Tuesday, January 31, 2012

subtle shift

going into panchakarma i don’t really have a specific disease in the likes of diabetes, multiple sclerosis, not even high blood pressure or cholesterol. i’m not on any medication. so it’s more subtle for me to gauge the benefits. not like hwubby. after a couple of weeks into the course of treatments designed for him he’s already off all meds. but, back to me. i notice something is shifting within. i recognize some deeply lodged tendencies are loosened. being judgmental to myself and others. taking what others says or do personal. like this or that. doesn’t like this or that. and so on and so forth. i still see thoughts and emotions roaring. but it’s much easier to just watch instead of reacting to them. it just doesn’t make sense to be tossed around by anger, resentment and their extended family.  as dr ramkumar says, love is the only natural emotion, all other emotions are unnatural. simple and right on the money.

Friday, January 27, 2012

ramkumar rice pudding

what’s going on here? me and a bunch of ladies, not shown here in pic, are working our charm on dr harikrishnan. a kind and wise man who doesn’t beat around the bush. in his own words, he says, what do you want from me? i’ll get to that in a sec. the lead up to all this is this. i really want to eat the way i eat here when i go home, at least for two to three months so that we can really make space for the panchakarma benefits to blossom. my wish is granted. kavita, the mastermind and supervisor in this arena around here, in response to our request, sets up cooking classes.

at my special pleading, here in this class, she is making congee. at first a couple of ladies roll eyeballs and say, all in good lightheartedness, suk wah, what are you thinking, it’s just rice cooked in water, what’s there to that. well, turns out there’s more to that. to begin with, this is organic broken red rice. secondly kavita ladles the washed rice into boiling water. i forgot to ask her what’s the difference between doing this way and bringing rice and water to boil together. and then she lets the mixture cook uncovered, boiling rigorously. she stirs frequently, adds liquid periodically. brings to mind cooking risotto. cannot leave risotto unattended on stovetop. in twenty minutes, voila, just like risotto, a textured congee is ready. sort of like extremely soft rice and feels to the stomach full and light all at once.

then kavita says, at this stage you can add milk. boom. epiphany. i say, this is kheer? kavita says, yes, yes, you can add jaggery, nuts, raisins. i say, to finish her thought, cardamom. kavita beams, her moon face shines and she says, yes, yes. but, being so loyal to the vaidyagrama vision, she quickly says, you have to get doctor’s permission. it is at that moment that dr harikrishnan arrives on the scene. i seize the moment and say, you know how much we love you dr harikrishnan. not missing a beat he smiles and says, what do you want from me? we all laugh. then streams of sweet words flow at him from all four corners. o please, please, dr harikrishnan. finally he says, okay, one spoon. i can hear the reluctance and resistance in his voice. this dr harikrishnan. he has only one thing on his mind. the welfare of patients. he is kind, gentle, sensitive, soft spoken. when he says no it carries authority and gravitas. i would put my life in his hand in a heartbeat although it means saying bye bye to snacks and treats and even decaf.

anyway, a spoon of rice pudding is done deal, right? not so fast. a couple of hours later i am hopping to the hall for the evening program and so looking forward to the spoon of rice pudding in the group supper to come. you see, the milk comes from karuna's mom. who's she? here, meet my new friend, karuna's mom who supplies the milk for our treatments and treaties. she's like me when she is eating. very focused. no interest in anything else. that cutesie next to her is karuna. my point is the milk couldn't be fresher and lighter. it never ceases to amaze me how she eats grass and shoots out this super-nutritious and super-duper-yummy nectar.

i somewhat digress. anyhow i see dr harikrishnan and dr ramkumar sitting in the short passageway leading to the hall. after a sweet and happy exchange i thank dr harikrishnan for his mercy on us. dr ramkumar, in his signature sunshine grin, says, you see the doctors work in consensus here, one doctor says okay can be overturned. uc-oh, i say, you can't do that, dr harikrishnan is a man of honor. that dr ramkumar just won’t budge. he’s as charming as ever. he just won’t budge. he says, there'll be rice pudding, it’s going to be a modified version. all right, something is better than nothing. after all their eyes are all on keeping the stomach work as little as possible during panchakarma.

