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Kavitha Dispatch

Good For What Ails You
May 20, 2000

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Every morning people gather for an hour of yoga, to give them energy before their long days at work
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Here in India, it seems like everyone has a remedy for any malady you could possibly get:

"Drink young coconut water when your stomach is upset."

"Rub raw mustard oil on your skin to prevent rashes."

"Do a headstand every day for vitality and strength."

Ancient remedies like these have been passed down for thousands of years and are still in use today. At least they are time tested! Few countries in the world have managed to hold onto such strong cultural, religious, and social traditions as long as India has, and every time I visit here I gain a new respect for the age-old knowledge that is still being passed down.

When it comes to health and the body though, I have to admit I've heard some pretty strange things. Like drinking oil to cure asthma, or fasting for a week for mental clarity, or pulling a string from your nostril through your throat to clean your sinuses. My rational, scientific mind has a hard time accepting them, but then I see the miraculous results with my very own eyes and I'm completely amazed. I've met a man who is 126 years old and can still beat me hiking up a mountain. I've read about patients who have been cured of blindness without any operation, simply by doing yoga, or exercising their eyes in a certain way. I've heard about people who, through meditation, have trained their bodies not to need things I once thought were basic necessities -- like food and sleep. Honestly, I don't expect you to believe me. I certainly didn't when I first started hearing about this sort of thing, but take a trip to India some day and you'll see for yourself!

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I finally decided to look into India's wealth of healing knowledge for myself. But where to begin? I could look into Ayurveda, one of the oldest recorded bodies of knowledge about health. Ayurvedic doctors make diagnoses based on the patient's body type and various tests involving taste and sound. Or I could go into a serious study of yoga, a practice that takes a holistic approach to life, and involves certain breathing, meditating, exercising, eating, and sleeping patterns. Then there are the countless local herbal remedies that medicine men in villages all over India could share with me -- if I could find a local interpreter.

Everywhere I look somebody has a new technique. I decided to visit a naturopathy clinic, or chikitsalaye. (Go on, try to say it -- it's fun!) Gandhi was a big proponent of naturopathic cures for illness as a more healthy approach, but also as a way to return to Indian heritage rather than continuing to depend on Britain's harsh Western medicines. All the major cities in India today have naturopathic clinics, and more and more people are returning to these natural cures for chronic problems and sicknesses rather than resorting to Western-style hospitals or drugs.

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What am I getting myself into?
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I went to the lovely naturopathic chikitsalaye in Jaipur. Set amidst big beautiful trees, green lawns, and flowers, it was definitely more pleasant than any hospital I've ever visited. I couldn't tell the difference between the staff, the patients, and the visitors, but everyone I came across was very kind. The only problem was that nobody spoke English! After walking around for half an hour, unsure of where I was supposed to go, someone led me to an office, where a man sat behind a desk filling out forms. There were a bunch of posters about health and a scale on the floor beside the desk -- aha! The doctor! I showed him my inhaler to indicate that I have asthma. I also showed him my arms where eczema has bothered me since I was a child, and he nodded his head in understanding. The next thing I knew a sweet old man showed me to my simple room. Then he immediately rushed me off to the women's treatment area to join in the afternoon treatments. The next thing I knew, I was being pulled into a sunny courtyard by a motherly woman in a sari, where I was undressed, and rubbed all over with mud! Within ten minutes, every inch of my body and hair was covered in mud, and the woman walked off to help another patient. I stood there laughing at my condition, unsure of what I was supposed to do, when finally another mud-covered girl approached.

Thank goodness she spoke English. Priya was in tenth grade. She was at the chikitsalaye during her summer holidays to lose weight. She told me I would have to wait about half an hour until my mud dried up, and then I could wash it off. Her mud was already cracked and flaking off, and she headed into one of the open air showers. I felt a little stupid, standing there naked and mud-covered, but all the other women who walked by just smiled understandingly. I guessed they'd all been through this before.

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Woah! This is nothing like what the doctors prescribed back home!
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After showering for over twenty minutes, I finally got the last of the mud out of my hair, and the women signaled to me that that was all for the afternoon. I still wasn't sure what the daily schedule was or where I should go, but I guessed I would figure out everything in the morning. I ate a wonderfully healthy Indian meal for dinner, then went back to my room to relax for the evening.

