Shirodhara - - medicinal oil dripped onto the "third eye"
I first learned about Ayurveda – India’s ancient, holistic system of medicine – at a weekend seminar sponsored by “Chicken Soup for the Soul” writer Mark Victor Hansen. The speaker was Dr. Pankaj Naram, founder of the Ayushakti Clinic in Mumbai. It was an eye-opening presentation, and I arranged to go to his Center for a five -week detoxification regimen known as Panchakarma (literally, “five acts” of cleansing).
It turned out to be a transformational experience. After the main purge, it was like being reborn: my eyes had a new, glowing brightness, my mood was elevated, and I had new-found energy. The end-results spoke for themselves: I was able to stop taking my oral medications for diabetes and cholesterol; I had lost 22 pounds and never felt better.
I also learned a great deal about, Ayurveda (literally, “life knowledge”), the principles of which date back to the Bronze Age. I observed Dr. Naram as he saw hundreds of patients a day, needing only a few seconds to diagnose their ills by using pulse-reading, an art practiced throughout the Orient, yet mastered by few. He prescribed herbal medicines that, while effective, carried none of the side-effects that we are constantly warned about in allopathic (Western) medicine.
Dr. Naram also treated patients with acute and chronic illnesses, using marma, the technology of pressure-point medicine. Pulse diagnosis and marma were techniques that spread throughout Asia along with the expansion of Buddhism, which, of course, also originated in India. In China, marma later became acupuncture.
In Mumbai, I watched Dr. Naram cure a young boy’s tonsillitis in minutes, sparing him unnecessary surgery. In the United States - one of many countries that Dr. Naram visits regularly - I watched him lower a woman’s blood pressure 50 points in half-an-hour.
Dr Smita Naram
Following my success with Panchakarma at Ayushakti, under the expert guidance of detox specialist Dr Rajeshri Mehta, I tried to maintain my regained level of good health by adhering to an Ayurvedic diet and taking some herbal medicines which I had brought back with me. I did OK for a couple of months; but the temptations of Western abundance being what they are, the diet was the first to fall victim to the lure of forbidden foods. And it was not long before I was back to being dependent on the “quick-fixes” offered by the big drug companies, to control cholesterol and blood sugar.
Two years later, I was ready for another round of Panchakarma. In spite of the excellent results at Ayushakti, the traveler in me wanted a different experience. In particular, I wanted to try an “authentic” experience in the cradle of Ayurveda, the beautiful southern state of Kerala, with its fabled port city of Cochin (now called Kochi, just as Bombay is now called Mumbai).
My research led me to a new Ayurvedic clinic, Ayurvaid, which promised “seamless integration of Ayurveda and allopathy” – the best of both worlds, so to speak. I got my wish to experience first-hand the traditions of southern Ayurveda: the insistence on taking liquid medicines instead of tablets, and the use of traditional wooden treatment tables (where medicated oils are massaged into the body), instead of contemporary massage tables. Unfortunately, the doses of liquid medicine are very bitter; and the wooden treatment tables, while beautiful, lack the comfortable padding of Ayushakti’s adoption of modern amenities.
My second encounter with Panchakarma yielded mixed results. The weight loss was more than satisfactory, and the blood-work revealed undeniable improvements in the lab test results, both for glucose and lipids. But I had been spoiled by my first experience: there was no feeling of being “born again”. Perhaps that is a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence. Certainly, the fact that Ayurvaid was a relatively new operation, with younger and less experienced physicians, played a role. I also did not help matters by exploring Cochin and spending time with the Jewish community, when I was supposed to be taking it easy (although I did watch my diet, even outside the facility).
The medicines of southern Ayurveda proved much more difficult to contend with after I was back in the U.S., than the pills of northern Ayurveda, and my slide back into pre-Panchakarma bad habits – and deteriorating health – was all too fast. I needed to find the time and save up the money for a repeat performance.
I found my inspiration in a PBS documentary about the Arya Vaidya Institute (AVP) in Coimbatore, Tamil, Nadu, just over the state border from Cochin. The producer, Washington Post journalist T.R. Reid, called AVP the “Mayo Clinic” of Ayurveda. This was because it has been chosen by both the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the World Health Organization as their center for collaboration in evaluating Ayurveda as an effective “alternative” or “complementary” system of medicine. (In other words, the West sees Ayurveda as something at least worth checking out.)
I was able to arrange for 31 days of actual treatment time (just under the ideal of 35 days), and to reserve a room in the AVP hospital for just under $10.00 per day. (That price for a private room in a top-notch hospital, with equally affordable charges for food, medicine and treatments, was impossible to resist.)
While Ayushakti and Ayurvaid care were assigned only about 10 in-patient rooms, AVP has more than 100, with accommodations ranging from entire villas, to suites, to single and double rooms and even wards. The impressive chief medical officer still had time to visit everyone during daily rounds, while my encounters with patients from all over the world did much to reinforce my confidence in Ayurveda.
In the evenings, we would gather on the veranda overlooking the gardens, to chat. There, for example, I met Krishna, a stroke victim who had checked in a month previously. This was after six months of frustrating physical therapy that had still left him shuffling his feet, with a dangling left arm that would not bend and a hand whose fist would not unclench. Now, in mere weeks, he climbs stairs lifting his feet high, the fingers of his hand splayed normally. His smiling wife cannot contain her delight. He is one of literally dozens of success stories I came to know during my stay - then, and during two subsequent return visits to AVP, over the following years.
The cumulative effect of repeated, periodic detoxes eventually manifested itself; for most of my life, I was a classic example of a “yo-yo” syndrome: I would lose significant amounts of weight, then gain it all back, and repeat the cycle. After five rounds of Panchakarma, however, my metabolism appeared to be reset: I might put on a few pounds, but never ballooned back to unacceptable levels.
