Sunrise, Sunset

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Day Three

I awake with a constant questioning of my existence here. I know this is productive and all good things are coming, but it’s unlike anything I’ve ever done. My feeble mantra every time I’m accosted by a therapist is “thank you, this is good for me”.

Our days begin with pranayama, meditation and yoga. Today we made it through the first two then three of us had the sudden urge to… I know what you’re thinking, but no… go watch the sunrise over the Atlantic Ocean. I live here, in Florida, less than hour from the beach but my friends live in LaLaLand and perhaps have not seen a sunrise that was not produced on a green screen. So, we trotted to the shore and took selfies with the rising sun. It was magnificent and awe-inspiring as always and I think to myself, “If I could wake up to this view every morning I’d be a better person.” Maybe.

Today’s treatments are similar to Day one. I can manage this. Even the steam. I really don’t want to be THAT person, you know, the one telling everyone how to do their job better to suit my needs? But I have learned that expressing my concerns gets me either an explanation of why they are trying to melt my skin off or an adjustment to alleviate my concerns, and the heat, sometimes both. I have also learned that I can refuse treatment any time I want. There is some comfort in this I guess, but I think many years ago a tiny little directive snuck up on me, that whispered, “Just go with it, see where it leads.” And so mostly I try to lean into new experiences. But it has been helpful to both lean in and find my edges and my voice.

After treatments, my afternoon stretches out before me. I have three hours before my consultation with the doctor. I have a list of questions and recommendations. This is because I am a pitta I am told; one of the Ayurvedic constitutions known as doshas. All you need to know is that pitta’s know everything, they’re always right, and they have the best ideas.

I contemplate a shower, but we are told leaving the oil on our hair and skin as long as possible is beneficial. I feel like a giant piece of walking fly paper, but I wander around the big house anyway careful not to get too close to things that will adhere themselves to me. I find no one in the kitchen so I grab my laptop to write about not only this experience but a few memoir type chapter starters. One of my hopes coming here was to find the time and desire to write again. Although all the books I’ve read on writing (Is that ridiculous? Reading books on writing?) insist one must not wait for inspiration but instead put oneself in the path of inspiration. This is my attempt.

Time to meet with the doctor. Now, this is no ordinary MD, Dr. Jain was a surgeon in his previous life (well, this lifetime, not his previous incarnation – it can all get dicey with all the Indian and yoga stuff) and a couple of decades ago started studying Ayurveda, so he is now still an MD and an Ayurvedic physician. East meets west. It’s a lovely thing. We chat a little about bodily functions – which is becoming surprisingly comfortable now (sorry, not sorry) – and then we start talking about stress. There has been a bit of stress in my life lately – like every day for 365+ days – so this is the probable cause of most of my issues.

We chat about control and letting go of trying to control what others do and don’t do. We talk about yoga, meditation and deep breathing practices. And we talk a little about food, but mostly it is a counseling session and I immerse myself in what he is telling me. And much of what he is telling me is a reiteration of what some of my closest friends have also suggested. I am now just ready to hear it fully.

It feels like balm to my rattled brain, salve to my struggling soul, someone asking about and listening to my “problems” with concern, compassion and no judgment. This is what medicine should be.

The healing is in the listening.

Buoyed by my counseling session I head to the kitchen to find dinner and company. The topic of conversation: the super blood full moon. Tonight. And we want to watch it rise over the ocean. We are staying right across from the beach so this isn’t a big deal, but there is no direct beach access so we plan to drive ½ a mile up the road to find our dune.

The beach here has been hit hard by hurricanes the past few years. Repairs to the wooden steps leading down to the beach were damaged a couple of years ago, and only about half of them were repaired. Then another hurricane barreled through last fall undoing everything. Right where we are a giant slab of concrete has been upended and looks like it could fall at any moment. A sea wall perhaps? We stay high on the only beach access here, a dune divoted by the passage of many feet.

