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March 30, 2010

The Healing Power of India

Frederic Lagrange

The age-old practice of ayurveda has been reinterpreted in Western terms at spas from Miami to Mexico. But is this self-help, feel-good version really what it’s all about? Anne Marie Gardner travels to the source.

A two-and-a-half-hour car ride from Cochin International Airport in the southern Indian state of Kerala takes us past coconut and rubber plantations, rice fields, and the odd Catholic church every few miles, a legacy of the Christian missionaries who settled here in the 19th century. The driver dodges a cow, cuts off a truck piled with hay, and attempts a left turn at the middle of a frenetic town. He finally pulls up with a jolting stop in front of two giant iron gates that open into a courtyard of blossoming flower gardens and spouting water fountains. When the gates close behind us, all is suddenly quiet. No more blaring horns or zipping motorbikes. It feels as though the outside world has ceased to exist.

We’ve arrived at Kalari Kovilakom, a palace that once belonged to India’s Vengunad kings, set in the village of Kollengode. It’s a place steeped in traditions and customs where guests can witness seasonal festivals such as the weeklong Durga Puja dedicated to the goddess Durga, a fierce-eyed ten-armed symbol of feminine strength who sits atop a Bengali tiger. It’s a sight to behold from the rooftop, with the promenade of elephants decked out in gold head plates and colored silks. The royals who once lived here practiced a lifestyle based on ayurveda, and CGH Earth, a company specializing in ecothemed boutique hotels that now operates Kalari, has maintained the legacy—no shoes, no liquor, no meat. It’s the reason I have come here, to experience real ayurveda as it’s practiced in India. I’ve been writing about health, travel, spas, and beauty for 14 years. I have tried yoga, Reiki, coffee enemas, sweat lodges, and the occasional guru. I was one of the first journalists to cover Deepak Chopra’s ayurvedic healing center when it opened in La Jolla, California, in 1996 and now I’m curious, even suspicious if you will, about the recent proliferation of ayurvedic spas and treatments throughout the United States and jet-set destinations.

The word is out about ayurveda’s tremendous healing powers—or maybe it’s just the nudity involved. Whichever it is, Christina Ong’s COMO Shambhala spas now practice ayurveda in Bali, Bhutan, the Maldives, and Parrot Cay in the Caribbean. Chopra came to New York to open the Chopra Center & Spa at Vikram Chatwal’s flashy Dream hotel in Midtown and more Chopra outposts are scheduled to open this year in Colorado and Mexico. Pratima Raichur, M.D., opened an Ayurvedic Skincare Spa Clinic in SoHo a year ago. And the Mandarin Oriental in Manhattan, Miami, and Washington now offer ayurvedic rituals with marma point massage and the renowned shirodhara treatment where they drip oil on your forehead, causing you to have wild dreams and hallucinations. But Westernized interpretations of ayurveda are mostly limited to massage and beauty treatments. In some spas, like the Delano Agua in South Beach, Florida, the terms "harmony" and "ayurveda" seem to be synonymous.

In truth ayurveda is not New Age; it’s old age. Real ayurveda is surprisingly more rigorous and practical than Chopra’s self-help version. It’s also a lot less glamorous than, say, Aveda’s ayurveda-inspired beauty line. This 4,000-year-old medical science from India is rational in its fundamentals: Emotions and nature affect your health. But the heart and soul of ayurveda is about renewing the connection to what is organic within us. Ultimately it’s the idea that you can—every day of your life—feel the balance and well-being that you do after spending two weeks on vacation, for example. And if you submit yourself to the classic two- to three-week cleansing treatment known as panchakarma and survive the caffeine withdrawal, the 6 a.m. yoga routines, herbal medicine drinks, enemas, sweating, and chanting, the resulting high from finally balancing your body and mind will convince you that this may be, after all, a feel-good science.

Indeed, in India it’s considered medicine. People here go to ayurvedic hospitals instead of conventional medical facilities, and Kerala has long been well-known for ayurveda. Five of the top ayurvedic clinics in the country are here, which is why in the past year the yoga jet set seeking out a true ayurvedic experience has been flocking to the state. Yet, even at the source of its inception, the science is available in a multitude of forms, making it difficult to know where to go.

