My daily Ayurveda treatment starts at 10 am, sharp. Acupuncture is the first order of the day. I lie down on an elevated bed, in a room with 10 beds. Soft music at low volume is piped in, at a level that enables me to mentally suppress it later during the treatment. I am wearing a dark green (on some days, dark red) loincloth. The acupuncture specialist doctor approaches, holding my chart. It details the points in need of treatment. Three needles on top of my head – I feel a slight prick, that’s it. Two on top of my shoulders, one left, one right, barely noticeable. One each in the space between my thumb and my index finger.
“Do you want to loose some weight, too?” the young lady doctor, in traditional Sri Lankan dress, with a tight top, long skirt and a sash wound artfully around her upper body, asks me.
“Sure, always!” I reply, softly.
There are patients like me on all the other beds in the room, most in treatment already, eyes closed. Some are sleeping.
The doctor takes an additional three needles and sticks them in the middle of my belly. I don’t even register the slight penetration of my skin. She switches the overhead lamp off. I get into the groove of a 30-minute breathing meditation. It’s a personal thing; I do it because I can. Meditation fits any aspect of Ayurveda perfectly, helping me regain a balance of body, mind and spirit that is so easily lost in the 21st century rapid pace urban life-style. My concentration is only broken once: a Russian patient on the other side of the acupuncture room starts to snore for a few deep breaths. Thankfully, he returns to his silent dreams in no time.
After 30 minutes, the doctor returns, barely noticeable when floating in. She removes the hair-thin acupuncture needles, one by one, and sends me off to my next treatment.
April 2012. This is my fourth visit to Barberyn Ayurveda Resorts in Sri Lanka, in a span of 9 years. I am staying at Barberyn Reef, in Beruwela, 85 km south of Colombo, smack on the shore of the Indian ocean, looking west towards the sunset, a dramatic view on most days.
It’s probably wise to make a full disclosure here – I have been consulting the Rodrigo family, owners of Barberyn resorts, for the past 10 years, in marketing and Internet matters, and we have also become good friends.
I’ve rarely seen a family so rooted in cultural and religious tradition as the Rodrigos, and I truly admire their role as pioneers of Ayurveda tourism. The current owners’ father founded the Barberyn Reef resort in 1984, in the firm belief that tourists from all over the world would be interested to seek total healing according to a 5000 year old traditional medicinal practice – Ayurveda – while enjoying a beach holiday. Most probably, this was the first dedicated Ayurveda resort in the world, even earlier than the Indian hotels in Kerala. In our research, we have not found any older mention of an Ayurveda resort anywhere.
In the nine years since my first visit, Barberyn Reef has changed a lot. Part of the change was necessary – the tsunami on Boxing Day 2004 took out the whole resort, with one big, unstoppable wave. While carefully rebuilding what was left after the flood receded, the sad event that cost thousands of Sri Lankans their lives also presented an opportunity to modernize the original buildings, who were a bit aged already, and bring the accommodations to their current, cozy and warm standard.
The other changes helped to make the guests’ stay (on average two weeks) more comfortable. A huge swimming pool sits in the middle of the buildings. WiFi is available, even though an Ayurveda resort is a place where I am supposed to forget reading my email every ten minutes, updating my Facebook status or checking stock quotes. True to this belief, there still is no TV in any of the rooms. Only a few have air conditioning – Ayurveda definitely does not believe in anything that’s cold. The thermos flask in my room containing hot water to drink is a constant reminder of this. I have not seen ice cubes or a glass of cold water in a week.
Next up in my treatment plan is the Ayurveda massage. I loose the loincloth and remain in my really old and oily Nike “butt logo” (yes, that’s the actual name) running shorts that I have worn from my first Ayurveda day on. It would be hard to use them for anything else: the dark green, deeply aromatic Ayurvedic oil caught in the fabric will never be completely washed out – these shorts are dedicated Ayurveda wear forever.
The experienced masseur starts with my head. He pours warm oil over my hair, massages it into my scalp, slowly and methodically, with his fingertips. An exquisite sensation. I close my eyes and relax while his hands make their way down towards my face. More oil goes on my neck, shoulders and back. I lean forward in my chair to enable the back treatment.
