A few years ago, sitting at my local bar/restaurant/cafe, I spied a new brochure/flyer in the community announcement holder. At exactly the same time my friend, the bar owner, picked up the brochure and said “you should check this out. The woman is really cool and her office is right here”. Only 5 minutes after that, that ‘cool woman’ walked in and a week later I was having my first Ayurvedic massage. Another reminder that we’re always where we’re supposed to be (esp. when sitting in a bar!)
I had been introduced to Ayurveda 10 years prior when a work colleague had talked about a dinner party she had recently attended where all the foods cooked were from an Ayurvedic cookbook, she had left feeling amazing. Ever curious and impulsive I went out immediately to buy the cookbook, have kept it close ever since and can safely say I still have not cooked a single recipe from it!
However, it introduced me to the concept of Ayurveda and its healing system and I have been intrigued ever since. Naturally, I was all about getting an Ayurvedic massage and from that first meeting, Lorraine and I met quite regularly for many months, using the oil that was personalized for me, and kept me in balance during a particularly stressful period.
Below is an interview with Lorraine about her journey from Journalist to healer and what Ayurveda is. I hope you find it informative and perhaps you’ll seek out an Ayurvedic practitioner yourself – or, if you’re in Fairfield County, CT – see Lorraine. She also has an awesome blog.
Her website is www.themagdalene.org
Q. Most of the modern world is now familiar with a lot of the Asian forms of healing i.e. chinese herbs, acupuncture etc. Ayurveda is not so common. Can you give a very simple, basic explanation of this system of healing to a modern audience who may not even know how to say Ayurveda!?
L Well, first off the pronunciation, phonetically, is “Eye-ur-vey-duh.” Translated from the Sanskrit, “Ayur” means “life” or “longevity” and “veda” means “science” or “knowledge of”; therefore, Ayurveda translates as the science of life/longevity. Its history dates back at least 5,000 years, which pre-dates Traditional Chinese Medicine. Ayurveda shares much in common with the traditional remedies of our own ancestors, who used the things available in the home to treat infections and a variety of chronic illnesses before the discovery of antibiotics. Our elders paid close attention to Nature and the innate wisdom of the human body, and they determined that certain “biological humors” existed to a greater or lesser degree in each individual. In other words, they recognized that although certain pathological patterns existed, they affected each individual somewhat differently. Through astute observation and deep meditation, the ancient sages of India developed similar theories about how to regain, preserve and optimize health. Two axioms of Ayurveda are:
1) Like increases like. This means that if you are born with a constitution that has a tendency toward dryness (constipation, dry skin) and lightness (difficulty gaining weight), and if you acquire too much of those same attributes through your environment and diet, you will suffer symptoms indicting a state of imbalance that can progress into a disease pattern over time.
2) Opposites balance. When symptoms manifest that is the time to start seeking out the opposite qualities of those you “own” from birth. When your body-mind-spirit system is functioning in a balanced way, and you are experiencing unfettered health, then there is no need to seek out these opposite qualities. Only when symptoms arise—and these could be in the form of problems with digestion and/or elimination; sleep disturbances; changes in skin and hair; rashes; feelings of irrational anger or fear—that’s when the knowledge of Ayurveda can circumvent an imbalance from becoming a disease.
However, first you must be made aware of what constitution ( called a dosha in Ayurvedic terms)you were gifted with at birth. This is done via a thorough questionnaire and through taking the pulse by a trained Ayurvedic practitioner.
Q. What would someone expect during their initial treatment?
L. I have all my clients fill out a 3-page intake form that provides me with a medical history from both a Western and Eastern perspective. Therefore, there are a lot of questions on it that one wouldn’t be asked in either a conventional massage therapy setting or in an allopathic medical setting.
I then review the intake form with the client, asking questions about what they’ve checked off and written down. I find people tend to forget even major surgeries and injuries until they have their memory jogged. These things are usually relevant to the style of massage I will perform and what areas I will focus on or avoid.
