Prisoner of Bliss
“How many weeks are you staying here?” asks Dr. Buddhike, one of the Ayurvedic doctors at the Ayurveda Paragon Hotel on the southwest coast of Sri Lanka. I am here for a week visiting this beachfront wellness facility overlooking the Indian Ocean, where I hope to recover from an exhausting trip to Vietnam as well as cure my chronic sinus condition, get off Sweet ‘n Low, sleep without having to take a sleeping pill, and lose five pounds.
The Ayurvedic doctor looks at me in disbelief when I tell him my goals. Even though Ayurveda (which has been practiced in India for 5,000 years and in Sri Lanka for 2,500 years) can cure all my conditions as well as Parkinson’s, arthritis, migraines, back pain, asthma, allergies, diabetes and much more, it works very, very slowly. A week is too brief to cure anything, Dr. Buddhike says. Most guests stay at least two or three. But I can only stay one week, I tell him. We’ll just have to make the best of it.
Dr. Buddhike looks at my tongue and reads my pulse to determine my dosha, then says I’m Pitta/Vata. In Ayurveda, each person has a unique blend of three mind/body energies: Vata, Pitta and Kapha. Good health is maintained by balancing them. (To find your dosha: http://www.whatsyourdosha.com/). He says I am to go to the health center each day for a two-hour treatment with two therapists, and scribbles down: skull massage, face massage. body massage with special weight reducing oil, foot massage, face fomentation, nasia, lemon bath for weight reduction. It all looks wonderful and I love the idea of four-handed massages, but can’t I also have the massage where they drip oil on your forehead?
“Shirodhara? No, you are here much too short a time,” he says. “It would not work.”
“But I’ve tried it at spas in India,” I protest.
“You have to prepare the body for it. We are not doing wellness. We are doing medical Ayurveda.”
This is the real deal—not just at an inexpensive Indian Ocean resort with 2-hour spa treatments and healthy food. Maybe, at least, I’ll lose some weight. He tells me to drink 2 liters of water daily, soup and fruit for breakfast; soup, rice, vegetables and fruit for lunch; and soup and fruit for dinner. I am to start the day by meditating, then yoga. But I don’t meditate and I’d rather go for a run. No run, he says. Only swimming and yoga to relax, which will help me sleep. But how will I lose weight just doing yoga?
He hands me a list of “medicines,” which will be placed in my cubbyhole each day: tonic before meals, pills after lunch and dinner, powder and herbal water before bed. All Ayurvedic medications come from nature, mostly from the jungle. I take a tour of the Paragon pharmacy, a place where surely the Macbeth witches brewed their potions. There are glass jars of paste fermenting in unpolished rice, which will sit for six months; herbs, roots, bark, flowers, and seeds boiling in gigantic cauldrons; grinders and thatched baskets for sorting seeds from husks; and individual portions measured into bottles and baggies, each marked with a guest’s name.
The good news is I will not starve. The open-air dining room offers a copious buffet with plenty of tasty dishes: pumpkin, chicken, celery and vegetable soup; green beans, cooked banana flowers, steamed white radish with curry sauce, cucumber in coconut milk, baked cabbage, and baby eggplant. There are sour and sweet bananas, mango, papaya, star fruit, kiwi, grapes, melons, and a delicious fruit like lichee called rambutan. I can also have Pitta and Vata tea. Surprisingly, I don’t miss the Sweet ‘n Low. But what’s even more shocking is that for the first time in months, I don’t need to pop a sleeping pill. I am lulled to sleep by the ocean below my balcony. My daily treatments take place in an ocean-facing therapy room by two giggling therapists. “Why are you laughing?” I ask.
“Because you are,” they say. All three of us crack up as they scrub my feet and rub my scalp and put hot scented sacks of herbs called “fomentation” on my face. They rub me in aromatic oils and work in tandem to knead out my knots. Finally, they wrap me in my sarong and lead me to a stone bathtub for a hot lemon bath. The tub is filled with lemon slices, flowers, coconut pieces, herbs, and different oils.
That afternoon, I try a Pranayana (breathwork) class and am told that yoga is preparation for meditation. Breathe in, hold for six, breathe out, hold for six. I don’t have to sit in an uncomfortable lotus position with my legs cramped. Instead, I kneel with my knees on the ground, straddling a pillow. It’s so comfortable that the following morning, I get back into that position on my terrace, close my eyes, breathe, and listen to the sound of the ocean. I’ve never been able to meditate, but here, ten minutes flies by.
Two days later, I see Dr. Buddhike who weighs me. I’ve lost 1.5 pounds. Excellent! How do I feel, he wants to know. My sinus condition is acting up, so he adds acupuncture to my daily routine with Dr. Poshinie, also an Ayurvedic practitioner. I tell him I have no energy, not even enough to do one lap in the pool. He prescribes an energy paste called Rasa Yana. It tastes sweet, like honey and prunes, and obviously works because the next day, I have boundless energy and do twenty laps non-stop. Then, I walk along the beach and watch the fishermen perched on poles in the water, casting out their fishing poles. After breakfast, I join a guided excursion to the UNESCO World Heritage town of Galle with a 300-year-old walled fort and plenty of shops to buy inexpensive souvenirs.
My sinus condition is getting much better. I’m beginning to feel very calm and relaxed. One night, I join other guests for the full moon ceremony at a local temple where we all learn to chant Sala Sala Sala while a monk ties a blessing string around our wrists. Another afternoon, I ride on the back of a new friend’s motorbike past rice paddies where a family is stripping rice at the side of the road.
The week flies by much too quickly. I see Dr. Buddhike for my final visit and weigh in. In seven days, I’ve lost six pounds. And the weight has stayed off. I’ve now been home for three weeks and each morning, I get up fifteen minutes earlier and meditate. I’m off Sweet ‘n Low, and I no longer have to take a pill to sleep. I’m eating soup twice a day and steaming my veggies. I’ll return to the Paragon, perhaps next year or the year after—not just to renew my excellent new habit, but also to visit my new friends: my fellow adventurer Claudia, who took me on an excellent tour of Galle, Lala, who taught me pranayama, Nora, who taught me Chi Gong, the wonderful Dr. Buddhike and the lovely acupuncturist, Dr. Risana, the smiling waiters and talented chef, my houseboy who always covered my bed with gardenias, the pool attendants who served me delicious red hibiscus drinks, and of course, my two giggling therapists.
The Ayurveda Paragon has packages from now through March, 2011: 14 nights $2,306 which includes: roundtrip transfer from Columbo Airport, all meals, physicians, acupuncture, daily treatments and classes, Ayurvedic medicines, lectures, trips to Galle and temple.