massage table, which was really more like a plank of polished wood. I was ushered onto the wooden plank while Maya and Shiney conversed in Tamil. Assuming Shiney was just there to help Maya with the set-up, I began to assume a "normal" massage position (e.g. laying on my back). I was instructed instead to start sitting up on the table with my legs dangling over the side. Next to the table, I saw a gas burner with a bubbling vat of medicated oil emanating a very earthy, not bad, but not necessarily good, aroma. Sitting there basically naked, I felt like I was being prepared for sacrifice. Maya poured some oil into a little bowl on the table and scooped some out into her cupped hands. Standing in front of me, she did a small prayer (I think it was a prayer? or perhaps a blessing?) under her breath and then rubbed the oil first onto the crown of my head and then into the rest of my scalp. The warm oil on my head induced a rush of goosebumps all over my body. My first thought was, “ugh, my hair is going to be so greasy” but I quickly (tried to) dismiss it and enjoy the tingly sensation.  She then began massaging my ears, only after dribbling a few drops of oil INTO each ear. More goosebumps, thoughts of ear safety and fears of wax build up arose.  Again, I tried to dismiss my scepticism and tell myself, “surely, they know what they’re doing, right?!"  I soon discovered my paper diaper was just a token as Shiney, who was standing behind me on the other side of the wooden slab, untied the strings. Still sitting up on the edge, Maya moved on to massaging my torso, full chest and all, while Shiney did my back. I was motioned to lay down on my back while Maya and Shiney, one on each side of the table, oiled and massaged the front side of my body, working in sync, to what seemed like the rhythm of the Vedic chants playing in the background.There was a lot of oil being applied and their strokes were long and vigorous. 

Instead of turning on to my front and putting my face in the massage hole like in traditional massage, in Abyanga, there is no “face hole” and I was manoeuvred to lay on my side.  Oily and aromatic, I felt like a tandoori chicken skewer getting turned on the BBQ. Laying on my left side, I was asked to have my right knee bent and left leg straight.  If you picture this, you will understand how revealing this posture is when you no longer have your paper diaper to provide any semblance of modesty.  I could feel my hip bone digging into the wood and I was cringing knowing that Maya and Shiney were getting a full view. After about 45 minutes of rotating between laying on my back and each side, I sat up with my legs straight out on the wooden slab while they massaged my back. I had to brace my abs to sit in that position without any back support.

When I was well and truly marinated from head to toe in this pungent herbal oil, Maya and I proceeded into the adjoining bathroom to rinse me off. I am fully naked and Maya is preparing to bathe me while I’m wondering where my paper diaper is.  Instead of soap and shampoo to remove the oil, she concocted a mixture of mung bean powder and water to form a gritty green paste.  She massaged it all through my hair which provided the perfect conditions for oily, gritty dreadlocks - just what I came to India for! Then she rubbed my whole body with this paste which actually seemed to work well as an exfoliant. Instead of standing under the shower to rinse the paste off, I instead waited for her to fill a large bucket and use a pitcher to scoop out the warm water to bathe me.  It was quite a nice feeling having warm water poured over me as I sat there, but it also made me feel like a small child or invalid, whichever is more helpless.  Once the grit was rinsed away, she handed me a “towel” that was less fluffy bath towel, more thin kitchen rag. Choosing whether to cover my boobs or bum with the rag (it couldn’t accommodate both), I wrapped it around me the best I could and hurried back into the change room to get my clothes. Before leaving, Maya rubbed some smelly brown powder into crown of my head “to keep me from catching a cold” and also dipped her finger into a orange and then a red paste to place a dot on my forehead. 

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I felt rejuvenated as I walked to my room but also like a confused newborn, unsure of whether or not that was a bit weird or if I was just being a prude. I decided on the latter and went back the next day for the same treatment with a changed mindset, now knowing what to expect. I realised that Maya and Shiney clearly didn't feel strange about me in exposed positions as they lathered me in oil so why should I, right? The space the therapists create in the treatment room is so safe and nurturing that there really isn’t any need to feel shy or uncomfortable.  It was just much more up-close-and-personal than the clinical massages we get in the West so the first time took me by surprise. By the third day, I was totally cool with the whole routine and really enjoyed the Abyanga. As funny as I felt on that first day, I couldn’t help but think about how awkward it is for guys with their male therapists! Perhaps they leave the diaper strings tied…?

Steph x 

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