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Ayurvedic treatments hard to resist on trip to India


Ushered in to a dimly lit chamber fragrant with oils, I was divested of every stitch of clothing and provided with a totally inadequate strip of cloth, like a sumo wrestler’s thong, and laid on the massage table.

“I can see why the women don’t massage the men,” I joked to Malik, who looked blankly at me, smiled broadly, poured warm scented oil all over my back and set to work.

I was experiencing the tough love of Ayurvedic massage while on a trip through Kerala and other parts of India with my wife, Paula; my sister, Angela; and my brother-in-law, Olly.

We were exploring the local treatments that attract so many medical tourists to this area—so many that every hotel seems to boast an Ayurvedic spa and a host of practitioners (as if visiting the beautiful beaches and frolicking in Arabian Sea here in India’s southwest coast is not enough therapy in itself).

Malik was getting my doshas, or life forces, straight—with the points of his elbows running hard down my paraspinal muscles at one point, which I swear smushed out every toxin accumulated over the last 66 years.

Ayurvedic medicine, whose name is derived from the words ayur (life) and veda (knowledge), is a system that has been recorded in India for 10,000 years. One of India’s four most ancient books of knowledge, Atharvaveda, includes 14 hymns describing formulations for remedies.

Ayurvedic medicine is used by 80 percent of Indians, sometimes in combination with other forms of medicine. It emphasizes the need for balance in our lives as a way to good health—a concept so many find missing in western medicine.

Some of the treatments and remedies may seem a little comical or quaint—massaging with a bag of warm cooked rice, or running a stream of medicated buttermilk on your forehead from a suspended copper pot for half an hour.

And some of the philosophy behind it can also seem interesting—like a belief that channels (srotas) in the body transport fluid from one part to another, and if they get blocked, they can cause rheumatism, epilepsy, autism or insanity.

Ayurvedic medicine also deals with the body’s doshas, or energies, and how depending on your dosha type, your body can suffer from things as varied as eating dried fruit, sleeping during the daytime or spending too much time in the sun.

But there’s appeal in many of the ideas in ayurvedic medicine—the idea of one’s life forces being constantly renewed; the need to live right and maintain balance; the idea that suppression of natural urges is unhealthy, but we need to practice moderation in eating, exercising, sleep, sex, etc.

This seems to be appealing to many people living in a society that is very out of balance in so many ways. So they come to India.


People have sought spiritual growth in India for millennia. And even modern India—this supposedly up-and-coming economic powerhouse, but with so much squalor and poverty—has an incredible underlying spirituality.

Medical tourism—to pursue Ayurvedic treatment in particular—is rapidly gaining popularity according to M. Narayanan, head of the Poovar Island Resort clinic in Kerala.

“Our regular clientele is from Europe, mainly Germany,” he’s quoted as saying on the MedIndia website.

My brother-in-law, Olly, an enthusiastic proponent of massage in particular in both London and in India, understands the appeal of coming to the source. He spoke of the Indian practitioners’ knowledge of the plants used in massage oils and in other treatments.

“I feel the treatment in India is by people who have an ancient knowledge of the herbs and plants and the value of their extracts, and so have greater healing powers,” he said.

He also said he feels that being in India, there is “a greater sense of spiritual uplifting in the process.”

There have been concerns raised about toxicity from lead, mercury and arsenic contained in the oils and remedies—which are sometimes given as medicines or enemas, or in large enough doses to get absorbed through the skin.

And like virtually all alternative treatments, it is not practical to subject Ayurvedic medicine to the gold standard of western medicine, the placebo-controlled clinical trial, and see how it measures up.

But practitioners of western medicine are so good at that hubris—blowing off anything that is a bit weird, a bit incomprehensible or that hasn’t been documented to meet the dictates of evidence-based medicine (though in the West, we did stick to treatments like bleeding people for millennia out of habit).

But like traditional Chinese medicine that has been practiced for thousands of years, can one invalidate Ayurvedic medicine because it can’t be proven by our criteria?

Should Olly and all those other medical tourists just stay home and spend their money on Prozac and ulcer pills instead?

My answer would be, if it seems to do you good, go for it.

Like so many impossible-to-prove alternative medicines, Ayurvedic medicine may all be placebo effect, as the critics would claim. But if it works for you, and it’s not having any bad effects—in which I include toxicity and expense—I would encourage you to follow what seems right for you. Even if you don’t actually go to India to do it.

Dr. Patrick Neustatter, a longtime family practitioner, is the medical director of the Lloyd F. Moss Free Clinic. He can be reached at healthyliving@freelance