January 31, 2014:

Yoga & Ayurveda


     One of our intentions along our Indian journey was to see how yoga interfaces with Ayurveda as a therapy. Kerala has literally hundreds of Ayurveda resorts, hospitals, and clinics of all sizes and price ranges from small Ayurveda centers offering excellent massages for as little as 15 dollars to Ayurvedic palaces where a two week stay including treatments can easily cost ten thousand dollars. Many of these Ayurvedic centers offer some kind of yoga and we were interested in seeing how these two sister sciences were used to support each other.


     What we've discovered is that the yoga classes at the Ayurvedic centers are generally a traditional Indian approach with no connection whatsoever to the patients experience, their state of health, or their Ayurvedic constitution. To explore this relationship between Yoga and Ayurveda in practice more deeply we spent four days at the Kerala Ayurveda River Retreat on the banks of the Periyar River in Aluva, just fifteen minutes from the Cochin international airport. 

     We chose this retreat because it is associated with the Kerala Ayurveda Academy, one of the largest Ayurvedic organizations in Kerala and considered to 

Kerala Ayurveda River Retreat
be among the most professional with a satellite campus in Fremont, California
     As Ayurveda grows and attracts large numbers of people ranging from those seeking to relax to those with serious health challenges, many new organizations have entered the field, often motivated by profit, and so we did some research which led us to the River Retreat.

      Ayurbusiness is a new and challenging concept for Kerala because, as one of the doctors explained to us, Ayurveda was traditionally taught in families. Students would study for many years in the home of an Ayurvedic doctor or Vaidya in the traditional Gurukula system, living and studying in the Guru's home. Their course of study would finish when their Guru knew they were ready. The student would then go to the local Raja and announce that they were "approved" by their Guru to practice Ayurveda. Henceforth they would receive a monthly stipend from the Raja, but would generally administer their services free of charge to all in need. 

      Part of this tradition remains intact because most Ayurvedic consultations are still free, but a tremendous amount of money is at stake in the treatments, food, and lodging. With all of the new organizations entering the field, questions arise regarding the quality of the diagnoses and the treatments. Ayurvedic physicians in India all go through a five and half year course and are certified to practice Ayurvedic Medicine. Naturally not all of the Ayurvedic medical schools are of the same quality, and tourists who are here for a short time tend to ask for Ayurvedic treatments that are quick and easy sometimes sacrificing Ayurveda's full healing potential. 

      Kerala Ayurveda was certainly a good choice, and our time their was very well spent. The treatments were not only thorough and effective, but were also administered with a care and friendliness that shows the true heart of Kerala. Our doctor comes from an Ayurvedic family; the traditional practice of Ayurveda was carried on within families. In this tradition, he explained, each patient is treated as if he or she were the physicians own child. The doctor prescribes a series of Ayurvedic remedies which are taken as directed during the stay. He is assisted by a nurse who came to check our blood pressure and other vital signs both morning and night to see how our healing was progressing, based on the information we had given in our extensive Ayurvedic consultation. We received two Ayurvedic treatments daily by trained therapists who were professional and excellent in every way.

     The doctor's work also brings in elements of naturopathy and energy healing. When Lilian developed some stomach discomfort, he provided Ayurvedic remedies and also asked if she believed in Reiki, energy healing. When she responded positively, he spent some time with his hands in one of the Reiki positions. In terms of his overall approach to Ayurveda, he was flexible and naturalistic. He explained that it is not so important to separate out an individual doshas, but to focus on overall harmony of all three doshas. He also explained that when the diagnosis is correct and the medication is correct, balance could be achieved quite quickly. It is only when the condition has progressed that Panchakarma, the purification techniques are necessary, but that these require proper preparation and need to be selected for the needs of the patient carefully. We found the doctor's approach highly effective in that the few, minor health problems we had been dealing with for several months disappeared completely after just a few days of treatment.


     In terms of nutrition the doctor explained the diet should not be oriented towards the individuals constitution in a hard and fast way, but that our own bodies should be the primary guides as to what and how we eat, and this of course involves developing sensitivity. In fact, the only negative thing we can say about the River Retreat is the danger of gaining weight from all the great food! The Ayuvedically oriented, mostly Indian, cuisine, which was generally not spicy, but was just so darn good that it was hard not to go back for more. 

Kerala Ayurvedic herb garden
Paddleboarding on Periyar River

      After just a few days we felt like we were part of the family and we were sorry to leave. Shanti became a local celebrity by teaching the staff how to use one of our paddleboards on the Periyar River, which was surprisingly clean and even had a family of river Otters living on an island in the middle.


     Still we wanted to find out more about the relationship between the sister sciences of Yoga and Ayurveda, which are so united in theory but apparently disconnected in reality. In order to explore this theme more deeply, I had an opportunity to talk with Doctor Sanjay who is one of the leading teachers as well a researcher at the Kerala Ayurveda Academy.

     Sanjay is both an MD and a doctor of Ayurveda, giving him an excellent perspective on healing both from the East and the West. I asked Dr. Sanjay about this relationship between Yoga and Ayurveda both in theory, and as it was applied at Ayurveda centers in India. He explained that Yoga and Ayurveda have a historical relationship, sometimes coming closer together and at times further apart. Because of the common basis in Samkaya philosophy they are sister sciences, but in practice very few places in India are actually bringing them together. He mentioned SVYASA in Bangalore and Svasa (directed by the Mohan family) in Chennai as the only ones, as far as he knew, that were practicing any kind of Ayuryoga. 

