Editor’s note: This article was published before the coronavirus pandemic, and may not reflect the current situation on the ground.
It’s not just the latest spa buzzword … Ayurveda pivots on 5,000 years of science and ancient wisdom, with holistic healing, preventative medicine, and the balance of physical, emotional and spiritual wellbeing at its core. But is it all it’s cracked up to be?
“Your dreams are vivid and your sleep is light, disturbed. You need to relax but not with activities like reading—just complete rest.”
I’m looking straight into the steady, near-hypnotic gaze of Dr Sharma, high in the Tyrolean Alps. It’s December and outside, the snow is falling in thick, feathery flakes. It’s an incongruous setting for an Ayurvedic consultation.
Within a few minutes, Dr Sharma has hit many nails on many heads. “Your digestion is sluggish,” he says, peering at my ridged nails and indented tongue. “You use too much olive oil and eat too much raw food.”
He’s spookily right. “And I would recommend not drinking water immediately before, after and during meals as it reduces your digestive fire, or agni,” he advises, looking closely at my face structure and skin. I nod, dumbstruck.
I admit I arrived at the resort a little sceptical, perhaps expecting a nice oil massage but certainly not a health miracle or psychic reading. Ayurveda—which means ‘life knowledge’ in Sanskrit—is, after all, part of a booming, multi-billion-dollar alternative health market that’s always embracing the next trend in search of a quick buck.
But this consultation, involving facial mapping, pulse diagnosis and probing questions, is turning out to be quite a revelation. Maybe there’s something in it…
One of the differences between true Ayurveda and the labels applied to some spa treatments, is that nothing happens without an initial consultation. It’s the cornerstone of diagnosis, allowing the doctor to ascertain your dosha, or constitutional type: Your unique ratio between vata (air), pitta (fire) and kapha (earth).
When these are out of whack, it can wreak havoc on your health. I am predominantly vata, it turns out, and the balance has tipped too far, leading to an overactive mind, sleeping problems, and poor digestion. Dr Sharma gives me some tips on how to adjust my diet and recommends oil treatments that will help ground me, calm me down.
Three days later at the Ayurveda Resort Sonnhof and the benefits are already clear: I feel more at peace, my digestion and sleep are rapidly improving, and my back pain has eased. I’m not a total convert yet, but a plan to go to Kerala has already taken seed in the back of my mind.
This southern Indian state is widely considered the rightful home of Ayurveda where it remains part of daily life. Ayurveda’s history goes back over 5,000 years to the Indus Valley Civilization and was originally based on oral tradition, with herbal medicines and therapies handed down from generation to generation, rooted in the concept that all areas of one’s life impact a person’s health.
“Nowadays, many of us turn to conventional medicine for symptom-based quick fixes. Ayurveda, on the other hand, promotes a proactive rather than a reactive stance to health.”
Ram Wasan, Mekosha founder
While it’s often dismissed as mumbo-jumbo by medical experts in the West, it’s thought around 65 per cent of India’s rural population first turn to Ayurveda and medicinal plants for healthcare.
Fast forward several months and there I am in Kerala, 5,000 miles from home in the Welsh hills, ready to find out more at at an Ayurveda retreat.
Tucked away in isolation on the banks of a tea-green river bounded by tall palms and temples, Mekosha appears like a mirage. I’m handed a fresh juice with lime and ushered into the cool. This new boutique retreat bills itself as the first of its kind in Kerala, with bespoke Ayurveda regimes and 11 spa suites with their own treatment room.
“Time is not relevant at Mekosha,” general manager Elizabeth tells me, as we wander around the Ayurvedic herb, organic vegetable and butterfly gardens. A kingfisher flashes past in a blaze of electric blue. The river floats lazily by. I sense she might be right.
Mekosha, like Ayurveda Resort Sonnhof, is an example of how an Ayurvedic resort should be: A holistic approach to health in the hands of physicians who’ve trained at Ayurvedic medical college, and therapists and nutritional experts with years of experience. Here Ayurveda isn’t just a dubious catch-all for a certain style of massage or a specific kind of herbal soap: it’s a concept that’s been thought-through in minutest detail.