We sit patiently, maybe a little concerned that we got the time or location wrong. But there were a couple of people already here that seemed to have the same schedule and a few more showed up, so we relaxed and gazed out to sea. There was a bank of clouds on the horizon – Florida mountains, I like to call them – that the moon would have to rise above. Which she did, slowly and elegantly. It was beautiful. We are held still and silent.

There is a call to presence when experiencing nature’s power.

Back to the house for lecture number 4 on Ayurveda. Tonight we chat about prana in food. Prana is the Sanskrit word for life force or energy, as in pranayama – breath control, or literally life force cessation, suspending the breath. All living things contain prana, it is what animates us. When we eat a live plant we are getting prana, when we eat fruit just picked from the tree: prana. When we eat an egg, a steak or drink a glass of milk? No prana. There are still nutrients, protein, fat, etc. in animal products, and we are not discouraged from eating them, but they contain little to no prana. When you start to look at food as energy (and actually many countries use Energy Units rather than calories on their food labels) you may make different choices. I know I will.

As I prepare for bed I have the sweet realization that we began the day with the rising sun and put it to bed with the rising moon. Goodnight moon.

D-Day

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Day Two

We were warned yesterday that today we would all receive something to take – either pills or a liquid – that will cause something they like to call “controlled diarrhea”. Have you stopped reading yet? None of us is excited about this prospect especially when some of us have to take our medicine just before our treatments – the massages and sandings. The pills are tasteless and I am not worried and I swallow them 10 minutes before my massage.

I march up to the treatment room prepared for a repeat of the day before. Today will be gentler I am told. There will be no sanding – actually called udvartana or something sounding like it came out of the fabric lips of the Swedish Chef on Sesame Street, and it’s done with silk gloves, that’s it, no sand paper – and no basti. Just the massage and steam. Oh, and the eye drops and nose dealios. It sounds manageable.

But something happens to me when I lie down. There is an acidic surge from my stomach to my throat, a sourness, that I try to maintain and ignore. Maybe this is how it’s supposed to be? I manage to make my way through the massage on both sides, albeit uncomfortably. As they lowered Steamy Wonder over my slick body, I took a breath and tried to suck it up. But the steam apparently cooked whatever was already brewing inside and I had to cut my session about 10 minutes short. They managed to muddy my eyes with ghee and have me snort some oil, but that was it.

As I sat up, the therapist handed me a glass of water and I could barely swallow the first sip. Not a good sign.

I went to my room to use the bathroom (by now you know what you’ve gotten yourself into) and vomited my entire breakfast. Both bowls of some sort of spiced rice mush with broccoli. Fortunately, the broccoli did not make a second appearance. And actually I felt much better after the purge.

I never throw up. I will do whatever I can not to vomit. Ok, well, there have been a few times when the wine was flowing freely and I may have been over-served, but this elimination was so much cleaner. There was no shaking with cold sweats. There were no promises to any entity with the power to make this go away as I pressed the side of my tortured head to the coolness of the porcelain. It was more of a quick assessment and realization that that just happened and now we’re moving on.

Then there was the other end.

[A note of caution: When you’ve been soaked by a gallon of oil head to toe, take care when taking a seat on a slippery surface like porcelain.]

Again, I’ll spare you the details. Suffice it to say that it was more annoying than anything. I would start to read a sentence or two in a book and be interrupted again by the goings on in my digestive tract. It went on for about two hours. For others it lasted over eight.

Four coconut waters, a couple of naps and an empty stomach later, I arrived back at the dinner table feeling lighter. Mostly.

We’re bonded now, having gone through the same experience. We eat slowly and gaze up from our bowls of food on occasion to smile at one another. Quiet conversations start and fade out. No one asks how the other is doing, we simply assume our presence at the table indicates we have survived.

Tonight’s lecture topic is all about agni, digestive fire. I do not have enough, most of us probably don’t considering the way we eat and our stressful lifestyles. Ways to increase it?