     Dr. Sanjay went on to offer some reasons for this lack of integration of Yogic practices into Ayurveda. In recent times Yoga and Ayurveda occupied very different places in society. The Ayurvedic doctor was very much a part of society, working with the people daily while the Yogi was in many ways exactly the opposite, living according to the Yoga texts and removed from society in order to achieve spiritual freedom. Also, he noted, even among the Yogis, Asana was not their principle focus, it was only a preparation for meditation and Samadhi. So there was no basis for developing any kind of Ayurvedic Yoga with a focus in Asana.

     Dr. Sanjay also mentioned that colonization, first by the Muslims and then by the British, changed the traditional approach to learning, which was the Gurukulam system. Many of the traditional ways of acquiring knowledge were lost, especially in terms of Yoga, and when the pioneers of the Yoga renaissance such as Krishnamacharya and Iyengar emerged, they really had to pick up the pieces from a tradition that had been fragmented by colonialism. In order to explain what they were doing to the "modern mentality," these pioneers of modern Yoga placed a focus on Yoga's benefits for particular health conditions. With this new focus it began to make sense to begin to combine Yoga and Ayurveda in practice, but previously Yoga was a spiritual pursuit while Ayurveda was a healing art. 

   Periyar River

     I asked Dr. Sanjay if this new Ayuryoga, much of which was being created in the west, could then be considered valid. He stated that Ayuryoga was not new because it is based on knowledge and information from the past. He also mentioned that Ayurveda has both principles and practices and that the practices may vary, but the principles are constant. In this way if Ayuryoga develops based on the genuine principles of Ayurveda it is valid. For this to occur, however, the practitioners must have a thorough understanding of both Yoga and Ayurveda.

     He felt that it would be useful to have individual Ayuryoga sessions at the Kerala Ayurveda River Retreat, and especially liked my idea of video taping the practices and giving a copy to each patient so they would have something to practice when they got home. 

     Although the Yoga at the Ayurvedic retreats is not oriented to the individual needs of the student, the Yoga classes are often very good and show an approach to teaching Yoga quite different from what we normally see in the West. Most of the classes we have taken seem to be based on the Sivananda system in some way. This makes sense because of this institution's strong presence in India, especially in Kerala where they have a regular teacher training course. 

     Each teacher, however, expresses their own unique connection to the practice and to Vedic culture, which underlies all of the Yoga classes we have seen in India. The teacher at the Kerala Ayurvedic River Retreat, Rajeev, was one of the most professional we have seen, and a short description of his class allows for an understanding of how Yoga is generally taught in India. 


      Rajeev begins the class by asking us to close our eyes and silence the mind as we softly focus on the third eye. He takes several minutes for reflection at the beginning of class, making it clear that all we are about to practice has the intention of bringing us into silence. He then chants several Sanskrit mantras, beginning with the student teacher prayer, Sahana vavatu, "May there be respect and harmony between us." He then brings us to standing for a series of warm-ups with at least six repetitions of each, including lateral bending, forward and backward bending, and twisting. Between each segment of the class we lie down onto our backs for a one-minute Savasana. 

     He then guides us through a series of six classical sun salutations that develop quite a bit of heat followed, of course, by Yoga Nidra. The poses that follow vary from day to day but have several common features:


* They are almost always classical poses from the traditional text of Hatha Yoga. They are easy to identify because they all have the name of an animal, or a symbolic object such as a Bull or a Plow. We almost never see the standing poses that are so common in the West. This seems to support Mark Singleton's thesis in his book "Yoga Body" that the standing poses were a later addition coming from Western gymnastic traditions. 


* All of the poses are done three to five times each, and there is no holding of the pose except in the lengthened holding of the inhaling breath coming into the posture.


* Every sequence of poses is followed by Yoga Nidra.


* There is always a Pranayama and meditation section within each class. This is not always at the end, sometimes it happens in the middle, and individual teachers can vary its position from day to day. The most common Pranayama practices are Nadi Shodhana, Kapalabhati, and Brahmari. 


* The most common meditation practices is breathing in and out through the third eye, sometimes using Brahmari on the exhalation with the hands in Yoni Mudra covering the ears, eyes, and mouth. The overall effects are quite powerful.


* The teachers mention the benefits of the poses regularly and quite accurately. They also mention the contraindications, but seldom offer any modifications. 


* The Yoga Nidra at the end of class is usually extensive, up to twenty minutes long. The most common theme is simply relaxing each part of the body, but we have also seen some very interesting and creative Yoga Nidras such as being guided to remember each of our birthdays as well as to sense each of the vertebrae. 


     The total effect of these traditional Indian Yoga classes is quite profound and as we return to a seated meditation we sense a connection to the whole of the Yoga tradition and to its roots to the ancient Vedas. Rajeev completes the class with the Patanjali mantra in a clear and powerful voice that lets us know that he is truly living his Yoga. 

     As we open our eyes and look into his, we see the most essential element of Indian Yoga - the teacher's innocence and purity, with the teacher as a vehicle to the true heart of Yoga. We gave Rajeev a copy of our book and he held it lovingly in his hands. "We have material on Asana and Pranayama," he said, "but no detailed information on Mudras. This is a great gift." He gave me the big hug of true Yoga brother and we returned to our room with tears in our eyes, knowing that was we who had received the gift.

     Later that day, we went to visit Kaladi, the birthplace of Adi Shankara, India's greatest philosopher. In his short lifespan of thirty-two years he united the whole of Indian philosophy into a concise framework. He also traveled the whole of India from the very south to the Himalayas and established teaching centers in the north, south, east, and west to hold the essence of Sanatana Dharma, the eternal truth that is at the heart of all Indian philosophy. 

     Perhaps India is now ready to receive a new sage in the molds of Adi Shankara, who can bring Aryurveda and Yoga together as a lived reality in all of the Ayurvedic centers which are expanding across India so rapidly.


~ Joseph Le Page

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