Drip, drip, drip … warm droplets of oil descend from above, onto my forehead. It flows back toward my hairline where I try to imagine troubles are melting away. Before long the constant drops start to develop a distracting beat. I breathe into it, trying to relax into the stillness of my surrounds. The warmth quickly disappears as the oil vessel cools and soon cold droplets emerge. Gentle footsteps approach, there’s a tap of the metal fountain with its slow oil-releasing spout and suddenly a silky stream begins to create oval and then circular patterns that dance across the width of my brow.
I’m on an Ayurveda trail through Sri Lanka, experiencing some of the therapies that make up this ancient healing system. Right now stretched out on a bed, wrapped in white towels, my head is on a tray and I’m receiving Shirodhara, a timeless medicinal treatment advocated for those with a busy mind. Unsure yet if it is an age-old form of torture or a delightful spa treatment, I decide to devote a bit more time to it.
Ayurveda is the worlds oldest surviving healing system originating from Monks in India over 5000 years ago and with monastic Ayurvedic medicinal evidence dating back at least 2500 years in Sri Lanka. It is a holistic science of health based on maintaining a physical and emotional balance with knowledge gained from thousands of years of observations that came to be known as the ‘science of life’.
Ayurvedic principals are based on the premise that every individual is unique and no one diet or lifestyle routine works for all. The medical system uses a variety of diagnostic tools to determine the health and resulting treatments required for each patient (which will typically entail a recipe rather than a pill), the most important of which is the principle of three Doshas – Vata, Pitta and Kapha.
Doshas are said to be energies made of a combination of five elements – space, air, fire, water and earth that form each person and perform different physiological functions in the body. Everyone will have all three Doshas, but is usually dominant in one or two. Importantly, the Doshas give insight into a persons mind/body characteristics, physiology and personality traits.
The aim of Ayurvedic medicine is prevention and through an analysis of the dosha’s (undertaken in a Doctors appointment), an imbalance toward one indicates that some alignment is required. The ensuing therapy typically results in a two or three week program complete with specific treatments allocated for each day which may take the form of yoga, liquid remedies, meditation, broths, herbal body steams, baths and massages, a designated diet of food and drinks and exercise or rest as per your doshas requirements.
Each treatment depends on your unique prakriti (primary dosha) and the balance between all three of them. More complex treatments are also added, depending upon the desired outcome, such as Nasya (medicated herbs to the nostrils), Thalam (herbal head paste), Elakizhi (herbal bundles dipped in medicated oil), Karnapooranam (oil in the ear canal) Lepam (herbal paste for swelling of the joints), Njavara Kizhi (medicinal rice herbal milk massage), Pizhicchil, (warm body oil treatment), Sirovasti, (warm oil head treatment) and Netra Sekam (eye milk cleanse), amongst others.
While my fellow travel buddies, Arga, Mylene, Hanna and Emma receive Abyanga (gentle full body massage) and foot treatments, my Shirodhara therapy has been recommended for my Vata dominance. From the Sanskit words shiras (head) and dhara (flow), the experience is a gentle, constant application of warm oil on the third eye chakra point just above and between the eyebrows. This chakra is said to transcend time, allow the seeing of inner and outer worlds and provide the gift of spiritual contemplation and self-reflection. Through the application of oil to this point, the treatments purpose is to induce a deep state of relaxation, to sooth the nervous system and stimulate the endocrine (pituitary gland).
Chemli is my therapist today and advises me that the treatment should help my eyes and relax my mind. I try hard to switch off and unwind, all the while wishing the oil was still warm. I’m not feeling anything around my eyes, but the constant dripping does help to bring my wandering mind back to the present moment.
Often more important than the treatment style is the type of herbal oil blend used to align the bodies constitution. The oil today is “a combination of Triphala,” shares Chemli, an infusion of herbs especially “beneficial in an evening before sleep and a smaller amount of Nala Yadi (made of 20 different herbs),” predominantly for awakening the manas (mind) in the morning. I learn learn that Triphala (three fruits) is one of the most famous herbal compounds used in Ayurveda and is a combination of Haritaki, a fruit that nourishes the body and is good for the eyes and digestive system. It helps enhance absorption of nutrients and cleanses the body channels; Amalaki, purifies toxins from the body, balances stomach acid, strengthens the liver and offers disease-defying qualities and is considered one of the best rejuvenation herbs, along with Bibhitaki, which pacifies both Pitta and Kapha and cleanses the blood, muscle and fat tissue.
Unlike the softly scented bungalow spas of Bali or pristine health resorts of Europe where one would expect to find floral-lined water features trickling in the garden and soothing background tunes lulling you to sleep, a visit to a Sri Lankan Ayurvedic clinic is like the food – nutritious with no pretenses. It centres on the authenticity of an ageless medicinal system and the therapeutic health benefits of each treatment. Since the system descends from Monks, whose aim is to attain spirituality through enlightenment with no possessions and distractions, the basic settings of my therapies, start to make sense.
