Friday, 28 September 2012

Local Ayurveda

Three months have passed since leaving Nepal/Asia, and completing (technically) the traveling portion of the Adventure Learning Grant.  In a few days, a year will have passed since leaving the USA.
I am now living in the Picos de Europa, a mountainous, ecologically diverse and abundant area in the region of Asturias, northwestern Spain.  Here exists a land/home and Beautiful Being, Simon, all of which have called me to return for the past three years.  Curiously enough, though I am in an area that most would consider to be functioning under standard first-world European conditions (water, light, electricity, etc.) the "conveniences" here could be weighted similarly to those I was living with during my time in India/Nepal, and occasionally less.  Living off the grid, we have had to, for example, seek alternative and often limited sources of water; and utilize electrical appliances that require greater amounts of energy (like a hand blender or semi-automatic washing machine) only during times that the solar panels have received enough power from the sun.  Instead of eating in restaurants, as a guest, or preparing meals with produce conveniently purchased from the market, meals here are generally a product of harvesting what we or others have planted in months passed.  Sleeping on mates in the cabin, on the earth or in a tipi...these are qualities of life my initial Indian family would be appalled at living in, but perhaps where my friends from the village Sipadole would feel at home.

Ultimately, here we seem to be LIVING Ayurveda in a more authentic way than I experienced at any other point while traveling in Nepal and India.  The food and herbs we grow/use are as fresh, organic, and often times wild as can be; the water is sourced from a well, its taste evidencing the strong presence of "prana"; we practice meditation and partake in asana or other movements to maintain the body's flow of beneficial energy on a daily basis; and with the abundance of wild or cultivated medicinal plants in the area, I have begun experimenting with the preparation of certain medicines according to Ayurvedic principals.  None of this is pushed or forced.  It simply feels like the most natural and harmonious way to be living.

Recently I've been experimenting with the preparation of a local version of Ayurveda's renowned formual, "Chyawanprash".  Also known as "recipe of longevity" and "elixir of life," chyawanprash has remained India's most popular preventitive health care remedy up to date. There are various legends to explain the origin of chyawanprsh, perhaps the most popular being of the sage chyawan who ordered the medicine to bring back his vitality.
As the story goes, there was an old sage named Chaywan who had been meditating in the forest for years, nearly disguised by all the trees and bushes that had grown around him.  A beautiful young princess called Sukanya who was dancing in the forest inadvertantly came upon the sage.  One version of the story is that the princess fell in love with the sage, his inward beauty exuding for her to perceive, and subsequently concocted a formula for him to regain his youth so as to continue enjoying life with her.  In the other version, while the princess is dancing, she accidentally brushes against his flowing hair.  The king has to request that the sage marry his daughter as it was the tradition in the kingdom that a woman could only touch one man during her life time.  Thus, the sage Chyawan agreed, but wished to be young again to afford his wife conjugal bliss.  So he approached the famous physician, Ashwini Kumar, who succeeded in preparing a tonic that restored the sage's vigor, vitality and ultimately a happy marital life.

My experience with my own version of the preparation was quite inspiring, as it is something I have been wanting to do since testing so many versions of chaywanprash while traveling, but also challenging.  The rose hips I meticulously processed (in place of amala) went rancid and half the herbs I dried were blown away one extraordinarily windy day. Certainly the taste of the Chyawanprash I prepared is very different from any I bought in India/Nepal.  But definite elements remain the same, and it is possibly even more "Ayurvedic" than one I could import from India, as it follows more principles of ayurveda- the plants used are from the area I am living, picked in their height of ripeness, prepared with good heart and intention.  The two main substrates of chywanprash are ghee and honey.  The ghee I prepared comes from Asturias butter and the honey we processed with honey from our own hives, with the help of some elderly friends in the village.  And I've invented my own folk lore~

There was once a wandering minstrel, Juniper Figlet Blossom.  Though wander she did much, the Earth Goddess Ash of the garden informed her that during a certain one of the planet's rotations in the near future, a sudden tremor would shake the earth and all of its inhabitants' bodies and minds, bringing an end to her and other earthlings' wandering ways- they would no longer be able to depend on bus, train or plain...on utilizing India's magnificent chyawanprash!
It was now her duty to create a formula that could benefit individuals like chyawanprash had for so many centuries.  And so it was; help from the other elements of wind, ether, and fire came to her and the Earth Goddesses aid, together creating a formula that could continue to nourish and vitalize, day after day, from the Bellingham Bay, to the mountains of Spain...