Next, I lie down on another elevated bed. Organic herbal eye drops provide me with a short burning sensation. Face massage comes next. The masseur gently applies more oil. He starts to rub my forehead, temples, the areas around my eyes, my cheeks and upper lip, even my ears get a little tweak. Soothing, to say the least.
A second masseur joins the massage, the famous Ayurveda body synchronous massage can begin. The tandem of masseurs starts with my feet, they make their way up my legs. Rhythmic strokes, always in perfect synchronicity. Hands and arms are next, followed by my belly.
“Turn half left please”, the masseur asks.
I turn on my left hip, one leg over the other. They continue the massage.
“Half right” follows. Finally, I turn on my belly. They massage my feet again, slowly move up the body till they’ve treated my back up to my neck.
Finally, the masseurs take some special pads out of a hot steamer. A new, wooden, aromatic scent fills the room. The masseurs apply these steaming hot pads all over my backside, pressing them on my skin for the fracture of a second, covering all areas in just a minute or two. At the end, when I get up again, they hand me a small glass of brownish liquid, concocted from herbs that grow around here. The taste is not really good, but not bad either, just a bit strange. I wrap myself in my cloth and make my way to the next station.
The approach to Ayurveda therapy taken by Barberyn is authentic and serious, to say the least. It’s not like a spa where you are given a menu of treatments and you make your choice. There’s no cosmetic angle in Ayurveda. Therapy aims at long term well being, treating the root of any health problems, not the symptoms.
Before I receive any treatment, I have a consultation with a doctor – an Ayurveda doctor. Sri Lanka has two parallel medicinal systems, Western medicine and the indigenous Ayurveda medicine. Sri Lankan patients are free to choose between the two – and it’s no wonder that a lot of them trust their 5000 year old local tradition more than the “new import”.
In order to become a doctor of Ayurveda, you have to study Ayurveda medicine in university, for six years. 30% of medicine students choose this, 70% graduate in Western medicine.
As the wisdom of Ayurveda has been delivered in ancient scriptures, written in Sanskrit, or Hindi (the main language spoken in India), as a prerequisite, students have to study these languages, as well as English. The structure of the curriculum in both fields is pretty similar – there is Ayurveda anatomy, pathology, pharmacology, forensic medicine. Lately, even courses in Ayurveda bio-chemistry have been added.
The approach to diagnosis and treatment, however, couldn’t be more different. Whereas western medicine nowadays revolves around tests, tests and then some more tests (in order to pump you full of drugs after that), Ayurveda diagnosis is much more subtle. It always starts with analysing the doshas (the key characteristics of patients and illnesses), then defines the opposites of these doshas and treats the causes of the illnesses, with an applied long term view. If I could explain this any better, I’d be an Ayurveda doctor myself.
Ayurveda pharmacology is again very different. Students have to understand local plants and minerals as well as their healing properties. They have to be able to combine these organic healing substances (together with stuff taken from animals like mutton or cow) in a meaningful way, following the paths of the wise healers who came up with this – a long time ago.
When I asked how the “inventors” of Ayurveda defined the properties of each plant back in the olden times, I received an interesting answer:
“They definitely did not use statistical methods (like pre-clinical or clinical studies today). They relied on something we would call a ‘sixth sense’, applied wisdom, perhaps, to find out which plant could heal which illness.”
Mind blowing, isn’t it? No wonder that native Sri Lankans mainly rely on their indigenous medicinal system when it comes to chronic illnesses, where Ayurveda offers the best long term cures available. For acute cases, there’s always the trip to the emergency room – the victims of a car crash are probably better off with Western medicine. But if you suffer from arthritis, sciatica, psoriasis or other chronic conditions, most Sri Lankans think Ayurveda and Ayurveda doctors are the way to go.
Exactly these doctors are doing the guests’ consultations at Barberyn. If you picture this as meeting an old mystic faith healer, think again. Ayurveda doctors here are young, knowledgeable, fluent in English and really, really nice. Patients provide them with a description of their problems. The physicians then look at the patients thoroughly, and find the correct therapy. An individual regimen is put together for every patient, a mix of treatments like massage and acupuncture etc., food and medicine. Most of the medicine is tailor-made, rather than just ‘mixed together’. More consultations take place during the stay to control that the treatment also works.