Rather than sensory-based surrounds, expect a simple room with only the bare essentials – a table, towel, chair and single piece of equipment required for the treatment. In my case, this is a timber frame from which a metal bowl with spout hangs by some rope as well as a small bucket under my head tray to catch the surplus blend. Fragrant flowers may be saved for the Buddhist temples, but look carefully around the clinic and you could just find a back room of concoctions and brews, tiny jars of rainbow-coloured liquids, make-shift concrete lined bath tubs intended for detox treatments, dark rows of Sinhalese and Tamil labeled elixirs, exotic potions, heady herbal mixtures to target your trouble spots and some of the 1200 plant, 100 minerals and over 100 animal products that comprise the Ayurvedic pharmacopoeia.
The end of the treatment nears and there’s a final tap of the vessel releasing a cold liquid flow that momentarily moves once again across my temples before my hair has the life squeezed out of it for excess oil. I’m relocated into a seat to have my scalp massaged with a towel and finally, my hair brushed.
My Ayurveda trail through Sri Lanka has definitely had its hits and misses and I can’t say that the past hour has triggered any mind opening experience or spectacular clarity to newfound thoughts. The Shirodhara treatment has, however, left me with a relaxed feeling – one I can imagine being more beneficial as a part of a two-week program with multiple applications. In the meantime, I return to my accommodation with a glossy, pungent scalp, vowing to wait an hour before washing it out. And, what do you know – by the next morning I have had one of the best sleeps of my Sri Lankan stay.
How to Determine your Dosha
VATA (wind) energy that controls bodily functions associated with movement.
- Vata predominant characteristics: Slim, tall, small frame, prominent bones; often dry skin and hair and don’t perspire much; fast and changeable; love movement, change and travel; easily get bored and work on multiple projects at once but often don’t finish them; creative, quick to learn, but also quick to forget; flexible (body and mind), easily adapt to change; often have cold hands and feet and prefer hot rather than cold climates; excitable, high energy in short bursts; spontaneous and fun personality but with changeable moods when out of balance; irregular routine; can tire easily and also overexert.
- In balance: there is joy and enthusiasm, creativity and vitality.
- Out of balance: lack of energy and responds to stress with fear, worry and anxiety; lower back pain, joint pain, head aches and bloating.
- To obtain balance: requires grounding, warming and routine.
- Health tips: Cooked and warm foods such as rice are best for nourishing the body. Exercise should be a medium intensity such as yoga, swimming and walking. Introduce some habits into the schedule such as regular sleeping and eating times.
- Pitta predominant characteristics: Sharp mind, focused, passionate, good concentration and intellect; medium build, strong, well-built; organised and self confident; quite competitive and enjoy challenges; strong digestive fire so seem to always be hungry and get irritated if they have to wait for a meal; when stressed Pittas become irritated, have temper tantrums and get angry; don’t like hot weather as they get tired and sweat a lot; skin is fair, sometimes with freckles or red tones and sunburns easily; strong public speakers with good leadership and qualities, but can push themselves too hard or become impatient and controlling; typical physical problems include rashes or inflammations of the skin, acne, boils, skin cancer, ulcers, heartburn, acid stomach, insomnia, dry or burning eyes.
- In balance: Romantic, content and intelligent.
- Out of balance: Aggressive, demanding and pushy. Can cause ulcers and anger, excessive sweating, red rashes, inflammation of the skin, acne, skin cancer, boils, ulcers, heart burn, insomnia, dry eyes, eczema, blisters and burning pain.
- To obtain balance: need cooling, calming and moderation
- Health tips: Find ways to cool the body internally and externally such as eating fruit, dark leafy salads and vegetables. Avoid overheating via the sun and with alcohol. Exercise should be calming. Induce positive emotions such as care, kindness and compassion
- Kapha predominant characteristics: Bigger build and bones, good health and immunity, sturdy and physically strong but may have sluggish digestion and be overweight; thick oily skin with less wrinkles but sometimes have acne; luxurious, thick hair; don’t’ like cold or damp weather; don’t like change; easygoing, relaxed, compassionate and non judgemental; faithful, loyal friends, loving and forgiving; slow-paced, slow learning patterns and slow considered speech; self sufficient, calm, stable and reliable; have the most steady and long lasting energy of all constitutions; soft hair, voice and skin with potentially large eyes; prone to depression; aim to maintain harmony with all around them.
- In balance: is a point of stability, expressed as love and forgiveness.
- Out of balance: tend to accumulate possessions, water or weight. Can lead to insecurity and envy. Suffers colds and congestion, sinus headaches, asthma, allergies, dampness and lethargy.
- To obtain balance: needs drying, stimulating and expression
- Health tips: Foods that are warming are your friends including lot of spices while staying away from sugars and saturated fats. You need to get out, explore and exercise. Be open and find new challenges (for the mind and body) and get the systems moving.
There are many online quizzes available to determine your dominant Dosha(s), here is one from Deepak Chopra who has helped bring Ayurveda to the world over the past decade. www.doshaquiz.chopra.com