Earlier this year, I took a 17-day (Feb. 10 -27, 2008) trip to Kerala, South India, specifically to an Ayurvedic Health Resort called Somatheeram (translation “Moon-Seashore”).
This trip was sponsored by Ananda’s Expanding Light Yoga and Meditation Retreat near Nevada City, California and led by Gyandev and Diksha McCord—it was their third year to take folks on this healing retreat, and they did a great job as tour leaders. There were 28 of us on the tour. I was able to join the group as an extra staff person, an opportunity for which I will be forever grateful. It was a never-to-be-forgotten experience.
I would highly recommend this Ayurvedic Retreat for anyone, for reasons I will describe below—but most especially if you are interested in healing yourself of anything and while enjoying a vacation in a tropical paradise, experiencing the lovingly spiritual vibrations of South India, and being pampered head-to-toe with unique Ayurvedic treatments.
Because I have been teaching yoga, meditation, and all related topics for over 30 years, I was somewhat familiar with Ayurveda (translation: “knowledge of life”), the primary healing and dietary branch of the yogic sciences. I’ve had my “doshas” diagnosed and special Ayurvedic diets recommended. I’d heard of the special oil treatments and massage that Ayurveda recommends and the “Shirodhara or oil-dripping-on-your-head” treatment, but had never experienced those delights before this trip. So although I knew a bit of what to expect, I was still not sure of how I’d feel about having Ayurvedic treatments every day. Still, the friends I had talked to who had been on this retreat had raved about it, so I figured I’d like it, too. In reality, it was far beyond my expectations, to say the least.
Most of our group flew from San Francisco to Trivundrum, South India, with a stop in Singapore. It’s a long trip, but much more fun when you are with a group. We arrived at night, so it was difficult to see just exactly what the surroundings looked like. We were greeted by the friendly and efficient staff and given fresh coconut juice (in the coconut!) to drink with a straw—very refreshing after all that travel. We went to bed hearing the ocean roar and awoke to the sound of rain on the roof (the only time it rained while we were there).
Kerala is the name of the state in South India where the Somatheeram Ayurvedic Retreat is located, right on the Arabian Sea. Kerala means coconut palm, and I could see why when we got up the next morning. The palms were very tall, slender, and lovely, and they were everywhere, blowing in the warm breezes! In addition were riots of colorful flowers blooming in profusion and washed clean by the rain. The property is landscaped and maintained beautifully. Along every walk-way, there were carefully labeled pots of live herb plants, many of which were used in our healing treatments. I’ve been growing and using herbs for many years, so this was a special treat for me, though certainly many were new to me. The sounds of crows (“caw! caw!”) was omnipresent and often very loud, along with the cries of many other sorts of tropical birds. It sounded like the background sound track of a Tarzan movie. The weather was clear, warm (in the 80’s) and quite humid. It was cooler and ocean-breezy in the mornings, when we did our yoga and meditation sessions outside, under the palm trees and overlooking the ocean.
On our first morning, we came together for an orientation on what to expect from our treatments and an introduction to the staff and the doctors. We also had a blessing and puja (special fire and other offerings ceremony) performed for us by a young Brahmin priest. That afternoon we had our first personal evaluation with two Ayurvedic doctors and were given a dosha diagnosis and treatment schedule for the rest of our stay. In our tour package were included seven Ayurvedic treatments of 2 hours each. I took only my 7 as I felt I needed to have spare time to help Gyandev and Diksha as needed, or just relax if not. Most of my fellow retreatants added on more treatments. My friend, Suzanne Ilgun got the prize for the most treatments taken, one a day and doubling up for two a day on the last few days. She looked so fabulous at the end of the retreat, having lost 10 lbs and looking so rested and relaxed with a “Kerala glow” all around her. She was impressive!