  • Meditation
  • Pranayama
  • Sipping warm (or hot) water all day
  • Eating only warm food
  • Certain spices – these are specific to each individual dosha (constitution)

This doesn’t have to be forever, just until the body is back in balance. But there is so much benefit in continuing ALL of those practices, so why not? Oh, and here’s a revelation for our excessively-minded society:

Only eat when you’re hungry.

Wait, what? But, what about breakfast, the most important meal of the day? And lunch. I have to have lunch when it’s my time to go to lunch. And dinner, of course, that’s when we all get together and talk about our day (or sit in front of the TV mindlessly shoveling food into our waiting, bored mouths). What about 6 small meals a day?

Ayurveda may actually be the originator of intermittent fasting. Two meals a day is really all anyone needs. But we’ll explore all the food stuff later. It’s too good not to share all on its own.

But for now…

Hungry? Eat. Not hungry? Don’t eat.

 

 

Sanded, Slathered and Steamed

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Day One and a Half

It is Sunday and I have been gagging on melted medicated ghee for a week now. This is the day I head to the beach to the wellness center to begin my purge. I am ready. Not ready. I don’t have to be there until 5 PM and it only takes about an hour to get there so I decide to have late lunch before I go, around 3. I stop at Chipotle and choose the barbacoa bowl.

I’m gonna need to fortify with some good beef, I convince myself.

If I were a healthy, balanced person I would have chosen to eat mostly cooked vegetables and maybe a little rice at home, but I am neither, so my constant companion, Habit, takes me to lunch.

The drive is easy and when I arrive I am the last of the six of us who will be sharing the intimacies of our bodily functions and mental neuroses.

Two of my friends are here and they have brought along another friend who I adore immediately. The four of us will spend time together when we are not otherwise engaged.

The center is a big house originally built to be a bed and breakfast. It is on A1A, the main highway that runs along the east coast. We are on the mainland side. There is a row of houses between the road and the beach that prevents us direct access, but does not completely obstruct the view, refreshing scent of sea air or the lullaby of crashing waves. A short walk will take us to public access.

My room is on the second story in the front of the house. Each room is equipped with a queen or king bed, a variety of other furniture pieces and a private bath. That last part is going to be key.

Once settled, I head back down to the kitchen where we gather around the large oval hand-painted table. The theme of the house is American Tuscany, but in case the architectural pieces and iron railings don’t make that clear, there is a giant map of Italy on the kitchen wall.

Conversations are easy but brief, we learn a little about each other, form our opinions and eat the first pot of our healthy food. We have a cook, two I hear, that will be making us a pot of something healthy every day for every meal. All our food will be served warm, it’s part of the healing protocol.

After dinner we head to the living room for our first lecture. We learn about the three body constitutions and their attributes. I am familiar with most of what is being said, but I dutifully take notes in an attempt to remain awake and upright. He, the doctor, seems to realize we’re all a bit distracted and tired so he wraps up and we head up to our respective rooms. My friends from California sit at the kitchen table and chat with a couple from Texas. Their bodies are all still a few time differences behind.

It’s chilly for Florida, but I open the window anyway. I like the fresh air and I want to hear the ocean. I also turn on the ceiling fan, I like air moving. Sleep comes pretty easily and each time I wake I rest back into the rhythm of mother ocean.

A good start.

I wake at 6:00 AM refreshed and ready to start this process.

After pranayama (breath work), meditation and yoga, we head to the kitchen for a breakfast of oatmeal and spiced fruit. The fruit is amazing.

My treatment isn’t scheduled until later so I walk down to the beach to drink in all those healing negative ions. There is no better reset for me.

After my walk, some journaling, a taste of boredom I have become unaccustomed to, and lunch, I head to the treatment room.