I’m off to the herbal garden now, right behind the special treatment rooms, to receive my next round of treatments. A row of maybe ten low beds is situated right next to the small plots where Barberyn grows a lot of the herbs and spices that go into their medicine. I lie down, again, and one of the young, healthy looking Sri Lankan nurses in her spotless blue and white uniform rushes towards me. She applies different pastes and gels to the problem zones I have defined. This time around, my main concern is my knee – I am seven weeks after a meniscus operation in which the doctor also shaved off some of my bone – to help repair the cartilage damage I have suffered over the years. Lately, I was in considerable pain. Specifically for this, the Barberyn pharmacy prepared a clumpy yellowish paste of bone marrow from mutton or goat. The paste is evenly distributed on a piece of thin paper. The nurse sticks this to my knees, and wraps it around.
Another piece of paper with a greenish, translucent gel goes on the back of my neck. Two more pieces with an orange substance are slapped on my shoulders.
For a slight cosmetic touch, the nurse also rubs Papaya paste onto my face – “for this young and fresh look on my face” that even teenagers will envy. I could do without the two slices of cucumber on my eyes, but hey, what’s the damage? Nobody can see me here, right?
A net covers my face, a blanket goes over my body. I am literally tucked in – and consequently continue with a nice 30 minute meditation while letting the Ayurveda medicine do its work.
Before I disappear toward Nirvana, I remember what other treatments I already had in my personal Ayurveda history. There was the steam chamber: I was placed under a semi-circular wooden contraption, with only my head sticking out at one end. From below, herbal steam made its way up into the device and gave me a half hour sauna/steam bath. Not really what you would ask for on your own in 30 degrees weather with 90% humidity, which you perceive as steam-bath conditions all day long, but if it’s good for my health?
Then there was inhalation – of herbal steam, of course. And I even heard of the famous hemorrhoid treatment – you sit on top of a bucket with burning coals and herbal smoke is – literally – being blown up your ass, to help you get rid of your piles. Compared to all the other smoke that gets blown up your ass every day, this is heaven.
I spent just a week at Barberyn this time. Ideally, an Ayurveda therapy lasts for two weeks – three weeks are better. Barberyn Reef, the original resort I stayed at, is a cozy place, with a community of like-minded people who take their healing quite seriously. It’s a classic, and they offer excellent care and superb food. The ocean is at your doorstep. The high tide licks at the low wall that separates the resort from the beach – and my little beach cottage was just a few meters away from the wall. At low tide, I can go swim in a “natural swimming pool” – the space between the beach and a small reef, maybe 25 meters outside. Or I can swim in the spacious new swimming pool in the middle of the resort.
Yoga and Tai Chi classes complement the medicinal therapy – and they are essential to making the most of the cure. I felt really bad I couldn’t take advantage of this now, due to my knee problems.
From time to time, there are meditation classes, and different lectures. In between, guests can attend cooking classes, food explorations, excursions etc. – there’s always an interesting activity on the menu.
Barberyn has a second resort, too. It is called Barberyn Beach Ayurveda Resort, and it’s my favorite place in Sri Lanka. Barberyn Beach is located on the southernmost tip of the island of Sri Lanka, near the town of Weligama. The view from the rooms down the hill towards the wild ocean is nothing less than spectacular. I always enjoyed the view of the Indian ocean from here, watching the ships drive by on their journey from the Suez canal to Singapore, knowing that the next piece of solid land in the southern direction is in fact Antarctica. Barberyn Beach is one category above Reef, more luxurious, more spacious, also more expensive – however with the same high quality of Ayurveda therapy, food and anything else. When I want to have a true beach holiday, I go there.
After my stay in the herbal garden, I’m off to the shower, scrubbing off the oil and pastes with the help of a special, homemade scrub. Then, I take a herbal bath: I lie down (again!) in a tub of warm water that has been infused with herbs, prepared right next to the shower, in huge iron pots on gas-fired ovens. Another nurse ladles warm herb juice over my body, for a good 5 – 10 minutes. After that, I feel totally refreshed and relaxed.