For Westerners the standard places are too spartan and not hygienic enough (some reuse the massage oils). You could try one of the boutique hotels—such as the Malabar House in Fort Cochin, which offers treatments with therapists from one of the oldest schools of ayurveda—but you will find yourself surrounded by all the temptations you’re supposed to avoid when undergoing serious detox: wine, meat, shopping, swimming. Similarly, resorts like the Taj Malabar hotel in Kochi and the Taj Green Cove Resort in Kovalam have ayurvedic doctors on staff. But following a treatment, you can too easily spend the rest of the day at the beach then head out on a sunset booze cruise. As Taj Malabar’s general manager Arindam Kunar puts it, "We are not an ayurvedic hotel but one that has ayurvedic facilities. And that might be what most people want."

Keeping all this in mind, I chose to check in to Kalari Kovilakom. It’s the only resort that offers a strict and rigorous regime in luxurious accommodations. Most importantly it offers ayurveda without distractions. Every element of this palace is devoted to your well-being—the chef, the doctors, the therapists, the activities. You are distanced from the outside world. You can’t even wear your own clothes; Kalari’s tailors make your uniforms for the week. When you commit yourself to either of the required 14- or 21-day programs at a cost of $5,400 to $7,400, you are doing it for your health—being here is not quite a holiday.

More than 500 guests have completed Kalari Kovilakom’s rigorous ayurveda course since its opening in December 2004. The palace can accommodate a maximum of 36 people in its 18 suites and, according to general manager Joseph Jospeh, "only here can you experience the purity of traditional ayurveda without compromise"—and in a luxury setting.

Inside the cool, dark marble lobby, Kalari Kovilakom is hushed like a convent. The first step inside is symbolic: You leave your shoes—and former self—at the door and step through a giant teak doorway into the palace. The staff then whisks you into activity. Lekha greets you wearing a red bindi and a white cotton sari with gold embroidery. She walks you through the skylit hallway with gleaming red oxide floors and ornate carvings, past pictures of Queen Valiya Thampuratti of Kollengode, who built the palace around 1890. On the landing is a statue of her that portrays the matriarch as quite a character—sitting with her legs apart and wearing a terrifying expression. In her day it was customary for women to inherit the wealth, and the queen ruled supreme. She banned all men from the palace, including her husband and son.

The hallway smells of incense, sweet flowers, and spices. Every inch is spotless, all the way up the stairs to the heavy carved wooden doorway of my room. Lekha hands me a flowing linen caftanlike top with matching drawstring trousers, waits for me to change, then leads me outside for lunch under a covered terrace that overlooks the lawn. This is where I meet the other guests. I expect an intimidating crowd and am relieved to find only four others: Pierre, a finance exec from Paris; Ildiko, who works in fashion in Germany; Regine, a wife and mother who lives in the English countryside; and Beate, a German businesswoman based in Shanghai. Everyone is in their mid-thirties to late-forties, all attractive and successful. Each is at a different stage of the panchakarma program and today they are polite but preoccupied, discussing how many shampoos it takes to get the oil out of their hair. Lunch is served in small brass bowls on a brass tray. Every meal after this will be based on the doctor’s prescription, but for now I get to eat a harmless menu of organic red rice, curry, and vegetables.

Soon after, the catering assistant, Sreejith, introduces himself and takes me to meet the doctor for my two-hour consultation. He speaks slowly and walks even slower. "This is the place to make a pilgrimage to yourself," he says. Doctor Jouhar waits in his white robes to greet me in the white open-air building with ten treatment rooms and two consultation rooms. The breeze blows through his windows, lifting the curtains. Outside the palm trees rustle and bend in the wind.

I’m already dreading my time here: a week without exercise, coffee or sugar replaced with enemas, meditation, and chanting. As soon as I meet Jouhar I ask him, "Do I have to chant? Can I skip the enemas? Please don’t make me drink clarified butter." He just bobbles his head and smiles, "We’ll see, Ma’am. I haven’t determined your treatment yet."

Jouhar is about my height (five feet, six inches), has dark hair, and wears a bushy but neatly groomed mustache like most men in Kerala. He is soft-spoken and serious, with very white teeth and sympathetic brown eyes. "In order to do the real panchakarma treatment," he tells me, "you need a minimum of fourteen days." Since I’m staying for less than that (an exception made for the purposes of writing this story on deadline), he proposes a rejuvenation treatment—a blessing since it means I don’t have to drink the clarified butter, called ghee, or have the enemas. The bad news is, I miss out on the real life-changing body overhaul.