I am handed a blue paper sheet and asked to disrobe, sit on the table and cover my intimate parts with the sheet. A delicate knock later, two of the massage therapists approach me to begin treatment with a prayer, each of them holding one of my hands in both of theirs. After a shared om, one moves behind me to gently place her hands on my shoulders and the other places her fingertips on the top of my head and on my third eye. As the one in the front moves to place her warm, oiled hand over my heart, the one behind me does the same in the back. My heart is in their hands. Then I am guided to lay on my belly. This is where it gets good, the warm oil massage.

But wait, apparently I have to be sanded down first like a wooden board to receive stain.

I don’t know what they’re doing or why. But I go with it. I take it. They are moving in tandem, scrubbing up the sides of me, starting at my hip and ending at my ribcage. I am being planed. After I am polished and smooth, they begin the warm oil massage. Only it’s hot. It feels hot. Perhaps it is because I have been tenderized. Again, they are working in tandem. This is abhyanga, a specific massage done by two therapists working together. It is a lymphatic massage to help detoxify the body. Mostly gentle in nature, except for that first part. That was new. I am lulled into submission by their rhythm. Then they begin pressing on certain points in my appendages, marma points I am told and it’s all good, until they hook their thumbs into my airpits and wave at my shoulders. It tickles and it shocked me. I struggle not to giggle. This is serious business after all. This healing stuff.

They shift the cover from my legs up to my back slick and sticky with oil. They will now work on my legs. They separate my feet and tuck the sheet between my legs and I am suddenly struck with the visual of a sumo wrestler. It isn’t pretty.

As I lean into the ebb and flow of the massage again, I exhale and relax.

Time to flip. Now the front. I have become so seduced by the warm oil that I nearly rise off the table when they begin sanding the front of me. They are moving together on my sides again, only this skin feels a bit more tender. And it’s starting to get personal. They begin to do this arching thing from my rib cage up through the middle of “the girls” to my collar bone. Over and over again. When they take a break, I take a breath.

Warm oil on the front. Too hot again, but ultimately soothing. I am complacent once more.

When they are done with the massage, they lower this coffin-like tent over my body. Its name? Steamy Wonder. I soak in steam for a day or two it seems, I don’t like it, but they’ve devised clever ways to distract me. While laying on my back they put a few droppers of warm ghee into my eyes, sauteing my eyeballs with hot butter right in their sockets. Miraculously I can still see afterwards.  Then some sort of medicated oil I am to snort up my nose. It rests in the back of my throat and burns a hole to my spine, I am sure. just as I am about to fling the tent off me and run for the ocean, the facial massage begins. This is divine. I endure the steam as long as they are petting me.

Then the front is essentially done, but now it’s time to flip again, gotta roast the back, which somehow isn’t as uncomfortable. More padding back there perhaps.

Just when I think I am done, they guide me to assume a position to receive a medicated basti (think enema). The process is very brief. Not details. No real discomfort either.

But I do find myself wondering what I have signed up for?

Once I retrieve what’s left of my dignity I am shuffled to a chair in the hallway where I await an additional treatment. Shirodhara. This one I am looking forward to. A warm oil drip in the middle of the forehead for about 30 continuous minutes, followed by a head massage. I let go into that one.

My door is next to this particular treatment room so I don’t have far to stumble. I walk into the bathroom of my room uncertain what I should do with myself now. My hair is thick with oil, my body slick and there’s the possibility that something digestive could be happening at any minute. I am in limbo.

I decide to entertain myself with a book. Later there will be dinner and a short lecture on Ayurveda.

I’m still trying to figure things out, control them, fix them, but there is a softening around the edges, I am quicker to let go of the struggle. Perhaps the day’s events are beginning to do their work.

Impure

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It has been a week since I completed an 8-day detox. This was not a stay-at-home and mix some lemon and apple cider vinegar cleanse type of thing, this was a go to a place get lulled into relaxation by the beautiful surroundings then get beaten up by treatments kinda deal.

I may be a tad bit dramatic here.

What I did is called panchakarma. It is an Ayurvedic detoxification process. Ayurveda is the sister science to yoga – they kind of grew up together – which focuses on food, the physical body and its relationship to nature. Yoga, is the spiritual practice that is its companion.

