Health experience: Ayurvedic treatment pours soothing oil over troubled body


I’ve always liked to mark my birthdays with different experiences. However, this year’s one, of being massaged with warm rice and hot milk by four Indian masseuses, will be hard to beat.

I am in the final week of my four-week inpatient hospital treatment in an Ayurvedic hospital in India. And it is an experience unlike any other I have ever had.

Coming here was a blind leap of faith, as I chose not to research Ayurveda in advance. All I knew was that I had to try something completely different.

After years of the best efforts of doctors, my life was increasingly squeezed by pain from fybromyalgia, which is a chronic syndrome that causes a stiff, burning pain in or near the joints like the pain of arthritis. Unlike arthritis, however, the joints are not deformed or damaged.

The core of my treatment in India is a one-hour daily session of a mixture of massage and physiotherapy, with every muscle and joint massaged and manipulated.

For the first two weeks, the massage medium was pungent, hot, medicated oil. A big pot of it is used during the session as it is continually poured over me.

The four masseuses work very quickly and rhythmically and one hour of this is unbelievably intensive. I am completely wiped out after each session, so I have no difficulty complying with the recommended two hours of bedrest afterwards.

This week and last week, the masseuses are using open-mesh cloth bags of warm cooked rice to massage and hot milk is poured on instead of oil.

After years in which any attempt at massage or physio had me jumping off the treatment bench in pain, these daily sessions are bliss. I do feel pain, but it is subsumed by the heat.

Hypnotically soothing
Another very pleasant treatment involves a constant stream of warm oil being poured over my forehead for one hour – the sensation is hypnotically soothing. I also have one hour of yoga daily and, between this and other treatments, the day passes very quickly.

Not all the treatments are pleasant. It’s no fluffy towel resort here and I have to accept the package deal of “purification and pacification”.

While the massages are wonderful, over the past three weeks my treatment has involved an increasingly intensive regime of “cleansing” – this has meant staying very close to the loo.

I am glad I did not know about this in advance. However, after that experience, I am relieved that this week, cleansing only involves getting nasty smelling oils up my nose.

Also as part of the cleansing, I am on a prescribed patient diet. It’s completely vegetarian, with not even cheese or eggs, but it’s an education on how interesting and varied this can be.

Meals involve a base of rice and bread with up to six small side dishes. Portions are big, so hunger has not been a problem. I am also on a regime of plant/herbal based tablets and powders, some of which could do with the proverbial spoonful of sugar to help them go down.

I get a great “night-cap” here though – a herbal paste is rubbed into the top of my head and my feet are massaged each night to help me sleep.

I am managing without painkillers and sleeping without sleeping tablets for the first time in years. I am disappointed though that there has been no lessening in the burning pain I feel in my feet but the doctors tell me this will take time. I will take away a six-month supply of medication from here so I remain hopeful.

While this is a hospital, though not as we know it, some aspects are familiar.

The doctors do their rounds every morning and discuss me in a language I don’t understand (it’s Malayalam here). However, I feel in very safe hands – lots of hands actually.

I also feel I am in very experienced hands after having had a consultation with the chief physician, an energetic 92 year old who not only sees patients every day, but is also chairman of the board of trustees of the vast Ayurvedic charitable institution, of which this hospital is just one part.

A big bustling town has grown up around this institution, with, as well as this fee-paying hospital, a free hospital and separate free outpatient clinics. At first I found the constant noise difficult, the call and answer honk honk, hoot hoot, toot toot of the lorries, cars, scooters and motorbikes outside my window and the sean-nós wail of the mosque musseins.

The X factor here which quickly dissolved my apprehension about the unknown is the warmth, kindness and compassion of all the staff. Touch is used very intuitively to reassure and comfort in a way I have never experienced before. I don’t know if it is possible to teach this.

An unusual aspect of this hospital is that most of the 350 patients have an accompanying family member, called a “bystander”, with them. The rooms are all two-bed to accommodate this. My husband is here, but unlike me, many of the other patients need their bystander as a carer. Some have a physical disability, some are stroke or accident victims with limited mobility.

I have met quite a few patients with long-term conditions like arthritis, Parkinson’s or multiple sclerosis who come here for one month each year because of the benefits they get from the treatment. I can understand why.

The main sociability here is at mealtimes, in the big noisy canteen with its marble floor, buzzing fans and eavesdropping geckos on the wall.

There I have discovered that many of the patients here are India’s diaspora, coming from Europe, America, Canada and the Middle East. Others have come from all parts of India itself. There are only a few Europeans, but I understand this can vary.

Beautiful Hindu temple
The hospital has an eight and a half acre herb garden, a farm and a factory, which produces its medicines. I visit the herb garden – there are rows and rows of labelled plants in clay pots among shady trees, but I was more fascinated by the noisy colony of flying fox bats gliding overhead.

I am experiencing the Ayurvedic holistic philosophy here. The hospital has its own beautiful Hindu temple, but with Christian and Muslim symbols where all are encouraged to pray. There is a good library and a lovely garden.

The biggest treat has been performances of the ancient classical dance form, Kathakali, by a troupe which the hospital sponsors. This is seen as assisting in “the smoothening of the mental health”.

Now it’s time for my warm rice massage for my soothed muscles. It’s hard already to imagine life without this.

Six weeks later
It is now six weeks since I reluctantly left the hospital. The first two of these were in India and the last four in Australia, so my capacity to cope has been well tested. I am delighted to say that, in spite of having been much more active than I would have been at home, I am still coping without prescription painkillers and sleeping tablets. I have also not had to spend a single day in bed – something of a record.

I feel more pain since my daily massages finished, and there is no lessening of the burning pain in my feet, which remains my main obstacle in having unbroken sleep. However, I am continuing to take my Ayurvedic medicines and remain hopeful.

So while there has been no miracle cure, the main benefit of the treatment has been in its giving me a leg up to see over the brick wall I felt up against before it.

I had felt trapped in an endless cycle of either excruciating pain or being zonked and nauseous from pain medications.

Now, knowing that there is an affordable, intensive holistic treatment I can return to is enough for me to see that, over that brick wall, there is a path with a signpost which has my name on it.