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The Healing Power of Self-Care Through Ayurveda

After Hurricane Harvey upended her life last summer, Leslie Hendry shares how she turned to the maternal instincts of India to physically and emotionally rebalance and recover.

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Contributing Writer

My body hurt in weird places. The inside of my ankles where blisters had formed from the rubber boots I had worn for the past two days. These same boots also cut into my calves from the continuous lunging, squatting, picking up, and hauling off of my parent’s possessions and the majority of the house’s interior structure. My own sentimental stuff was in the mix, too, including high school, college and law school degrees, letters from best friends and ex-boyfriends, and photos spanning decades. I was trying to hold back what felt like 106 billion gallons of damned emotions—the exact measure of water released from a local lake that flooded my parent’s neighborhood following Hurricane Harvey.

What had transpired was a Category 4 hurricane, super-sized from man-made overbuilding and poor environmental protections, making landfall deep in the heart of Texas. For almost three weeks, non-stop, I along with my partner, friends, and volunteers from local churches, stripped the house to its bare minimum: roof, struts, slab floor. I had a general sense of ache and fatigue, partly due to the lack of sleep and any real nourishment. This, along with an incomprehensible amount of worry and grief, were petty complaints and luxuries that I could not afford—not with my 81-year-old father walking around in a daze through the eight-foot-tall trash pile looking at the remnants of his life. Everything he had known for the past 30 years, upended by four-feet of flood waters.

On the daily 40-mile drive from the flood zone to our hotel, we cut through war-like scenes of destruction, rubble piled high, trees ripped and torn, homes tattooed with high water marks, and the stench of swamp. To tune out the bad commercial radio, I entered a post-apocalyptic game with myself. I told myself that after the storm I could choose from two fantasy gifts. One was impractical for my budget and mostly fear-based: a brand new Range Rover, which I’d never considered buying before the hurricane, but I was looking for armor, something that was strong and, as I tried to convince myself, impervious to destructive weather forces. The other was more in line with my lifestyle: 10 days at an Ayurvedic clinic in India to re-balance my body after all this stress. I’d been practicing yoga on a fairly deep level for the past 15 years, so I knew to park the Range Rover option, and book India.

Four months later, I checked into Vaidyagrama, a “true healing village,” a tag line plainly stated on their website, and, as I came to learn, a fitting description, indeed. For it does take a village to recuperate—it might take even a whole city, nation, or world—but I’m getting far ahead of myself.

Day one, I was met by one of the vaidyas, or Ayurvedic physicians, who share a common vision to healing. He was a gentle, middle-aged man who approached me with a warm smile. In his average English, from the start, he told me about one simple concept: the spiritual heart. We have a material heart and we care for this, but we also have a spiritual heart and we must care for it, he said. Mind you, if I’d heard it from anyone else, at any other time, it would not have been felt so viscerally, but I understood instinctively that this healer was sincere and that I had entered an authentic place. He believed what he was speaking and it came from an incontrovertible place in his soul. In a weird way, it felt similar to the feeling of care a parent gives when treating a sick child.

Ayurvedic medicine is not simply an Eastern medical profession, it is a way of life. Many people who take its teachings inside of India oftentimes do so from a family elder who passes the knowledge down like his or her elder before. It continues this way naturally from generation-to-generation. This has been curious to me because that chain doesn’t exist in the modern world of higher education or in many professions. Most Western doctors and nurses handle complex obstacles, such as disease and trauma as well as perform surgical operations that require a far different set of skills. Ayurveda, in contrast, seeks to care for the individual by employing preventative measures of self-care so that the body and mind stay in harmony with the environment, thus cultivating stronger and longer health.

It takes energy to deconstruct care, how we are to be cared for, and how we are to accept care. This felt impossible to do when I arrived in India so depleted. I’d voluntarily checked myself into an Ayurvedic hospital to recuperate, but after the doctor left my room, I found myself questioning my decision to come to a hospital at all. I was perfectly fine, right? Nothing was actually wrong with me, I reminded myself. I suffered from no disease or life-threatening ailment. I had taken a harrowing highway drive from the Coimbature airport to outside of town through dry and dusty India and had arrived at a modest and mellow place of healing, yet somehow it was all making me self-conscious. Had I been at a Western spa, or at a resort, the structure of my material self would have been firmly in place, if not feeling ever more special for the luxe stay; yet, I knew being pampered was somehow anathema to what I needed.

Related: Ayurveda’s Approach to Mental Health

My spirit was still dampened by thoughts of things of which I had no control, like the overdevelopment around Houston and building on marshes that should have been protected natural areas, and flooded with unimaginable responsibilities, like relocating my dad’s life. I thought about my spiritual heart and concluded that if I didn’t care for it, the body would bend to that course of bad health that I did not want.

The doctor put me on a regime of rest, a strict diet and medicinal massages, and I was told to slow down and not think about anything stressful. I quickly came to terms with the natural path to unwinding, and stuck to my instincts of choosing this Ayurvedic hospital in an effort to eradicate the trauma, and deconstruct so that I could move on.

For the first five days, each morning an hour after breakfast, I had a treatment called abhyangam, or oil massage, and dhanyamla dhara, which is pouring a fermented medicinal oil preparation onto the skin. Two young women in matching green colored bibs and billowy pants smoothed and rubbed medicinal oil into my skin while I laid on a hand-carved, thick wood table, or droni, made from a single piece of neem tree, used for its medicinal qualities. The oil was thick and smelled fragrant, like the moist soil of a forest mixed with sweet smelling blooming vines.