Though Ayurvedic physicians and therapists in India are given state-recognized training, the waters get murkier elsewhere, with no established system of vetting or providing certification for practitioners. It certainly pays to check the credentials of anywhere offering Ayurveda before booking—the annual national tourism award for Best Ayurveda is one benchmark of quality. Standards vary wildly and there are places simply cashing in on an alternative health trend by charging thousands of rupees for a quick back-rub and a smile.
My first appointment is, naturally, with the resident physician, Dr Maneesh. After diagnosis, he confirms my vata imbalance and sets about putting together a tailored programme of diet and therapies for my all-too-brief stay. “A 21-day panchakarma would be best for a total health reboot,” he admits, “but we’ll see what we can do.”
Perhaps the most important is to recognize the limitations of Ayurveda as well as its benefits: its powers are preventative and can be curative, addressing root causes not symptoms, but it is not a quick fix or easy cure-all.
Panchakarma is a three- to four-week, five-stage programme of cleansing, purging and rejuvenation, which involves the likes of inner oiling through ingesting ghee (clarified butter), enema treatments with herbal oils, purgation and sweat therapy to eliminate toxins that result in disease.
“If it’s the first time, it can involve some discomfort,” says Dr Maneesh, “but the pros far outweigh the cons. Panchakarma has the power to reverse chronic conditions, and the difference in patients is like day and night.”
My therapist, Athira, has a mantra-chanting voice as sweet and high as a child’s that lulls me into a soporific state during therapies. These include podikizhi, where medicated herb poultices are applied to alleviate aches and inflammation, and stimulate the nervous system; abyangam massage with warm medicated oil to improve circulation and good sleep; and shirodhara, where a steady stream of oil is gently poured over my forehead from a pendulous copper vessel.
Between therapies, there are yoga and meditation classes. Though I find I barely need the latter. Heading down to watch the river is mindfulness enough. The days pass and I barely touch my phone.
“Nowadays, many of us turn to conventional medicine for symptom-based quick fixes,” Mekosha’s founder Ram Wasan tells me. “Ayurveda, on the other hand, promotes a proactive rather than a reactive stance to health.”
“A famous Ayurveda proverb from the Vedic texts says that when the diet is wrong, medicine is of no use; and when the diet is correct, medicine is of no need,” adds Ram. “The sattvic diet here caters to each dosha to keep our minds clear and at peace, and eventually to develop higher consciousness.”
While this all makes sense in the context and rings true at Mekosha, Ayurveda nevertheless has some staunch critics in Western medicine, opining that its practices might be steeped in history but are now outdated, citing therapies like raktamokshana (blood letting with leeches) and vasantika vamana (induced vomiting) as ineffectual.
Ayurveda is a placebo, others say, with no scientific evidence to prove its efficacy, and controversially unregulated Ayurvedic medicines have in some instances been found to contain toxic levels of heavy metals.
Perhaps the most important is to recognize the limitations of Ayurveda as well as its benefits: its powers are preventative and can be curative, addressing root causes not symptoms, but it is not a quick fix or easy cure-all. Neither is it a viable substitute for conventional medicine when it comes to the likes of cancer or other serious diseases. Ayurvedic medicines can take months to work, treatments need to be repeated with regularity, and dietary advice should be followed daily to see any effect.
I try to pick up tips by observing the small team of chefs preparing healthy, delicious vegetarian meals in the kitchen, marveling at their coconut-shredding abilities and the exquisite chutneys they make for lunchtime thalis (platter). “Food should be fresh, organic, unprocessed and prepared with love—not just here, also when you’re back at home,” says Ram.
Home still seems very distant on my final evening, but I feel infinitely more relaxed and energized than when I arrived. I linger by the river, listening to the whirr of cicadas and the sound of the evening puja (prayer) drifting from Hindu temples as sunset paints the sky pastel-pink.
I’m going to miss this, but I’ll take a small piece of Kerala back with me. In my suitcase, I pack weird-looking cooking contraptions to make Ayurvedic meals, herbal medicines and the firm conviction that I will return—and for longer.
Kerry Walker is an award-winning travel writer, photographer, prolific Lonely Planet guidebook author, and the Telegraph’s expert for Wales where she's based. An adventure addict, she loves mountains, cold places and wilderness.