What were the Ayurvedic treatments like? Ayurvedic healing treatments are ancient. Some form of Ayurveda has been practice in this area of India especially, for over a thousand years. The traditions are old indeed! The area/climate/temperature/humidity etc are said to be absolute perfect for healing to take place. The humidity is high, but that is essential to the “sweating-out-the-toxins” part of the treatments. Once you are “diagnosed” and “categorized by dosha as predominantly vatta (airy), pita (fiery), or kapha (earthy)” by the doctors, you are given some herbal remedies to take orally, daily, usually before and after meals. Some tasted OK. Some were tablets and easy to take. Some tasted like something I refuse to describe, but I took them anyway (mostly). I’m sure they were doing me good, because I felt better and better every day. And then you are turned over to a primary therapist (male for the men, female for the women) who takes care of your treatments every day. You are taken to a treatment room, which is quaintly attractive, as all the buildings are there. Primarily brick with palm-thatched roofs. Simple but very nice, clean, and comfortable.
Here you receive a 2 hour (for some slightly longer) treatment by 1, 2, 3 or 4 highly trained therapists. Now everybody was having different treatments of different types, some more strenuous than others. We really had fun each evening at dinner comparing our “treatment experiences” and laughing a lot at each person’s descriptions of them. I was having a “Rejuvenation Program” which was a lighter sort of treatment series. Others were having the “Purification Program” which was longer and more complex, as I had it described to me by others—it included dietary recommendations for every meal. Everybody I talked to seemed very happy with what was going on in their individualized treatments. I should mention that we had several men on this trip with us and they felt greatly healed and benefited by their treatments—it’s not just a “pampering girly” thing going on here, believe me! It involves deep healing techniques for men and women alike. Besides our group there were other guests also, primarily from Germany, Russia, Italy, and other European countries. I think we might have been the only Americans there!
Here is the main theme of the treatments: OIL, OIL, and more OIL! Literally gallons of herbal oil (usually sesame or coconut oil base) were being used on you. They make all this oil at a nearby facility, which we toured one day as part of our experience—very interesting to see how they do this! The oil was warmed to a comfortable temperature and slathered on in amazing quantities. Massages were quite different from the kind we are used to in the West. Lighter strokes (sometimes with more than one person working on you), not so much digging into the muscles. But very thorough and it really felt wonderful to me. They use their hands, obviously, to massage you all over, but also their feet. They treat your eyes, your ears, your nasal/sinus cavities, and other body parts I won’t mention. I drank cups of warm ghee (clarified butter) and herbs before treatments, and warm herbal water or coconut juice after treatments. So you are definitely being treated both inside and out. After two hours or more of treatment, you are give a clean cotton robe to wear to your room and told NOT to shower off the oil but rather sit out in nature in your hammock or rest somewhere shady and calm for an hour, to let the oil soak in more deeply and to reap the benefits of the treatments.
We also received Shirodara, the most commonly known treatment of Ayurveda, wherein a light stream of oil is poured slowly on your forehead for quite a while. It is blissful! You really do go into an altered state of consciousness with this one. All of it was a treat for me to experience, as well as being rejuvenating. I felt strongly that the doctors, treatment personnel, and all the healing staff members really know what they are doing and are very good at it and professional, too. Plus they are very kind, friendly, loving, caring, and always sweet as can be. Treatment sessions always began with a short blessing ceremony and lighting of incense by your primary practitioner. It’s pampering of body, mind, and soul like none other.
These treatments were the FOCUS of most of our days, but many other fun things happened too, a few of which I will describe. But first let me tell you what Somatheeram looked like. As I mentioned, it is located right on the Arabian Sea. The primary buildings and individual cabins are placed on many levels on the steep side of bluffs overlooking the ocean. Therefore, you are always feeling ocean breezes and hearing the sound of the sea. The cabins or resident rooms are new, but built to resemble the local and ancient architecture. They are made of red brick and often round in shape. They have thatched coconut palm roofs, ceiling fans, and excellent ventilation and kept spotlessly clean. Most have a hammock outside and spectacular beach views. They are set among palm forests and brick or stone walkways.
