Intrigued by Ayurveda because of Dr. Deepak Chopra's best-selling books on the subject, I arrive in Kerala, a tiny sliver of a state on India's southwest coast, to investigate this 5000-year-old Indian natural healing system. An area of palm trees, beaches, and languid lagoons, Kerala boasts a special form of Ayurveda because of Kalaripayat, a twelfth-century martial arts found only in that state.
Since knowledge of l08 bodily pressure points, which when injured can either stun or kill an opponent, is an intrinsic part of Kalaripayat, its warrior-healers use these sensitive centers to cure the body with specialized massages, as well as standard Ayurvedic treatment of herbs and lifestyle modification.
I go to one of Kerala's most respected Kalaripayat masters, Balachandran Nair, in the state's capital, Trivandrum, for a week of massages, which since I am healthy, will fortify my general health. Although some Westerners want medicinal treatment--Balachandran says he can successfully manage such modern bad guys as high blood pressure and diabetes with herbs - most, like me, want a 3-to-l4-day massage program. Massages are highly effective for neck and back problems and repetitive stress injuries. They are also excellent for general tuneups, strengthening the immune system, and bringing the body's energy centers back into balance.
His techniques are secret, Balachandran tells me, having been passed down through generations of his family. He contends such methods are more effective than those afforded to university-educated Ayurvedic doctors. "When training comes form father to son, there is no holding back," he says. "Our learning is not like that of a professor teaching in front of a hundred students."
My week with the bearded, muscular Nair, who has a bedside manner exuding warmth, strength, and humor that most doctors would kill for, is marked by rare generosity of time and lavish concentration on me.
"Western medicine treats the disease. We treat the person," he explains. Maintaining that this bond between patient and healer is vital, he limits his number of consultations and massages, to be fully present with each client.
Balachandran explains that because my body needs time to adjust to his touch, he uses a lighter stroke the first days as he rubs his wonderful, hand-made herbalized oils, chosen for my particular body type, into me in our 90-minute sessions. But by midweek I feel that even my inner organs have been kneaded by Balachandran's vigorous, deep massages, which only someone in superb physical shape could muster. Still there is never pain, only the deepest sensual pleasure and relaxation.
He immediately goes to an old knee injury. "Inflammation," he murmurs and treats it with little packets of herbs, which he cooks over a flame. Even though I am doubtful that this 20-year-old minor pain can be vanquished so easily, it will not return.
I soon realize that not only my body but my spirit looks forward to my time lying on his 600-year-old massage table, lovingly passed down through generations of Nairs. I feel moments of profound peace and notice my usual volatile self has calmed down.
Often I linger after my massage just to soak up Balachandran's serenity. The healer explains that his strength is due to rigorous meditation. Although not all Ayurvedic practitioners meditate, both Ayurveda and Kalaripayat have a spiritual basis, recognizing a vast harmony, of which we humans are only a small part.
He frequently interrupts our conversations to deal with some of his 200 Kalaripayat students. The kids practice their intricate routines in a large studio. Although most of them are put through their paces with strenuous exercises, the more advanced use sticks, knives, and swords, which are very real and very sharp.
In addition to tending to students and patients, Balachandran is kept busy brewing his own medicine on a fire outside. His tonics are from herbs he gathers in the Keralan countryside with a prayer thanking the plants for the use of their parts.
My week of massage ends all too quickly. I feel as if I am a new person, with a body so deeply relaxed that it often leads my busy mind into quietness, and a renewed spirit, coaxed out of its retreat from the stresses of my modern world by the age-old remedies of a healing hand and an open heart.