If the client has come for an Ayurvedic session, I will also examine their tongue, eyes and fingernails and take their pulse. This information helps me determine their birth constitution, as well as the state of imbalance they’re in, and how I may be able to address it in a treatment session. It helps me to determine what type of oil to use, what manual techniques to employ, the tempo and pressure that would be most appropriate, and what areas of the body need the most attention. I might also decide to use aromatherapy in the session, or suggest a bodywork modality other than massage.
That said, the client eventually does get 75-minutes of hands-on touch, which is, of course, why they came. Ayurveda places emphasis on massaging the abdomen and head, and often either the head or abdomen is where the session begins. Most people who have only received Western-style massage are not accustomed to having their stomachs touched, so this is important to point out to clients. Also, the chest area, which means massaging the breasts, is considered important in Ayurveda. I make my clients aware of this, but I massage this area only if the client requests it.
Q. What ailments, conditions does Ayurveda help with?
L. Ayurveda has the most success with chronic conditions, which constitutes the majority of pathologies suffered by people in this country. In other words, lifestyle illnesses, most of which are brought on by stress, poor diet and lack of exercise. These include Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Chronic Fatigue, Hypo-adrenal Syndrome, diabetes, fibromyalgia. These conditions are the ones Western medicine has the least success treating. In India, most of the patients I worked on in the hospital were suffering from severe forms of arthritis (both rheumatoid and osteoarthritis), and they were helped immensely by receiving just the daily oil massages—no meds. I also had the privilege of working on an elderly man who had stroked and was left paralyzed on his right side. After eight months of receiving daily oil massage, the only treatment he could afford, he could walk, dress and feed himself, and he was very hopeful that he would be able to play his flute again, which was how he earned his living.
Q. Can you talk a little bit more about Shirodhara? I worked with you when you initially started offering in your practice and, besides there being a lot of oil and some great massages I can remember feeling a more lasting kind of relaxed – every time I left a session. How often do you use shirodhara in your practice and how do people respond to it?
L. I don’t use it that often because I’m not willing to turn this amazing therapy into a commodity, which is what is done at most spas that offer it as an exotic, one-time treatment. In order to achieve a benefit from shirodhara (which literally means “head stream”), one must undergo a minimum of seven consecutive treatments. That means coming daily for seven days to have warm oil poured over your third eye for 30 minutes or more. Frankly, most people can’t or won’t devote that kind of time to a therapy, unless they’re really suffering and have exhausted all other options.
Shirodhara is Ayurveda’s most profound therapy for relieving stress-related disorders and diseases of the nervous system. It is used in India to cure anxiety, depression, insomnia, fatigue and schizophrenia—a far cry from the one-time spa applications with which Westerners have become acquainted. During this therapy, warm medicated oil is gently and methodically poured on the forehead in a continuous stream. This stills the mind, synchronizes brain waves and improves cerebral circulation. The result: more coherent brain function, mood stability and improved ability to handle stress. Clients who underwent a series of shirodhara reported that they were able to do more in less time than prior to treatment, and they felt “in the flow,” rather than in opposition to life’s experiences.
I liken it to hitting the re-set button in a mind that has become so accustomed to stress, the person has forgotten what “in the flow” feels like. The treatments put the receiver in a hypnagogic state (the state we enter into immediately before falling asleep), a deeply restful zone where we often experience epiphanies or sudden insights into problems our conscious minds have been struggling with. I therefore request that my clients keep a journal to help them remember these insights, and to record their sleep patterns for the duration of the work.
Q. What success stories have you had?
L. My goal isn’t to “fix” people but to lead them to a better understanding of themselves from a physical, psychological and spiritual perspective. Ayurveda is a perfect tool for achieving this goal. I certainly feel successful when a client tells me that after our session, his or her shoulder pain disappeared; when someone has been suffering from chronic pain, that’s a big deal.
I guess I feel especially gratified when a client tells me, as one recently did, that she felt the anxiety that had been gripping her just drain away after our one session together. I had spent a good deal of time working the marma points (energetic points similar to acupressure points) on her head, face and chest. It’s the energy work aspect of Ayurvedic massage that really speaks to me.