You may be confused by that last sentence as yoga certainly seems like a physical exercise and in part it is, but that is just one small aspect of the philosophy. But we’ll get into that at another time.

Panchakarma translates to: pancha = five, karma = actions. There are five actions taken to help the body detoxify, but the actual detoxification is three weeks long (or forever). Here are the cliff notes:

Week One: The week before attending panchakarma I met with the doctor. Based on his assessment of my overall health he prescribed medicated ghee (an organic clarified butter with helpful herbs for my constitution), a powder to mix into hot water and drink before meals, and castor oil to drink at night. For 7 days.

Week Two: Go to the location of the panchakarma and receive the five actions, as well as; participate in breath work, meditation and yoga each morning; eat healthy balancing food provided throughout the day; and attend a lecture each evening.

The five actions in brief:

Abhyanga – a two-person lymphatic massage using a gallon of oil. Two people work on opposite sides of the body, in tandem, to help the lymph move through to carry toxins out of the body. There are other add-ons to the body work that I will share as they happen.

Swedana – Steaming out the impurities either through a canvas steamed dome that is lowered over the massage table or a steam box in which one sits with the head out.

Shirodhara – a continuous warm oil drip onto the third eye. You might see god, it’s that divine.

Vamana or Vierechana – Controlled Elimination. Depending on the individual’s constitution and level of impurities, they are administered herbs to either “gently” vomit or have “controlled” diarrhea.

Basti – enema. Do you want the name and number of this magical retreat yet? There are two types: a 2 ounce oleating enema that mostly gets absorbed into the colon, and the 12-ounce bag (think IV size) that is filled with a personalized prescription of oils and herbs. The results of this one are markedly different from the 2-ounce as you’ve likely already surmised.

Rakta Mokshana – Blood letting. Like leeches. We did not do this one. Apparently the FDA has rules about the health of leeches so we missed out.

Ok, I know that’s six and there are also nasya – medicated oil up the nose, and netra tarpin – eye drops. Just know we got the full package, plus some extras, minus the leeches.

Week Three: During week two diet and lifestyle practices have been discussed and then prescribed for home. In addition, some herbs or supplements may be recommended. And in all honesty, this third week is really a suggested way to continue eating and living for the next three months. Or forever. I am doing the vegan thing until May. At least. To the best of my ability. [Please note: chocolate, wine and coffee are all vegan.]

By now you may be wondering, Why? Why would you do this and why are you sharing this masochistic torture with me?

Because the results are amazing.

It is a complete reset. When I showed up at the center’s front door, I was stressed beyond my capacity to deal with it in a healthy manner, instead I was on the fuck it diet – eating whatever I wanted – and drinking way too much wine. I let go of all my helpful practices and even gave up riding my beloved bike, Ruby Blue. I was just too busy being overwhelmed and important to take care of myself. I was on auto-destruct but powering through.

I had to disrupt all my habits.

I had committed to the panchakarma six months before going. A couple of friends from California were going to do it and invited me join, so I say yes. One of my best yesses, I’d say.

The first few days of panchakarma I was still stuck in my head, anxious without an impossible list of tasks to complete, but by mid-week I had relaxed into the rhythm and surrendered to the schedule. I could feel the stress turning to vapor and leaving my body (it left in other ways too, but I don’t want to spoil it), I could feel my mind beginning to clear and my muscles and righteousness beginning to relax.

By the time I left, I had a clarity and focus I have not had in years. My body felt lighter and more open. I could breathe fully and smile easily. My skin was glowing.

Why would I want to give that up? Why would I ever want to go back to the old uptight pressure cooker I was? I wouldn’t. I don’t. I am doing all I can to maintain my peace and continue to heal body and mind.

What will follow the next few days is my day-by-day account of what I went through. It’s written in real time, as I was experiencing it, so it has all the snark that comes along with a sarcastic, stressed, overweight, toxic, middle-aged woman being asked to get naked so her body can be sanded, slathered and sweated for her own good.