turns out this rice pudding is a highly modified version. sure, it’s more than one spoon. a small bowl of it. but i don’t taste any jaggery at all. an assistant doctor goes around with a pot of jaggery. when he comes round to me, i say, one tiny spoon, please? he says, no. only guests who are not in treatments can put jaggery into their ‘fake’ rice pudding. no no no,  i have a better name for this. the ramkumar rice pudding.

earlier in the evening program, dr ramkumar says to the effect, they have to choose between being a good host or good doctor. guess what these guys have chosen.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

my eyes drink ghee

 literally. here’s how it goes down. breena says, they’re going to give me eye treatment. i say, what about your eyes? by the way, breena and i are guru gita buddies here in vaidyagrama. one morning after prayer i am walking my way back to my room and what do i hear? some woman chanting guru gita. this is a 182-verse ancient hymn that is all about the nature of guru, how to attain the guru, what the benefits are and all that great stuff. for me chanting guru gita is taking a bath in holy waters. i love it. so you can imagine how ecstatic i am to find out that breena and i have the same guru and, yes o yes, she loves to chant guru gita as well. dr ramdas says, i want to learn guru gita. since then we have been doing it in some evening prayers. 
i am going off on the tangent. where am i? o yes, eyes drinking ghee. during one of those after food one-hundred-step walks with breena she mentions she has an eye condition and they are going to give her eye treatment. as she is talking it comes to me that maybe my eye fatigue can benefit from it too, especially since my right eye is so much more short-sighted than the left, so the left must have been in overdrive for a long period of time.
so there i am lying in the shades. a little wall of dough around each eye. dr ramdas carefully pours warm ghee into the ‘hole.’ i feel this luxurious warmth like a comforter draping deep into one eye, and then the other. now, keep in mind that he did say right from the get go, there’ll be some burning sensation. back to me lying there with warm ghee over my closed yes. i hear dr say, slowly blink. welcome to the real work, suk wah.
i’ve had the treatment thrice. the first time i could hardly open to anywhere more than a tiny slit and that’s with hwubby sitting by me and holding my hand and coaching me to take deep breaths. as i reflect on it i see two things. first. fear. but then there is also a practical aspect. the light is still too bright for the eyes. i pray that i won’t be gripped by fear. i’m determined to go through what i have come here for. healing. healing in the body and mind. what about spirit? spirit is pure and full, always. it’s the mind that gets ill-at-ease. of course there is also the physical karma component, the consequences of bad actions i did in past lives. 
anyway on the second day we do it in a darker room and i bring along sunglasses and a pair of black pants neatly folded. dr ramdas puts the sunglasses over my eyes. hwubby holds it above them. i exhale deeply and open eyelids. what do i see? a sea of shining, golden molten ghee with shards of blinding lights. it is rocky for a little while. the burning sensation when the eyes are open throw my breathing rhythm off. i say to myself, i am not giving up, i am sticking with this. then clear guidance comes to me, open when inhale long. i follow it like grabbing a lifeline. it works beautifully.
how about the third day? even easier. how do i feel? the eyes are calmer. in fact i am done with the fear. actually it’s more like i watch it subside and dissipate. i hear the eyes saying, we love this food, we need this food. 
i ask dr ramdas, how come both eyes get the same medicated ghee? he says, they know how much nourishment to take, which gets more, which gets less. indeed, the body is supremely intelligent. all it asks is for me to pay a little attention. if i don’t listen to its gentle promptings it’s gonna step up the volume, and that’s the road down diseases.