As I mentioned, everything is beautifully landscaped with tropical flowers and plants, meticulously maintained and kept tidy by a friendly grounds crew. There are many steps to climb to go from your residence to dining room to beach to sadhana area to treatment centers to swimming pool, but this is very good exercise (makes you sweat!) and very much a part of the healing process. The dining areas (there are more than one) are open and breezy, partially indoors and partially under the sky. There is entertainment almost every evening during dinner consisting or dance, music, chanting, plays, and so on.
The food is very, very good. It is served buffet style. It is fresh and delicious. It is primarily vegetarian and Indian style, but at dinner there is always one entrée which has meat or fish in it. If you don’t care for what is on the buffet, you may order whatever you like from their menu. There is room service—allowing you to have anything you want delivered right to your room.
The beach is an inspiring place to spend time and I did so every day, usually at dawn and/or dusk. The water is beautiful, though the crashing waves were a little too rough for me to venture out too far. The strongest swimmers in our group cautioned us to be very careful of the surf. On the way down to the beach closest to our resort is a Christian shrine with statues of Jesus and also St. Thomas, who brought Christianity to this area of India in about 50AD. There are always people there kneeling in prayer in worship. An inspiring sight! And there are often special processions to the shrine with music and singing. Christianity, Indian style, in a rainbow of colors.
Many of us might have been content to hang out and eat and sleep and do yoga and swim and walk on the beach and have our Ayurvedic treatments—sounds nice, doesn’t it?—it was! But there were other fun things we did—side trips and such. I mentioned our trip to the facility where all the herbal oils and medicines were made. But our first outing was to a nearby cove/beach area called Kovalam—about 30 minutes away. It was a georgous crescent shaped beach and a sort of shopping boardwalk all along the beach. This was a majorly good shopping area and people, including myself, found beautiful things to buy at really inexpensive prices. Also just outside the gates of our resort, were many nice shops also, including friendly tailors who would make you whatever clothes you wanted in just few hours—difficult to resist!
One day we went to downtown Trivundrum to a fancy department store named Parthas, where many beautiful shirts, saris, punjabis, and so on were purchased by members our group. My two favorite outings were the tropical delights of our houseboat ride on the inland waterway system of Kerala and our day-trip to the southern tip of India, Cape Comorin/Kanyakumari, and a temple on a rock island where Swami Vivekananda swam out to and meditated on for many days before coming to America in 1893—combined with a visit to a huge Hindu temple complex, Suchindrum, built in honor of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva.
We happened to be at our resort on the night of the full moon, so we had a kirtan (group chanting session) out on the beach that evening. I led it and I so much enjoyed chanting in that enchanted place with the ocean sound of AUM playing along with the harmonium.
As I mentioned above, we had a pretty location to have sadhana (Energization, yoga stretches, and meditation) outside on a lawn, under the tall coconut palms and overlooking the beach, every morning, 6:30-8am. Sadhana was optional, as was everything, but most of our group attended and enjoyed it very much. This really added to the healing dimension of the whole experience.
Diksha gave some great morning classes on the teachings of Ayurveda, which were very helpful in letting us understand more of what was going on as a part of what we were experiencing in the afternoon treatments.
When it was time for part of our group to leave for New Delhi for a week at Ananda India headquarters and part to go on back to the US or to other travel destinations, we found we had grown very close to each other and were a bit sad to be parted. We had laughed together and shared so many unique situations—making new friends or deepening already existing friendships.
Should you consider going on this retreat with us next year? Absolutely and without question! Ask anyone who went. I know that they’d recommend you do it. Being in Mother India is an experience not to be missed, no matter what part of the country you choose to visit. But Kerala and the Ayurvedic Healing experience are—well, I’m running out of good descriptive adjectives, so I’ll just stop now. Questions? E-mail me any time!