Thursday, 26 April 2012

A New Therapy

It is difficult to comprehend that over a month has passed since last writing; yet, the place I am in now (mentally and physically) versus the place I was in then is drastically changed. Though certain threads carry through~ the sense of perfect placement being one of them.

Since the official internship with Josh from California ended on April 3, I have been living up the mountain in the little village Sipadole.  My room is simple as can be, on the bottom floor of a house owned by a family who lives on the second floor.  Upon opening the curtains, the simple nature of the room is suddenly transformed by the sight of lush green hillsides in the near distance. Sipadole is a village composed mainly of mud or brick houses interspersed between terraces of wheat, potatoes, spinach and other crops, surrounded by jungle on one side and a panorama of the Himilaya's/Bhaktapur on the other.  I am repeatedly warned about the ever looming tiger and other wild animals in the jungle (though in actuality the tiger talk may be more village lore than based on current reality) so to NEVER walk alone after dark. Crickets’ chirps fill the evenings and nights, their sounds replaced by early morning bird song.  Bird song, and typically one or more of about five village children calling ‘aly! aly!’ and opening my door or peaking through the window.
A big difference I’ve noticed in both Indian and Nepali versus American culture is the concept of privacy- it may exist, but in a very different form.  It causes me to examine myself, my own perceived NEED for this (occasional time for privacy and space, that is) and ask, “where does this come from? What is it about me/American culture in general that necessitates such degrees of autonomy?” It’s clear on the house/home level also, considering the amount of people who live either alone or as a couple in the States, rather than the typical family/extended families which make up the house holds in India/Nepal. 

 So I am living alone in a village on a mountain which lacks modern facilities, but feel more ‘socially’ connected then while living in Bhaktapur, or any city thus far.  Though at the beginning of my stay I actually did experience an atmosphere of quiet aloneness, friends were soon made (from the ages of 5-85) without any effort on my part. By the end of my first week, I realized that my entire next week was booked with play/dinner dates!  Which by Nepali social standards is exactly what should be the case for me, considering I must be terribly sad and lonely living and cooking alone like I am.  However, I am not Nepali, and after some days of date after date/disappointing people because I had double booked dates, it became clear that I needed to learn how to gracefully say ‘no’ and reestablish a sense of ‘space.’
In that space, I have been doing a bit of reading on some of the Ayurvedic classics I have picked up throughout this trip; but more so, I have been playing the mandolin.  Truly, ever since purchasing this instrument as a travel companion in India about two months ago, it seems to be the best gift (other than vipassana) I could have given myself and have to offer for those in my surroundings.  My playing is nothing to write home about (though I suppose I kind-of am) but the people are always delighted nevertheless.  And when I let them play it….wow!  It is as if they were handed a winning lottery ticket.  Mornings will frequently include a few kids entering my room once they hear the first strings and doing some traditional dance they learned in school; and in the evenings, I’ll sit in front of the main little village shop, playing to the chai man/lady who work there or the women having just finished their third walk down and up the mountain hauling vegetables on their backs. 
My confidence level is supported by the fact that nobody has ever heard a mandolin, so does not really know what it could potentially sound like, nor can they understand the lyrics I have composed. 
That said, one day a villager did address me who happens to go to the ethnomusicology college (which I did not know existed) in Bhaktapur.  He is studying the sarangee- a traditional/folk instrument of Nepal, the sound of which is so agonizingly sweet, a heart can easily melt upon hearing the first swipe of the bow.  He took me to visit the beautiful school, and I was even able to sit down on the grand piano and play around for a bit.  Music is something that was greatly incorporated into my life studies from the age of six till nine-teen, but since arriving at college and declining the scholarship  with Western's music department in order to attend Fairhaven, it had become somewhat negated. 

This is all very curious, because Sarita officially took my pulse about eight days ago, the day I began Ayurveda’s legendary pancha karma treatment.*  Pulse diagnosis is used in Ayurvedic as well as Chinese and Tibetan (and perhaps other) medical systems.  Throughout all, making a diagnosis thereby is indication of the perfection of the art of medicine.  Though the pulse expert I spent time with in Mysore was able to pick up acute physiological readings such as cholesterol and blood sugar levels, Sarita has a knack for typing individual character and aspects of mentality, the quality of which runs parallel to one’s given health status. During internship, I had witnessed her perform such acts with multiple patients.  Now, it was my turn…and following suit, she summed me up after only about ten minutes of pulse reading.  The most fascinating part to me though was her recognition for my need to concentrate on ONE thing, and music being something for me to focus on excelling in.  When I informed her that I had spent many years playing piano, she exclaimed “why didn’t you tell me! I have a wonderful book on music therapy…” and began going over many of the different cases where music provides an excellent treatment. 