Friday, January 13, 2012

golden congee

we talk a lot about food an eating in vaidyagrama. to kick it off, a visiting swami says, with a sunshine grin on his round moon face, in his impeccable indian accent, this is a five star ashram and the food is colorless, odorless and tasteless. he bursts into a hearty laughter. it’s contagious.

all kidding aside, as dr harikrishnan says calmly and clearly, they work hard to make neutral food here, they purposely don’t cook for the tongue. so when you eat you are truly only eating for the stomach. but let me be clear. the menus are thoughtfully designed. they are carbo-centered because protein makes your liver work a lot more than carbs and during treatments they want your liver to work as little as possible. ingredients are fresh and naturally grown. cooking is simple. no chilies, garlic, fermented or fried food. salt is used sparingly and only rock salt. no refined sugar. our herbal drinks are sweetened with jaggery, pure solidified cane juice.

a lot of the indian food i’ve been eating are out the window. how about mango lassi? no. why? yoghurt is fermented. milk and fruit are absolutely a no-no combo in ayurveda. together in your stomach they produce toxins. such toxins, according to ayurveda, are the root of all diseases. by the way toxins are also produced when your digestion is not strong and food is not metabolized properly.

on a side note ayurveda don’t treat food allergies individually. they believe if the person has strong digestive fire and good eating habits there’s no such thing as something you can’t eat in moderate amounts judiciously. that’s what dr harikrishnan says when i tell him i am wheat sensitive. that was a month ago. two nights ago supper was chapatis and beet chutney. i didn’t feel like sending them back. hwubby says, when don’t you try it. so i do. sure i am paying more attention about chewing well. but the fact remains i don’t get headache and feel heavy after chapatis.

having said that i have to say my top fave staple food is congee. so i’ve been trying to convince dr harikrishnan to let me have congee as the grain during the rest of my stay. he thinks deeply and turns to unni, the assistant doctor, put a little ghee in her congee for breakfast and lunch, not supper. then he says to me, you need to gain some strength, you can gain a little weight and you don’t want to. really. he is so perceptive.

anyhow, there you have it. my breakfast. golden congee of red rice with a little ghee. whole mung. papadam. i can tell my stomach loves it. i feel wonderful. none of those heavy and dull feeling i always have after food.

Monday, January 9, 2012

congee party

here in vaidyagrama they go for the real deal. only authentic ayurveda. what does that mean? dr ramkukar gets this question a lot. he says, we go by the classical, ancient ayurveda text, we act according to the text, we perform treatments as described in the text. but then this compassionate doctor also has another guiding principle. something is better than nothing. 
case in point. the text says the food during pancharma is kanji and boiled veg, twice a day, at ten thirty and five thirty. kudos to him he tirelessly finds innovative and lighthearted ways to get this across in our awareness. but he never says, you have to do this. rather, he understands that people, particularly those from the west, like, or more accurately, need a dinner party every now and then. so he would organize these communal supper after evening prayer. yes, we never skip evening prayer here. always promptly at six fifteen. anyway the cooking staff would bring in cookers, pots and pans and so on. he would beam with a mischievous twinkle and says, wine will be served after food. sure enough we would be served our cocktails, i mean our medicines. and we are ecstatic.

a couple of days ago there was one such supper for the occasion of russian orthodox christmas. a congee party. i’m not kidding. he has a pot of red rice congee, a pot of veg and a sprinkle bar set up on a marble bench. he plants his beaming face at the marble bench and serves a little bit of three powder mixes on each tray. coriander. curry. mint. and then he throws in his booming laughter and says, put a little of each in congee, tell me which one you like. i have to say. i love them all. i down two bowls. i look around. everybody is happy eating kanji. who knew. 