Regardless of what that crazy bitch has to say, this clearer, calmer version of her, highly recommends the process and the amazing therapists and doctor of the Mind Body Wellness Center in Flagler Beach, Florida.

 

Diet Roulette

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I’m doing it again. The food thing. Changing it up. If you’ve lost track, as I have, let me recount the past few food philosophies I have adopted and what I’ve learned and why I’m switching again.

There was the juice cleanse. The intention was to drink nothing but freshly pressed green juices, mostly my own, for 3-5 days. Eat a little whole fruit in there, perhaps some all-vegetable salads with only cold pressed olive oil drizzled. It went pretty well, but really 3 days of that is not enough to reveal any great insights, and I got so bored. So, I moved on.

I was feeling an unreasonable amount of stuffiness and congestion so I investigated the low-histamine trend. It’s the newest shiny thing in the food world. It’s difficult, but I did it religiously for about three weeks then slowly incorporated higher histamine foods back in. I mean, no avocado? Come on! Plus, I was reading conflicting articles, apparently it’s a very personal thing, this histamine. I did however find relief from the congestion and I stopped my morning ritual of three sneezes upon rising, so a win, I would say. But not sustainable and not intended to be.

That brings us to Whole30. That blog was a few days ago. The Cliff Notes version: It was good and pretty easy for me.

But still, there was this nagging in my mind or gut or somewhere demanding attention that told me I had not quite figured it out.

Circumstances being what they were I was heading to Flagler Beach to take my love to an Ayurvedic Physician. There was a consultation, then the recommendation that he return for four days to do a cleanse for four hours each day. This involved a specific kind of lymphatic massage, a sweat box, a forehead oil drip and something I promised not to mention. Let’s just say, it was a big part of the ‘cleanse’. Back and forth each day. That’s about an hour and a half each way. But it’s the beach, so. Plus, I personally know and love the doctor here. He spent his first lifetime as a general surgeon, then shifted a little more than 10 years ago to Ayurveda.

A quick primer: Ayurveda literally translates to Science of Life, it is the sister science to yoga. Where yoga is mostly a spiritual path, Ayurveda deals with the physical health of the body as it relates to diet, the seasons and the rhythms of the earth. Together they are a comprehensive approach to health. Everything prescribed in Ayurveda is dependent upon your dosha – your body’s constitution. This can be determined by a quick pulse diagnosis by someone who knows what they’re looking for. Often our constitutions are out of balance and some tweaking with food, exercise, lifestyle choices, treatments like massage, activities like yoga and herbs, will help straighten everything out. Other times call for a detox to remove stubborn waste called ama.

As I mentioned in the Whole 30 blog, body intuition goes a long way to recognizing an imbalance, but it is often useful to get another opinion. I also mentioned how it would be so great to be a vegetarian. (That right there is a little thing we call foreshadowing.)

Well, while I was waiting in this spectacular giant home on the water with a pool at my disposal, I decided to schedule a consultation for myself. Turns out, according to Ayurveda, a vegan diet is what is best for me right now. Vegan. No eggs, no dairy, no meat. Kind of the opposite of Whole 30, but I’m game. My first question was, “Forever?”

One year, with check-ins every three months. I’m down. And kind of excited. From past experimental experiences, I can tell you that a vegetarian diet for a month or more always left me feeling clearer and lighter, but I was invariably pulled back to the other side by my habits. The every-three-month thing will probably hold me accountable. Plus, I can have dark chocolate, coffee and wine on occasion. Win.

There is still “no list” food in my home and I am awaiting some herbs, so I plan to use the next couple days to transition and start with full attention on Sunday. In the margins of my life I am also completing a Life Plan as directed by the motivational book Living Forward, which happens to have as one of its “life accounts” Health. This will be completed on Saturday so the stars seem to be aligning.

I’m such an over-achiever wannabe.