My week in an ashram
LETTER FROM LAURA
The Amrit Yoga Institute, where we've come to spend a week in Salt Springs, Florida, is a five-hour drive north of Miami. I chuckle as we drive past a sign near the institute that reads 'Congested area', posted at the entrance to a few houses in what is otherwise the backwoods of nowhere. But my favourite is the business sign announcing: 'Groundhog excavating'.
It's just 59 degrees. A gentle breeze ripples across Lake Kerr and through my hair as I sit at a picnic table near the institute's pier.
The setting is quite lovely, the entire residence built of beautiful wood with Alpine pointed roofs. Apparently, the compound of six lots was purchased during a distress sale from a wealthy owner fallen on hard times. Massive oak trees, draped with Spanish moss, and walls of lattice brick work, set the scene.
A constant murmur of waves on the shore, the call of birds and elegant cranes landing on the lush green lawns to feed is what I like most about the ashram, its closeness to nature.
Ayurveda practitioners believe in restoring health by balancing three preset qualities or doshas, of which each individual is composed. Dr Vijay Jain, a Western-trained medical doctor who became a proponent of Ayurvedic detoxification through Panchakarma after recovering his own health with months of this treatment in India over a period of years - now lends his expertise to the institute founded by Gurudev Yogi Amrit Desai, who is off visiting followers in California and Canada.
Yesterday I got so excited at discovering an armadillo right beside the swinging bench under an oak tree by Dr Jain's office. I'd never seen one up close before. It was tame enough that my presence didn't deter it from furrowing for grubs around the tree. Then it took off across the lawn, sometimes ambling, sometimes waddling, sometimes scampering, its hairy underbelly hanging between its armour and the ground, its legs so short it reminded me of piggly-wiggly.
We're not far from Georgia and, after three days of treatment, are allowed to leave for an hour. So we drive a few minutes over to see the actual salt springs in Ocala National Forest.
Mullet jump continuously out of the U-shaped enclosure built around the spring's source, a large area where the water is clear enough to see blue crabs and fish amid a seaweed-like substance. Ducks enjoy their morning meals as, occasionally, two huge-winged vultures swoop, gliding between the oaks.
It's early morning and an adorable family - mother straight blonde hair, dressed in ivory with a floral skirt and a little daughter in a long ruffled white dress with a baby brother - have come to see their husband/daddy baptised in the springs. Several tall white men in dark suits trail the baptismal party. We leave them to have privacy, though the young mother invites us to stay.
I'll share my notes of life back at the ashram. Day one is disconcerting. The first shock is flopping down on my bed and having it collapse. I must have shifted the wooden slats to one side of the frame and they fell off the rails. The bed is a thin mattress on slats, so we put the slats back in place and make our beds. The shower stall is clean and once I get used to eating at picnic tables inside what was once a six-car garage, out of communal aluminum pots with our own plastic plate, cup, glass and beggar's bowl, which we wash ourselves by dipping into a sink of sudsy water, then into rinse water and finally sterilising with hot water from a hose before placing them into individual cubby holes on a shelf to which we've attached our names with masking tape and felt tip pen, I finally start to adjust.
LOST SIX POUNDS
Panchakarma components are internal medicines, external actions, diet, restrictions and cleansing therapy. Our regime consists of going through detox, clearing out all the bad toxins in our bodies, no alcohol, no sex, no television, not too much talking, eating healthy food, as well as breathing exercises, light yoga and meditation. My goal is to lose 10 pounds. After consultation with Dr Jain, determining my preset doshas, I've lost six pounds so far with a programme of controlled diarrhoea caused by eating six berries of some Indian herb, a potent laxative.
Dinner is rice and lentils, oatmeal or stewed fruit for breakfast. Once we got carrot soup, another day celery soup. The first day I had rice and lentils but couldn't eat anything for 24 hours after that, just drank ginger tea and coconut water. We also get enemas, three so far and a fourth tomorrow.
The saving grace is daily hour-long massages by two lovely young women, who use warm oil as their simultaneous strokes on each side of the body remove more toxins. Another assistant has twice given me warm-oil treatments dripping over my forehead and through my hair for 45 minutes while soothing music plays in the background. Today, it's warm milk with rose petals.
Mornings begin at 6 a.m. with Pranayama group breathing sessions, often led by Michelle Jain, Dr Jain's wife.
Seated on the floor, one inhales through one nostril, holds one's breath, then out the other nostril and go on to more intricate manoeuvres which actually do focus the mind.
In the evenings, we meditate, but our last one included Indian drumming, music and chanting. The influence of Hindu religion and music on California hippies struck me forcefully. The only difference between Berkeley in the sixties and this was that nobody was smoking pot here. Even the musical group Earth, Wind and Fire echoes the individual's preset balance of Vata, Pitta and Kapha or air, fire and earth. Half our group of under 20 participants return every year for this combination of spiritual and physical healing and we're told we even have trained Amrit Yoga teachers in Jamaica.