i offer salutations to these beautiful souls.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

bowel talk

let me get this straight off the bet. bowel talk is big here. in fact, when dr harikrishnan comes at seven thirty in the morning, he asks four questions before he examines tongue and reads pulse. how’s sleep? bowel today? how’s appetite? urine normal? by the way chinese medicine is like that as well. when do you poop? what’s the poop like? consistency, color, odor? there’s a sheet that we have to fill in everyday that is titled ‘recording of bowel movement details.’ bowel talk is serious business here. not an evening program goes by without a mentioning from dr ramkumar or a question from someone going through panchakarma about bowel in one way or another. i’m not kidding. like i ask, is egg ayurveda correct? ramkumar says, among other things, egg increases constipation. one person asks, what if we make an omelette, or scramble egg? dr chuckles and says, doesn’t matter how you cook it, it’s still egg. the poor guy has been on seven days of drinking ghee, meaning seven meals of rice porridge. i can’t blame him for having thoughts of an omelette.
i don’t give it any thought to take psyllium everyday. but dr ramkumar says, in an evening program, from ayurveda’s point of view, if your body is strong, digestive fire is strong, you ought to be able to get out of bed in the morning and have bowel without using any external stimulant. in fact this is one of the fifteen major health indicators. i can say this much. if i don’t poop early in the day my meditation takes on a different quality and i  feel kind of off and stuffed and heavy and dull by the afternoon. on this note ramkumar tells a poignant true story. he is speaking to this person, a go-getter, a big busy guy apparently. the person believes he is healthy. ramkumar asks, at night can you go to bed and fall asleep quickly. the man says, no, that's the one thing i cannot do. then ramkumar asks, in the morning can you get up and get out of bed right away, feeling rested? the man says, no, i am not awake until i have coffee. ramkumar asks the third question, can you have bowel in the morning not taking anything else, not even water? the man says, i don't want to hear any more from you.
psyllium has its rightful place in the universe but if i can’t poop without taking it on a daily basis, it’s dependency, it’s attachment. we chinese say, you can’t just treat the headache or footache. in the same way, ayurveda doesn’t treat constipation. it treats the person with this condition of constipation. when i tell dr harikrishnan i have been having bowel by seven thirty, before he comes, for four days, a big smile flashes across his otherwise usually serious expression. indeed i have been feeling lighter, clearer. i feel free.

Friday, January 6, 2012

food not made for taste

the ideal diet protocol during panchakarma is...drum roll please...two times a day, a bowl of rice porridge and a small bowl of veg. when i first heard this i had started ghee drinking. i had one meal a day. rice porridge and veg. i noticed something remarkable. i love the porridge. i love the cabbage, opo, green bean or bitter squash, whatever veg being grown here. simply cooked. little spice. no chili. bits of coconut. that’s it. sure they use different varieties of rice for the congee. ancient varieties that are used in the countryside. still when i think about it, it’s rice cooked in a lot of water. couldn’t be simpler. yet i surprise myself. i savor every spoonful and morsel of them. there’s this natural,  subtle sweetness in veg that i didn’t notice before. and how about that nectarean after-taste floating on the palette from the bitter squash. so calming. so satisfying. i don’t feel i need any other food. i feel light and centered. just by focusing on appreciating this food it’s so effortless to be in a witnessing state. stunning. i truly have the experience what food is medicine is about. 
it surprises me that i have not experienced any craving since arriving here three and a half weeks ago.  for a start, there’s no chai here. on that note i have discovered that the common way to have tea in india, at least the places where i have been, they just dip a tea bag into hot water. back to vaidyagrama. they don’t serve tea or coffee, not even decaf. yes we do have tea twice a day, late morning and mid afternoon, but, to be accurate, they are herbal drinks. dry ginger, coriander, cardamom, tulsi leaves, sweetened by jaggery. some deep alchemy must be happening because hwubby has not experienced any gripping wanting for latte, espresso, and so on. having said that there is a running joke here that there is a secret latte stand in the bush behind the internet corner. 
so, are we actually getting the ideal panchakarma food the entire time we are here? well, the doctors are compassionate and tolerant. they understand that just getting our bodies here is already a big deal. the treatments are very intense. for a while i have to remind the mind that i might not be actively doing things like reading, writing the treatments themselves are very exhausting. this is like gutting out the plumbing and sewage in a fixer upper. as a matter of fact, dr ramkumar has a fabulous metaphor. it’s like a house that has been in need of repair and in neglect over long period of time. so before you can start doing any cleaning and repair, you need to move out of it. you can’t keep living in it and go about your life while all that gutting is going on. in fact a good contractor will say, until you are out of the house i can’t do a thing. and how about this? you think your house just needs cosmetic repair. but then when the contractor starts opening up walls and pipes he finds yucky, rotting stuff that you were not aware of. we planned a sixty grand fix up on our house. it ended up a hundred.
i digress. 
where am i? yes, regular food. unless we are in major treatments like ghee drinking, herbal enemas, purgation and the like we have three meals a day, a whole variety of food and in the words of the doctors, we can eat as much as we want. how so? because the food here is simple and pure. if we want for it’s the stomach saying, i need it. not the tongue.
for me they are delicious. couldn’t be more organic and local and seasonal than this. still it’s not what i would call strong, vibrant, bold, sizzling flavors. definitely not gourmet. they are not made for the taste. the core principle is to have the liver work as little as possible, to go easy on the digestive tract. so here ‘s another funny thing. hwubby is thrilled to hear that he can ask for more. he asks dr harikrishnan, can i have another papadam? dr says, no, that’s the only thing made for the taste. yes, there’s a time for tolerance and there’s a time to draw the line in the sand. and here’s a really funny thing. i don’t even have the desire for another papadam.
i can see the work cut out for me when i go back. a major makeover in cooking and eating habits. i don’t think i will stop cold turnkey all that yummy food out there. i can see a phenomenal transformation looming. it’s gonna be fun.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