Naturally, I never forgot my initial, transformative experience, and I became a believer in detoxification regimens. Here in Israel, I attended enlightening juice-fasts led by Dr. Gabriel Cousens; I wrote about my rewarding experience(s) here:
Indirectly, these fasts led to my re-acquaintance with Ayushakti. A friend I met there, Professor Liora Katzenstein, mentioned that she’d had a conference in Mumbai cancelled, and she was loath to lose her non-refundable ticket. I suggested she check out Ayushakti; while I warned her not to expect results in eight days, I thought she would enjoy the treatments, be impressed by the pulse reading, and might want to return.
Remarkably, she returned from her experience much more enthusiastic than I’d expected. She had actually undergone an accelerated Panchakarma: been placed on a modified fast for a week - only mung bean soup and liquids, received five treatments a day and felt terrific. She has already been back for a second round and is planning her third.
It was an eye-opener for me, as well, although I should hardly have been surprised. If Dr. Cousens’ juice-fasts can achieve results in a week with no Ayurvedic treatments, then why shouldn’t a “Panchakarma light” have a good effect?
I determined to find out for myself, and booked my own 10-day stay. It exceeded expectations: I never felt hungry, lost four kilos, and rediscovered the best place in India not only for Panchakarma, but also for Ayurvedic treatment of hosts of conditions and illnesses.
My return to Ayushakti blew me away, even given my history with them. On my first visit in 2004, Dr. Smita Naram (Pankaj’s wife and partner) read my pulse and diagnosed my Type II diabetes; this time, she went one better: and with just one finger on my pulse, she told me my blood sugar-level was between 7 and 8; indeed, my most recent Hemoglobin A1C score - tested in Israel,only by making a lab appointment for blood drawn from a vein - was 7.2!
Fortunately, her diagnosis was not only about illness. Out of the blue, Dr. Smita also pronounced my immune system - ojas, in Ayurvedic terminology, a key parameter of health - in excellent shape. I took this as welcome validation of my practice of chi gong and tai chi - more examples of medical wisdom from the East, whose benefits have been documented by scientific research.
In southern India, I only received one treatment per day. At Ayushakti, there were four to six: medicinal oils, administered with four-handed complete body-massage, plus similar oils being dripped on the heart, on the forehead, and on the kidneys. There were also soothing eye treatments since ophthalmology is an Ayurvedic specialty, with a proven track record in ameliorating macular degeneration, and purifying sinus treatments.
One particular treatment really brought home the before-and-after effect of the bowel purge, which is central to both Panchakarma and Dr. Cousens’ detox, (one thing that had attracted me to Gabriel Cousens in the first place was his background in Ayurveda).
Among the other ways toxins are expelled from the body is through the skin – by inducing perspiration, in a “sweatbox”. For two days, perspiration barely escaped from my pores, even after 15 minutes of steam heat; yet the day after my primary cleanse, after barely one minute in the box, rivers of sweat literally flooded out of my body.
As Dr. Mehta noted, “Your channels have been cleared”.
The icing on the cake for me this time was specialized marma treatment for a particularly pesky and sensitive matter. In Israel, I had been cautioned that I was at risk for an incipient hernia, and advised to have pre-emptive surgery. I recalled that Dr. Pankaj had spoken of marma instead of hernia surgery, and I inquired about it again.
Long story short: I had three treatments and felt immediate relief; being able to avoid surgery and a hospital stay – which made the entire trip to India worthwhile by itself.
Unfortunately, pulse diagnosis and marma are moribund medical arts, abandoned in India just about everywhere outside of Ayushakti. Even Panchakarma, widely practiced throughout the world of Ayurveda, rarely produces specialists like Dr. Mehta. An additional lasting impression of my first, life-changing experience was her judicious use of a technique that I encountered nowhere else in India, even though it is one of the oldest of the “cleansing acts”.
The Hindu god of healing, Dhanvantari is depicted holding several modes of treatment: a vessel containing elixir, and a leech for bloodletting. Dr. Mehta did not employ leeches, but she did draw blood from my arm, then walked me over to the washroom and squirted my blood out of the syringe and into the sink. There I watched in amazement as my blood separated in front of my eyes, into two components: one red, and the other a rusty brown.
“There is your indication,” Dr. Mehta told me, pointing to the contaminated blood, referring to the toxins that had been coursing through my bloodstream.
When you can see your detox as well as feel it, you know you’re healthier than you were just days earlier.
An important bonus of Ayushakti’s “express Panchakarma” is its affordability. Ayushakti is more expensive than AVP and most hospitals in the south (excluding the new breed of Ayurvedic “resorts”), are able to achieve decent results, if not the “rebirth” that can come with the full-length experience, at reduced cost, and this is a welcome development.
Not to mention that it is much easier for people to get away from their routine schedules for two weeks than five, making the benefits of at least some form of Panchakarma more accessible to all.
Learn more and experience India yourself
Much of the content of this article served as the basis of a talk I gave at the national Whole Health Forum, held in May near Jerusalem. Naturally, I was able to deliver much more information during a 45-minute presentation; and I could take the time to answer individual questions.
I would be happy to speak about Ayurveda and Panchakarma to ESRA chapters throughout Israel. These talks would go into greater detail, as well as enable me to address specific health concerns that listeners might have.
I am planning to organize a group from Israel to travel to India and experience Panchakarma. Participants would benefit from special lectures and workshops, as well as discounts on treatment and medications.
I have also arranged with Ayushakti to extend these discounts to individuals and couples who register through me. I can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.