The panchakarma treatment I’m missing takes seven days just to begin to prepare your body. The process is called purvakarma and starts with daily treatments of oleation: drinking medicated oil and ghee and having oil massages to help move the toxins toward the gastrointestinal tract. Next comes sweating: one to seven days of sitting in an old-fashioned medicated steam bath or hot oil bath until you’ve sweated out water and further loosened the toxins. This is followed by shirodhara, a steady stream of oil poured over the forehead for about 20 minutes to calm the mind. "The root of disease is an imbalance of body energies," Jouhar explains. "The key to health is to balance the energies with the treatments, medicinal herbs, food, and yoga. The fat-soluble toxins are the ones that have settled deep within your tissues. They’re nearly impossible to eliminate except through panchakarma. The medicated ghee goes deep into the intercellular spaces to dissolve fat-soluble toxins and improve circulation. The toxins come out through the skin and the GI tract."

The science of ayurveda is based on the theory that our bodies are a balance of three elements, or doshas: vata (air), pitta (fire), and kapha (water). When your doshas are out of balance, you become ill. Each of us is a combination of one or two doshas, and how we look and behave is determined by them. So if you are a pitta, you are most likely athletic, fast-moving, and fiery. When pittas are out of balance, they often have ulcers. Vatas are enthusiastic and creative but become highly anxious when out of balance. Kaphas tend to be more lethargic and heavy when im- balanced. Once you’ve completed the steps of purvakarma, you are ready to proceed with panchakarma, which involves, among other things, vomiting, purgation, and enemas. If your vata is out of balance, you get the enemas. Pittas have purgation, which is not exactly a laxative, but it eliminates toxins through the intestines. Kaphas vomit the toxins out. "People say it’s easy, even the vomiting," Jouhar says, "because your body is so well prepared."

During my initial examination with Jouhar, he determines my dosha is vata/pitta. He then asks a series of personal questions, everything from my parents’ health to my sexual activity to the climate I like. His expression never changes; he is unfazed by any of the answers. I get the feeling he has seen and heard it all. He takes my blood pressure, checks my pulse, tongue, and eyes, examines my nails and bones. He watches me walk back to the palace and then sends my diagnosis to the chef and the yoga instructors who determine the diet and exercise plan that will complement my treatment.

Days are structured, beginning with a wake-up call at 5:30 a.m., an hour of yoga, breakfast at eight o’clock, a consultation with the doctor before a two-hour treatment at nine, lunch at 12:30, meditation at two, another meeting with the doctor, another treatment at three (this time for an hour and a half), dinner at seven, chanting or evening meditation at 7:30, then bedtime. The first three days are physically uncomfortable. You’re hungry, have a splitting headache, and find it nearly impossible to stay awake between treatments. You can measure your progress by seeing how late you can stay up past 8:30 p.m.

"Being naked and oiled up the first day was a nightmare!" says Pierre, the Parisian financier. Soon, though, the ritual becomes rote: Take off straw sandals before entering treatment room. Strip. Sit on a wooden stool. Therapist prays, anoints your forehead with sandalwood paste, brushes you from head to toe with a purple cotton towel, applies oil to your head and massages it for about five minutes. Then you climb onto a table made of neem for its medicinal properties. (A large tree related to mahogany, neem has leaves and seeds that contain insecticidal and antiseptic properties. Its leaves yield a pungent oil used to treat everything from skin irritations to malarial fever.) Two therapists massage in synchronized motion with hot medicated oils mixed especially for your imbalance. After an hour of vigorous massage, they wrap you in linen and you lie covered in the oils until the treatment takes effect. Thirty minutes later the therapist returns, leads you to the shower, washes you in lentil paste, dries you with a towel. Then back on the wooden stool, where the therapist applies another dot of sandalwood paste to the middle of your forehead, prays, and sends you off. You wander in a haze to see the doctor, who forces you to drink a foul-tasting herbal preparation, padhyashadangam kashayam. Repeat twice a day for entire stay.

My own ayurvedic mission, as it turns out, is to realign my vata. To that end, I’ve been prescribed therapeutic massages (uzhichil) as well as rejuvenation massages (dhathupushti uzhichil) that improve circulation and alleviate tiredness. A sirovasthy treatment that involves wrapping my head in a piece of rubber and pouring hot oil over it relieves my headache momentarily. Later in the week I have a pathrapotala swedam massage where they stuff leaves into linen pouches, dip them in either hot milk or medicated rice gruel, then use them to rhythmically massage away toxins.