The very next day I brought my mandolin to the clinic.  A mother came in with her thirteen-year old son, a boy whose condition has been difficult to specifically diagnose, but falls anywhere between attention deficit disorder and autism.  The main issue is severe mood and energy swings, that he simply does not take anything seriously, can/does not focus on anything/person for any even short length of time….and that he will not stop drumming on counters (anything else will do) trying to recreate a sense of the evenings he is able to play with the Newar musicians outside the temples and occasionally in ceremonial marching bands. 
Even Sarita is uncertain how to proceed with his particular case or identify the root cause.  Western medicine would likely give him a nice parcel pills to hyper-activate him when he’s down, and down him when he’s hyper-active.  I wonder how a personal drum set would work?
He is amused by my instrument and while Sarita and his mother are talking seriously, he and I escape onto the back of a truck parked outside and beet our hands on the roof.  I try teaching him a bongo rhythm I learned in Jr. High Jazz Band, but this is too much and he jumps out to go start beating on the clinic counter instead. 

At Saritha’s encouragement and my experiential enjoyment, I am opening myself again to music’s larger presence in my life/work. 


Yesterday, Dr. Nirindra was married! One day we’re walking up the mountain together contemplating the very subject, neither of us with any idea when/if/how it will ‘happen’ to us, and the next he is inviting the staff to his wedding, as he has been arranged to be married.  I guess that is how it largely happens here.  Young people will know a general estimate about the time frame they will be married in, but when arranged, it is more affected by the parents’ feelings.
 Going into the city of Kathmandu where the wedding was to be held was on one hand an incredibly nauseating and depressing experience, perhaps feeling ultra-sensitive due to my present mid-way-through pancha karma state, and also having grown accustomed to beautiful mountain air and scenery for quite some time now; on the other, it was like being in the middle of one big celebration.  Dates of special occasions such as weddings (and even mundane undertakings such as purchasing land or going on vacation) are largely astrologically based in Nepali culture- I actually had to wait an extra couple of days to move from Bhaktapur to Sipadole so that the move would take place on a Thursday rather than a Tuesday.  Today was apparently auspicious for marriage, evidenced by a city of ladies in specially ornate saris, marriage marching bands, decorated vehicles etc. etc.     

When we arrived, the bride and groom were sitting on the ground outside surrounded by family, a priest reciting chants from a chair above, and another man was sitting in front, performing puja onto a blanket topped with various pieces of regalia.  When a short break took place some time later, Dr. Nirindra came over to us (me and the other Ma Devi staff) beaming, gracious and genuine as ever.  I have grown so fond of this man, his child-like joys and amusements, his purity of heart…I actually became quite emotional, feeling so happy for his happiness, to see a couple coming together with the sincere intention of loving and honoring one another as partners for the rest of their lives.  As usual, every new acquaintance asks if I’m married yet and upon learning that I’m already 21 and not, remind me that it would be best to become so (married) sooner rather than later, and that when I do, I must come back to Nepal to have a traditional Hindu wedding. If I do, it will definitely not be in Kathmandu!

Ahhh, Renee arrives tomorrow and a new short adventure will begin.  And where exactly it will lead is, as ever, uncertain~

*Pancha Karma literally translates to 'five actions' and is a primary treatment in ayurvedic health care.  Ayurvedically speaking, the body as well as everything else in life, is composed of  panchamahabhuta (the five elements- ether, air, fire, water and earth) which manifests themselves in the body as dhatu, dosha and mala.  There is no perfect western medical physiological term to correspond to each of these, but roughly, dhatu can be conceived of as those substances that are retained by the body and always rejuvenated or replenished.  They include nutritional plasma, blood, muscles, adipose tissue, bone, bone marrow and semen/ovaries.  Malas refers to the bodies waste products, such as urine, feces and sweat; and the doshas, well, they are a little bit more difficult to describe. The doshas (vata, pitta, kapha) are individual forces of the elements acting within each of us. They direct and coordinate all structures and substances of the body, their balanced state indicating a state of health, and their imbalance indicating a state of sickness, whether the symptoms have manifest physically, mentally, or lay hidden at deeper levels.  The treatments and procedures that go into pancha karma are uniquely effective because they clear the root cause of the disease, working on every dhatu rather than simply relieving acute symptoms.  Because of this, pancha karma is a highly effective therapy for nearly every physical/mental disease, restoring long-term health, vitality and clarity.  The procedures and medicines used vary from case to case, as does the length of time that one remains within treatment.