“Ayurvedic medicine is not just to make you feel good; it is to infuse a level of silence, consciousness, and being in every cell of the body—that same silence you feel when you go into the mountains.”
Mary Beth Shea, a Chicago stock market executive, tried everything from acupuncture to biofeedback to rid herself of chronic fatigue syndrome—with spotty results, at best. She went to health spas two or three times a year and returned feeling great—for about a week. Then she picked up a virus in a Jamaican spa that sent her right back to square one.
“I couldn’t get better,” she says. “My digestion was out of whack, and I was extremely fatigued.”
After reading a book on Ayurveda, the traditional healing method from India, Shea booked a six-day rejuvenation package at The Raj Maharishi Ayur-Veda Medical Center in Fairfield, Iowa. The Raj is a spa-like center that offers individual consultation with Ayurvedic doctors and customized purification treatments to help remove the effects of stress, fatigue, and environmental toxins. There, Shea enjoyed organic vegetarian meals, herbal oil massages, relaxation treatments, herbal steam treatments, and yoga and meditation classes. She also attended lectures on preventive health care, ranging from home beauty tips to suggestions for healthy and stress-free living. Shea discovered that her diet—which had seemed healthy enough—was wrong for her constitution. She returned to Chicago a new woman.
“The results were instantaneous,” Shea says. “I had a significant increase in energy. I have not been sick since that first visit to The Raj over a year ago. Of course, I continue the routine at home.”
Connect with your health
It’s hard to imagine not feeling terrific after a week of the pampering Shea received. But the key to Ayurvedic spas is that the healing goes much deeper than mere sensual indulgence. Founded on principles of India’s 5,000-year-old system of medicine, the spas strive to teach clients the important connections between their own physiological processes, their emotions, and external factors such as climate, work, and diet.
“We will help you with your fitness, weight loss, and health care needs,” promises the website of LifeSpa, a Boulder, Colorado, Ayurvedic clinic. “But our broader goal is to help you understand and integrate your body and mind with your heart and soul.”
John Douillard, an Indian-trained Ayurvedic physician who is supervising the rebuilding of LifeSpa after a fire destroyed it last year, explains.
“Ayurvedic medicine is not just to make you feel good; it is to infuse a level of silence, consciousness, and being in every cell of the body,” he says. “The treatments are designed to rip stress out, detoxify deep tissues, lower metabolism, disarm the protective nervous system, and replace all that with an experience of expanse and calm. The goal is that same silence you feel when you go into the mountains—that silence is inside all of us, but stress strips it out.”
According to Ayurvedic medicine, disease is the result of the body’s disharmony with its environment. Ayurveda’s approach to healing is to reestablish harmony, eliminating the need for the body to communicate its distress through the symptoms of disease.
Keeping the body pure and free of toxins is an important part of maintaining that harmony. This is done through Panchakarma, or “the five actions,” a program that utilizes diet, massage therapies, medicated oil and steam therapies, and elimination therapies such as enemas, purgation, and nasal cleansing.
At LifeSpa, clients begin preparing a week before Panchakarma treatments begin. They go on a low-fat diet and take two to three teaspoons of ghee (clarified butter) each morning to jump-start the body’s metabolism into fat-burning mode.
“Because you’re not eating any fat all day long, after you burn the ghee, you start burning your own fat, which is where you store toxins,” Douillard explains. “It’s almost as if we were marinating you in oil for seven days. When the treatments begin, the system is so supple that when we massage the tissue, there’s no resistance.”
LifeSpa’s luxurious Ayurvedic spa treatments—massages, steams, and five-senses therapy, which incorporates aroma, touch, light, sound, and taste therapies—are a spin-off of the Panchakarma experience, Douillard says. “The goal of Panchakarma is to transfer relaxation to every cell of the body, but the day spa treatments allow you to get a taste of being calm and relaxed. They’re a very small piece of the real Ayurvedic experience,” he explains.
Healing the whole person
Ayurvedic day spa services are rapidly gaining popularity at The Chopra Center for Well Being in La Jolla, California, says medical director David Simon, M.D.
“People are coming in because they’re stressed, or they received a treatment as a gift, or to test the waters to see if they want to try our five-day program,” he says. “The nice thing about Ayurvedic medicine is that you don’t have to be sick to benefit from the treatments.”
The Chopra Center’s body treatments are designed to remove toxins and get herbal-infused oil into clients’ systems, Simon explains.
“There’s a theoretical, practical formula in everything we do,” he says. “In certain areas, even though we may not understand scientifically why it works, we still honor the 5,000-year-old tradition. Panchakarma is said to be one of the most effective ways to help the body throw off toxins. Certainly our experience has been that people love these treatments. They use language like, ‘I’ve never been treated so lovingly in my entire life.’ It really stirs things up, emotionally and physically.”
Those emotional responses are just as important as the physical benefits in Ayurvedic practice, which emphasizes lifestyle analysis and change as the most significant aspects of healing. At The Chopra Center, every client has the opportunity to meet with a doctor and a nurse about not only the patient’s physical processes—such as digestion—but also external factors such as job satisfaction and relationships.
“We want to identify their natural, healthy state of mind-body balance and how that may have deviated from a path of complete wholeness,” Simon says. After the five-day program, most clients leave with instructions on how to make customized rasayanas, herbal compounds that continue to detoxify and rejuvenate.
The complete Ayurvedic program is not always as easy to sell as herbal oil massages, Simon admits. “In the general community, the model of being a passive recipient in which the doctor applies holistic cures and the patient is still sort of disempowered is still prevalent,” he says. “People should be treated as empowered, equal partners in their healing journey rather than relying on some expert to heal them, but seeing the bigger mind/body framework takes some work.”
Robyn Griggs Lawrence is the editor of Herbs for Health’s sister publication, The Herb Companion, and senior editor of Natural Home magazine.