i am a latkes, ayurveda way

when i realize we’ll be traveling during chanukah, the eight day jewish celebration of light and rededication, i think, o no, i’ll miss latkes and lighting the candles. well, that’s what i think. 
so, here’s a shout out to joseph, a thoughtful young man. when he hears hwubby and i are going to be in india during chanukah he immediately asks, in his pure, kind voice, are you going to light the menorah? hwubby pauses and says, uuuh, i don’t know how we can take the menorah. keep in mind that every jewish home keeps at least one menorah and most of them are not small or travel-friendly. i can guarantee that. anyway, back to joseph. he is quick. not missing a beat he says, you can get a travel menorah. gee, we didn’t think of that. and that’s what hwubby got. a mini menorah that comes with 44 mini candles. 

it so happens hwubby and i are on different panchakarma schedules. for instance, i drink ghee for three days and he for seven. why drink ghee? to dislodge and float toxins. physical toxins, say, from eating incompatible foods. emotional toxins, say, from holding on to resentment, guilt, worrying, you get the drill. it can be a long menu. then it’s onto the next step, to draw them into the intestines. then what? what else but out. and that’s really the core meaning of panchakarma, cleansing actions.

anyhow, back to chanukah in the ayurveda healing village. for the first few nights we light the candles in our room because by the time we both finish our treatments it’s past sundown and we are advised to stay indoors. but we really want to light the candles in the hall with everybody during the daily program. finally our unwavering wish bears fruit. on the fourth day of chanukah we both are bathed and refreshed before the program begins at sundown. we ask dr ramkumar if we could share the ritual with everybody. he is overjoyed. he says, that’s exactly what he wants this place to be, a place where people of all spiritual traditions can freely worship. this cool guy truly takes the meaning of healing village to the sublime level.
i look around me after the candles are lit. what do i see? one big family of shining faces. we all have the same smile, same devotion, same light. indeed we are all of the same light source.

as it turns out, during this period i have this treatment, for seven days, where they pour very warm oils all over me. lots of oil. pots of oil. i feel like a bright and beautiful latkes. in the words of our dear friend carmen, you have all the oils to make enough latkes for the whole world. really, i haven’t missed anything. rather, i have gained so much by realizing that there is this fascinating connectedness permeating everything. i can see it in everyone, everywhere when i keep the mind clear and open.