Some days the massages feel wonderful, but on others they are hard work. When you are so physically uncomfortable during the first few days of detox, the repetition of the massage is mildly irritating and the smell of the medicinal herbs nauseating. But toward the end of the week, everything feels better, more relaxing. Each meal is another ritual. Sreejith, the food and diet service manager, pours warm water over your hands, serves you lukewarm herbal water, herbal tea, and soup. He offers seconds but no dessert. Each person has a different menu depending on which dosha is out of balance. Chef Naraynan Nair regards food as medicine and keeps a pure, ayurvedic kitchen to that end. He cooks only vegetarian food with few oils (no butter) and very little salt, using brass, clay, or iron over open flames. My diet chart includes organic rice, spinach, beans, ginger, garlic, beetroot, sprouts, carrots, pumpkin, lemon, and buttermilk with a curry leaf, which tastes too sour to drink. Regine, the wife and mother from England, says she never ate the same meal twice during her two-week stay. The portions are designed to satisfy only 75 percent of your hunger. According to Jouhar, being slightly hungry keeps your pitta burning so you get rid of more calories and become less lethargic. Eating like this for a week or more may also shrink your appetite for good.

As the week progresses, the yoga and meditation take on a larger role in everyone’s transformation. Renu and Dowralal, the beatific yoga instructors, teach Bihari hatha yoga. "Now that the body is starting to purify," Dowralal says, "the mind can focus on learning stillness. Yoga is therapy to support the treatment, not exerting the body but concentrating on the breath. We are educating your mind to concentrate." Renu believes she cured herself of cancer eight years ago through yoga, chanting, and meditation. All I know is that I have never breathed more in my whole life.

The other guests and I soon discover that we are getting up at 3 a.m. and 4 a.m., wide awake. I burn with a million ideas and write list after list, mentally redecorating every room in my house and organizing the to-dos in my life. A feeling of camaraderie grows among us. We talk about all the things we ate in our "old lives" that would make us sick now. "Imagine drinking coffee or orange juice," someone says. There’s a collective groan. Pierre puts everyone over the edge when he mentions bangers and mash.

This camaraderie turns out to be what I like most about Kalari. For a place devoted to healing and well-being, the people who come here seem normal. Unlike my first visit to the Chopra Center, no one is a new age hippie trying to find himself or herself. We aren’t forced into group hugs or to share or emote. No one gets too personal. So why did we all come? Beate, the German businesswoman, says she came for a rest. "I ran like crazy and haven’t had a break in two years. I wanted to be taken care of in a holistic way and thought this place could do that." Regine says, "I figured this would be like rebooting the computer." Pierre came for the rest and got it.

The time goes by surprisingly fast. On our final night after evening meditation, we talk about why ayurveda is so powerful. "It’s about surrendering," Regine says. "You have to be open and try everything. It’s wonderful to not have to choose what to wear or do or eat. All the choices you have to make every day are made for you." Ildiko, the fashion insider, adds, "It’s based on trust. You trust the doctors. You trust the process."

The hardest part now is putting our new selves back into the real world. As Pierre said when he returned to Paris, "Retox is hell! The adjustment period has been really, really painful and it’s not over yet. People in Paris are crazy! Apparently, I sort of forgot."

Beate has already booked her trip back. "Returning after three weeks of Kalari was really difficult," Ildiko says. I still do my yoga and am still losing weight, but I have to find a way to eat the right food and continue to live the lifestyle outside of India."

Regine and I are both trying to do yoga, but our meditation went right out the door. She did e-mail me to say, "One thing is certain. It works. I have actually never felt better in my life."

After seven days at Kalari, my blood pressure dropped from 120/80 to 120/70. My weight dropped from 120 pounds to 116 and continued to drop for two weeks after I left. Back in New York four weeks later, my appetite has shrunk. Coffee and meat have lost their appeal, though I’m slowly getting back to sugar. I have thoroughly cleaned my closets, my basement, and every cupboard in my house. But the ultimate proof that ayurveda works is in the way I feel: clear and purposeful.

Blissed Out in Kerala

If you want to holiday in Kerala and try authentic ayurveda in a less intensive environment than Kalari Kovilakom, the resorts below can offer satisfying alternatives.

1. The Malabar House in Fort Cochin and Malabar Escapes This colonial plantation house in Fort Cochin, a bustling seaport town, is a boutique hotel designed and run by German owner Joerg Drechsel. Near Cinnamon—a high-end clothing boutique featuring Indian designers on Ridsdale Road—and Idiom books on Bastion Street, and just a few minutes’ walk from the Chinese fishnets at the fish market, Malabar House offers treatments with therapists schooled at one of the oldest institutions for ayurveda. The hotel is stylish and fun—a sitar plays in the courtyard while guests eat dinner around the pool; most rooms have their own meditation area. For experiences outside the town, Malabar House offers escapes at its properties a few hours’ drive away. Its Serenity at Kanam estate is perfect for those looking to slow down. Go on a cycling tour, take a yoga class, receive a treatment, or just spend the day hanging out with its famous elephant called Laxmi, whose namesake is the goddess of wealth. For a private lakefront bungalow with in-room yoga instruction and ayurvedic treatments, visit Malabar House’s Privacy at Sanctuary Bay. From $230; malabarhouse.com