The first three days of therapy are mainly for purification of the body. It’s a tough job, chasing all the bad stuff (Heinekens, Marlboro Lights, Bangkok smog etc.) out of my body, and I am ready for surprises. The last time I did this, the bad stuff took an exit near my thigh, resulting in a lot of blisters on my leg, but they went away after a few days. Another time, I tried the real tough purification therapy, a two day regimen. I was not able to leave my room – for fear of being to far away from a toilet. But, dude, was I purified after that! Following the initial purification period, specific procedures are then being administered to the cleaned body.
My favorite Ayurveda therapy is Shirodhara. It must be the most popular Ayurveda treatment, as people are already asking for it.
When doing Shirodhara, other treatments are cut for two days. I get a little head and face massage first. Then, I stretch out on a bed (everything seems to be done lying down around here). Ears and eyes are covered. A pot of hot aromatic oil is placed directly over my head. Needless to say that the oil is mixed especially for my needs. The stream of oil from the pot is aimed straight onto the spot where my “third eye” is supposed to be, i.e. on my forehead, right between my eyes. The pour goes on for about 20 minutes. Shirodhara is supposed to help me cope with stress, cure my frozen shoulder, and improve the condition of my eyes. It does it, again.
My first experience with Shirodhara was so special, out-of-this-world, I will never forget it. I had to convince the doctors first, to let me do it: normally, it can not be administered during the three days around full moon. We did it, anyway. On the second day, I did a little meditation during the oil-pour. After maybe 15 minutes, I started to see something – in my mind. It first looked gray, a bit like a gel covering something pinkish underneath. Slowly, the grey mass seemed to be pulled away, like a curtain or a bed sheet. When it was gone, I could see what lay beneath it: my own brain. It was all pink and delicate and pure – or looked like that. This was not a dream. I was not asleep, just meditating, and had an apparition of my own brain. Nice. Surprising.
The results of this first Shirodhara dumbfounded me even more: on return to my room, I was able to read without my glasses – a quite unbelievable achievement, as it had been a few years that I could not read a line in a book without them. It lasted for a while, but on return home, it soon went back to where it was before. The experience, however, was truly unforgettable, and worth the two days of restrictions.
During Shirodhara, all patients look a bit funny: a white cloth is tied and knotted to the head, to protect from cold and drafts and whatever. This produces a unique look, like a cleaning woman in the 70s might have lloked like. Also, one is not allowed to shower, nor go in the rain, or expose oneself to the wind – this would be detrimental to the cure.
The first shower after two days of Shirodhara becomes an important milestone in the quest to regain social olfactory acceptability. There are a always lot of fellow “towelheads” around the resort at any given time, so I couldn’t care less about my looks.
After my treatments, I go for lunch. Food is a really important ingredient in the whole Ayurveda experience. It’s what you take in to your body all day long, so why not make it count? Food is so important that there is a doctor on watch in the dining room during mealtimes, trying to help guests choose the right food – and making sure that they don’t eat what they’re not supposed to. Certain foods should not be eaten when on a controlled diet (weight loss), others not during Shirodhara.
Whatever diet you’re on, there’s always enough food to choose from: delicious vegetarian food from Sri Lanka, curries, exotic vegetable stews and mixes, fresh salads with fruit, even some western dishes. I am also being served special fruit juices and soups in green and yellow for each meal, further enhancing my treatment. If food is the most important medicine in Ayurveda, I will become a lifelong follower.
A week has passed, and I feel superb. My body is rested, my shoulder healed. My knee hurts less, I even get a pot of bone-marrow paste to take home for further treatment. My eyes are clear, my mind feels a bit like after the meditation course. I am fresh, I sleep well, dream nicely.
I say my good-byes to all the doctors and nurses and the owners of Barberyn – and I promise to come back soon. Another week or two in October, wouldn’t that be great? Until then, there’s always the thought of synchronous massage, hot oil on my forehead and a nice rest in the herbal garden, followed by an interesting mix of genuinely healthy curries and veggies. Ayurveda is bliss, no less. And I regained my balance, in a week.