Q. Before you entered the alternative healing world, you were a journalist, what prompted, or inspired the transition? Was this something you had been thinking of for a long time?
L. I had been a journalist for 23 years when I started getting very burned out by the job. I began my career wanting to change the world with the stories I wrote, and later, the newspapers I shepherded as editor, but somewhere along the way, after all the mergers and consolidations the industry was going through, I was left with a skeleton crew trying to do the same job with far fewer resources at my disposal. I felt not only burned out but ungratified by the way I spent 80 percent of time.
As a result of all that stress, I became physically ill with a variety of symptoms that seemed to me to be related, but which the allopathic doctors told me were unconnected. I felt the worst I have ever felt in my life, before or since. But the doctors could find nothing wrong with me. I had been taking my young son to see a naturopath and liked the results, so I made an appointment for myself. After a 90-minute consult and a brief exam, he told me that my intuition had been correct—all my symptoms were connected, and were caused by prolonged stress. He strongly advised me to change my diet, quit drinking coffee and to make time for regular exercise, and he specifically recommended that I try yoga. It was the yoga practice that eventually led me to my new career as a massage therapist.
Q. Considering all the modalities out there, you choose massage, why? And then you chose to focus primarily on Ayurveda – how did that come about?
L. My first experience with yoga was an ashtanga class at the New Canaan Y, taught by Liz Pia. I fell in love with the practice, and immediately my health began to improve radically. When I love something I tend to throw myself into it with all four feet. So, when I received a flyer from the Open Center announcing a nine-month teacher training program in Prana Yoga, I signed up. That nine months changed my life. At the end of the training we had to teach a 45-minute class as our practical exam. I had decided to give my students a gentle neck massage as they were lying in savasana, as a way of communicating the affection I felt for them and as a parting gift. I set an intention to give them this love through my touch. I passed my exam with flying colors and got great feedback from the teacher. However, later that day, as I was passing him in the gymnasium where the class was held, he said something to me that opened Pandora’s Box.
“You’ve got the touch,” he said.
“What do you mean?” I asked, taken a little off-guard.
“I mean, I felt love come through your hands,” he said.
Two feelings rushed through me almost simultaneously. First, I was shocked that my intention had been perceived so clearly, without words and through only the briefest laying-on of hands. Secondly, I was filled with a sense of gratification, the likes of which I hadn’t experienced in years. I didn’t want to lose or forget that feeling again.
When I began teaching yoga, I felt I needed a better understanding of human anatomy, particularly of the musculoskeletal system. My sister, who at the time was studying to be a naturopathic doctor, suggested that I try to take an anatomy class at the Connecticut Center for Massage Therapy. The moment I walked through the door, I knew that was where I was supposed to be, and that massage was, in part, what I was supposed to be doing with my life.
Another synchronicity led me to the study of Ayurveda. One of my “family members” in my yoga teacher-training group was an Indian woman who was pursuing a course of study in this ancient holistic “science of life.” We rode the train together into New York City, one weekend every month for nine months, and we became friends. We talked a lot about India and Ayurveda, but I resigned myself to needing another lifetime to devote myself to the study of it.
However, as the Universe would have it, right after I graduated from the clinical program at CCMT, the same friend alerted me to the fact that CCMT was about to introduce, through its Advanced Studies Program, a certification in Ayurvedic Massage, that would culminate with a month of hands-on training in India. It was a dream come true; I signed on as soon as the program was made public.
Q. For those looking for an Ayurvedic practitioner in their area, what things should they look for? Is there a website, or an association that has a global/national listing of Ayurvedic doctors?
L. I would recommend looking for a practitioner who has done some of their clinical training in India, as well as in the United States. Also, I would seek out those practitioners who use diet, bodywork and lifestyle practices over those who just prescribe herbal remedies in place of, or without first attempting, the others. The two websites I would recommend are www.ayurvedahealth.org, which is the site of the International Society for Ayurveda and Health. The other is the National Ayurvedic Medical Association (NAMA)’s site: www.ayurvedanama.org