2. Taj Malabar Hotel in Kochi and Taj Green Cove in Kovalam The Taj Malabar in Kochi (from $345) and Taj Green Cove (from $375) on the beach in Kovalam have ayurvedic doctors on staff at their Jiva spas. The treatment beds are made from the medicinal neem tree, and the spas have bespoke ayurvedic treatments and yoga programs along with customized diet plans. tajhotels.com

3. CGH Earth Hotels Founded in 1957 as Casino Group of Hotels by Dominic Joseph, a rubber planter from central Kerala, the company became CGH Earth in 2003. Known for its ecosensitive approach and immersion in the local community, CGH Earth is now managed by Joseph’s six sons and has seven luxury properties in southern India. For ayurveda, Kalari Kovilakom in Kollengode is the most intense (91-492/326-3155; kalarikovilakom.com). Then there’s Marari Beach (from $235) on the Arabian Sea. Marari Beach, which is made up of palm-thatched villas that look like fishing huts, is popular with those who want authentic ayurveda combined with nature and fresh seafood. Spice Village (from $260), located adjacent to the Periyar National Park on the western ghats, is more rustic. It has no air-conditioning but offers a totally different landscape of lush rainforests and crisp cool highlands, with the same genuine ayurveda as the other hotels (cghearth.com).

Ampersand Travel in London specializes in the Indian subcontinent, tailoring customized trips to Tibet, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and the Maldives. The staff of consultants is extremely knowledgeable about the range of ayurvedic offerings in Kerala and was the outfitter for this story. Contact Philippa Kaye at 44-207/723-4336; ampersandtravel.com.

Closer to Home

1. Christina Ong’s Shambhala Sanctuaries at her COMO resorts focus on providing a holistic experience. A substantial selection of traditional ayurvedic treatments, among them abhyanga, pizichili, and shirodhara are available at COMO Shambhala spa on Parrot Cay, COMO Shambhala Estate at Begawan Giri (Bali), Uma Ubud (Bali), Uma Paro (Bhutan), and Cocoa Island (Maldives). comoshambhala.bz

2. Chopra Center & Spa at the flashy Dream hotel in Midtown Manhattan is an ayurvedic candy store—you’ll find daily yoga, meditation, facials, and 70-minute transporting massages (such as one called the Odyssey, which is a sampling of five signature therapies). 1710 Broadway; 888-424-6772; chopracenterny.com

3. Pratima Ayurvedic Skincare Spa Clinic in New York’s SoHo promises a luxury ayurveda experience. Pratima Raichur, M.D., also sells her organic Pratima skin-care line that includes essential oils. 110 Green St., Ste. 701; 212-581-8136; pratimaskincare.com

4. The Spa at Mandarin Oriental offers fabulous two-hour ayurvedic treatments such as a scalp massage, shirodhara, and marma point rubdowns. Six-hour ayurvedic packages are available at Mandarin Oriental New York, Miami, and Washington, D.C., and start at $780. mandarinoriental.com

What to Know Before You Go

The best time for ayurveda is monsoon season, June through August. it’s when herbs are new and the air is damp, making your pores more receptive to oils and tonics. Many Westerners, however, opt for the dry season that begins in September. January to March is known as the "cool" season, when temperatures dip to 80 degrees.

When booking your flight it helps to be aware of city name changes: Bombay is now Mumbai, Cochin is Kochi, and Bangalore may soon be Bangaluru. Emirates Airlines flies to Kochi via Dubai three times daily from New York’s JFK Airport (emirates.com). Or, to minimize the security hassles of international connections, try Delta’s recently introduced nonstop flight to Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji (also renamed) International Airport (delta.com). From there, switch to the efficient Jet Airways. Jet flies twice daily to Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu, 50 miles northeast of Kalari Kovilakom, and three times daily to Kochi (jetairways.com).

Kalari Kovilakom is tucked into the foothills of the western Ghats in Kollengode, a town in the rural Palakkad district northeast of Kochi. Pack light since you won’t need your own wardrobe at the palace. Bring mosquito repellent if you visit during the rainy and post-monsoon seasons. Ampersand Travel’s Philippa Kaye recommends Jungle Formula (jungleformula.co.uk). "It is lethal enough to repel most things," she says. A 14-day panchakarma program starts at $5,400; 21 days begins at $7,400 (91-492/326-3155; kalarikovilakom.com).