In the morning I awoke to the pleasant sounds of bajuns, Hindu songs sung to up-beat music. I opened my door and took a deep breath of fresh morning air. The sun was just starting to shine, and men and women were moving about busily setting up mats over the lawn. I looked at my watch. It was only 5:30 A.M.! And yet everyone looked happy and cheerful! By 6:00 A.M. there were over sixty people assembled on the lawn for morning yoga class. It was so beautiful watching men, women, young and old, twisting and turning their bodies into positions most eighteen-year-olds in America wouldn't be able to achieve.

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It's hot in here!
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After yoga class, the bajuns started playing on the loud speakers again, and everyone went about their normal daily business. People went over to the small shop and had fresh natural fruit juices, sprouted beans, and grains for breakfast before heading off to their regular jobs or, if they were patients, to their treatments. I wasn't really sure where to go, so the yoga teacher, Visnu, came over to help. He took me to see the doctor again, got my prescribed treatment for the day, and explained it to me in English.

First we went outside where a handful of people were making awful hacking noises and doing weird things with water. Visnu handed me a full glass of warm water and made me gulp it as fast as I could. Before I could even come up for breath he had another one waiting, then another, and another. It was difficult and I couldn't keep gulping it that fast, but he urged me on with the intensity of a football coach. I felt sick. After the fifth or sixth glass, he bent me over and told me to place my left hand over my stomach, and gag myself with my right hand. "You want me to what?!!" I wondered, thinking he must be crazy, but I did it anyway, and much to my relief all the water came spewing out, supposedly bringing with it all the toxins and mucus my body made during the night.

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An older woman suffering from muscular dystrophy relaxes with her mud packs
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Next, I had to pour salt water in one nostril and have it drain out my other nostril. By 10:00 A.M. I had thrown up, snorted salt water, alternated cold and hot water presses on my stomach, smeared mud on my belly, had an enema, been rubbed all over with mustard oil by a strong masseuse, taken a steam bath, and showered in cold water.

As absurd as it all seemed to me, I just let myself be led through the different stages to see how I would feel. Every morning I would do pretty much the same thing. The massage might change or I might have a warm footbath instead of a full body steam, but the same general schedule was followed. In the afternoons, after eating another healthy lunch, we would either get the full body mud treatment, or have some other variation of mud/bath/sauna.

The other patients received slightly different treatments depending on their ailments. There were people at the clinic to treat depression, muscular dystrophy, arthritis, diabetes, and obesity, to name just a few. For some, like me, it was the first time, but many people have been coming for a week or two at a time for a number of months or years. Apparently they were so happy with the results, they keep coming back for general maintenance!

Vocabulary

malady- any disorder or disease
clarity - clearness; ease in understanding
preventative - something that protects one from disease
holistic - involving the whole person, often used to describe medicine

I don't know how much I believe in all the treatments or whether they can cure my asthma for good, but I felt great the whole time I was at the chikitsalye. I had so much energy and my breathing was clear. Most people leave the naturopathic clinic with a new understanding about a healthier way to live. Natural practices, exercises, and diets can go a long way to prevent and often cure ailments that we too often resort to harsh medicines or operations to cure. That's what I like about the traditional medicinal approaches -- they're preventative and holistic. Why not prevent a problem rather than find a quick fix for it after the fact?

My cousin felt a little under the weather today, like a sickness was coming on, and he went to the local doctor. The doctor gave him all kinds of harsh antibiotics and medicines after just a ten minute consultation! I convinced my cousin not to take the harsh medicines just yet, and instead to rest, and to eat raw garlic with his food, and to take a lot of vitamin C. (This is a little traditional wisdom I brought with me from the United States.) It's now a few hours later and he's feeling better already.

So think twice before you rule out an "Old Wives' Tale" about your health. It may save you from having to make that dreaded visit to the doctor!

Kavitha

p.s. - Please e-mail me at ...kavitharao@bigfoot.com
 

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