Speaking very little English, the girls rubbed oil into my scalp in a frenetic motion akin to scrubbing a stain out of cloth, and the same way I had seen women in India do with their children after bathing in the river. They then applied the oil to my body, lifting my arms, repositioning and scooting me along the droni, side-to-side, as needed. At first, the jostling made me feel like a rag doll, but the young women seemed to handle me the only way they knew how. It was the same way their moms handled them, and this went back generations. It’s peculiar to have a complete stranger, half your age, “mother” you in any way, but Mother India is a cultural phenomenon that has many teachings—and this was one. For most of our lives, unless or until we become an enlightened being, and regardless of how independent and successful we are as an adult, to be deeply cared for and healed takes another human being, an independent energy apart from ourselves, whether someone closely related, or someone we just met, like these young women and doctors.

After I showered off the residual oil, on the way back to my room, the girls pointed to the garden around the corner where the center grew its own herbs. In fact, each plant and tree on the premises was intentionally grown for a healing purpose. Knowing that the environment had been purposefully conceived rested peacefully on my conscious. The food they provided had also been harvested from their gardens as well as the tinctures I drank before the simple meals of rice, vegetables, sometimes a rasam, always a chapatti.

For the hour in between treatments and before lunch, I retreated to the built-in bed outside of my room on the patio draped in swaying bamboo chick blinds and closed my eyes. Under the cool wind of the ceiling fan, powered through energy conservation techniques, I was in a complete state of relaxation listening to the birds chirping, and the soft singsong of Tamil and Malayalam, the local languages spoken by the people walking to and fro down the thatched bamboo covered hallways. Each day that I returned to the patio, I felt more in equilibrium with myself and my environment.

In the mornings, I also attended the powerful and lovely pujas, and chanting. Finding time to show gratefulness to a higher power helped me feel connected to something other than the self. However, by the second week, I had become so lazy that striving beyond eating and sleeping was pointless. In the mornings and evenings, I stuck to my meditation schedule, which was easy under the circumstances, and because I’m not as disciplined as I’d like to be, in the afternoons, I lumbered over to the community space for some legal wifi, 30 minutes. As much as possible, I didn’t cruise through emails, social media sites, or memories of the flooded house, because it was irrelevant for this stay. Also, not conducting regular life like planning outfits and social occasions, doing errands, or paying bills created the time needed to indulge in a whole lot of nothingness. My job was to eat, receive treatments, bathe, become supine, watch birds flitter by, monitor mosquitos, and listen to the leaves rattled by a welcomed breeze.

Related: My Life As an Ashtanga Student in Mysore: The Essence of Seeking Consciousness

For the remaining five days, the doctor prescribed elakizhi, which is the lightly pounding of hot boluses stuffed with a poultice of inflammation reducing leaves, grated coconut, lemon, turmeric, rock salt and other herbs. This treatment dates back thousands of years, and was originally used for treating warriors home from battle. Trust me, after elakizhi, you don’t need more than the underbelly of a ceiling fan to entertain. Though the treatment may be referred to as a massage, it is far different from let’s say a Swedish or Thai massage. Mostly, Ayurvedic massage is to rub or, when doing elakizhi, pound natural herbs into the skin; it is not primarily for relaxation during the treatment. Although zoning out could be a natural byproduct of the treatment, along with any other hosts of occurrences that results from releasing toxins, it is mostly to rebalance the internal elements of our system that have become out of whack. In Ayurveda, these elements are defined by the five earth elements—fire (agni), water (jala), air (vayu), earth (prithvi), and ether (akash)—and, in turn, are represented by three groups, or doshas—vata, pitta and kapha—that connect the language of Ayurveda to symptoms of illness or pain as well as to our physical state of being for diagnosis.

Maybe I wasn’t suppose to use my brain too much, but I found, as my body and mind relaxed, surrounded in a supporting, environmentally conscious space, a sense of energy from an interior point so far inside my body that it could have been the back of, the beginning, or the base of my spiritual heart—which is what for me discovery feels like—and I knew something serious was transpiring.

Looking back over my life, I realized, my deep healing needs had always come from those experiences that fall on the furthest point of the spectrum, the hottest fire, the darkest night, the coldest heart, but it really shouldn’t be that way and Ayurveda told me so: It’s the moderation, the prevention, the care and love that we give to ourselves, daily, moment-by-moment, from where health’s true balance is found. One doesn’t need a natural disaster to happen to learn how to deeply care for ourselves, but, apparently, I did. It was critical to understand this lesson because our culture teaches us independence and fortitude. It says, if and when we find ourselves in need of help, we can’t accept it, because you don’t really need anyone. Warning: This is a trap. The more you buy into this lie, the harder it is to break down your own resistance to true self-care, which, actually, involves others (sometimes strangers).

Today, my dad is in pretty good physical health, he has a great sense of humor and lives in the present, but mostly he doesn’t remember the hurricane and I have to remind him why he’s not able to live at home. As a family member, I did my duty. I think anyone in my position would do the same, but when some karma comes knocking on your door, and it doesn’t look pretty, brace yourself, and do what you’re called upon to do, like Krishna points out to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita. Arjuna is a warrior whether he likes it or not, Krishna says. So we must do our dharma, whatever that my be, but if I could be so bold as to suggest, consider tacking on a trip to an Ayurvedic clinic for as long as you can after the war.

Photography by Leslie Hendry



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