Nov 16 2010

Ayurvedic Torture

Note to inquiring parents: we’re actually in Cambodia right now, about to leave for Thailand. I’m just way behind in blog posts!

The first activity we did in Nepal was to spend five days at a yoga retreat set on a hill overlooking Kathmandu. It was a lovely experience that included yoga and meditation classes, good food and, best of all, a daily “therapy” session for which we got to choose between a massage, an oil treatment, or a steam bath. On our first day at the center, Peter and I both opted for the oil treatment.

It’s called shirodhara, and is an Ayurvedic therapy in which a stream of oil is slowly poured onto your forehead over your so-called third eye. The idea is that having constant light, dribbling pressure on your forehead will help your concentration and give you a point of focus on which to meditate. It’s definitely a little weird. Nonetheless, this same treatment is offered for several hundred dollars at the Hyatt and other luxury hotels, so I was grateful to get to try it for free.

But while the concept is the same, I’d imagine the setting is a bit different at the Hyatt – at my scheduled appointment time, I was led into a small, concrete-floored room next to the kitchen, with a massage table-like bed at its side. At its head sat an oil-soaked, heart-shaped pillow, above which dangled a round pot with a small hole at its bottom, suspended from the ceiling by several chains. There were no flowers or pleasant scents or new age music soundtracks gently playing in the background. Just me, the doctor in charge of the yoga center, and the table.

I took off my glasses and lay down. The doctor carefully placed two gauze pads over my eyes, released my hair from its bun, and rearranged me so that my neck up was squarely on the pillow. Then he began massaging my face, vigorously rubbing my temples and the bone around my eye with such intensity I worried there’d be a bruise.

Next came the oil itself. The doctor filled the bowl above my head and as it began to stream on my forehead, he carefully repositioned me so that it would hit the right spot. I could feel it drip down my head and into my hair, steadily drumming against my skull. Then the doctor walked out of the room.

This was the moment when I realized my mistake: it turns out that I don’t like being blindfolded and having oil dripped on my head for forty-five minutes. I couldn’t open my eyes because of the gauze, so I had no idea what time it was, how much time there was left, or why the temperature of the oil kept changing (I thought my mind must have played tricks on me but I later learned that the doctor returned to mix warm oil into the cool batch and vice versa). My senses were limited to one main thing: the feeling of a stream of oil being poured onto my face, dripping through my hair, and tinkling into a basin on the floor.  I was supposed to be relaxed and meditative, but instead, I kept comparing the experience to what it would be like to have someone squat over your face and urinate on your forehead.

On and on it went, the flow of the oil, the unpleasant feeling of it dripping through my hair, the doctor occasionally coming back to refill the supply or readjust its aim, sometimes moving the bowl slightly to trace figure eights on my forehead. Instead of relaxing or mediating, I split my time between trying not to fall asleep, and becoming obsessed with how I was going to get the oil out of my hair. Please tell me it’s just flowing over my scalp and dripping right out, I said to myself. Please tell me my hair is not entirely saturated with oil.

Unfortunately, it was saturated. Root to tip, it was completely covered in oil – so much so that when the doctor returned to finish the treatment, he had to wring it out. Three showers later, it still felt greasy.

My hair, post-treatment.

But it still might have been better than the steam box. In that one, you stripped down naked and sat in a white wooden box with a hole cut out the top for your neck. The therapist then lit a propane stove in the corner to heat up herb-scented water and piped the steam into the box. It looked like I’d gotten trapped in some primitive version of a top-load washing machine.

I should have just stuck to the massages.