Today I experienced a castor oil ‘bath’ (it’s actually more like a massage, just with a LOT of oil), which is a traditional weekly Ayurvedic home remedy often used by ashtanga yoga practitioners. Pattabhi Jois used to recommend that students have one every Saturday (the weekly rest day), the reason being that, as well as relieving joint pain and stiffness, this natural oil is also supposed to reduce excess internal heat in the body (known as pitta in Ayurveda), which tends to be generated by the regular practice of dynamic yoga like ashtanga, especially in a hot climate such as India. A sign of excessive internal pitta is supposed to be painful, stiff joints and, seeing as I feel like I’m becoming stiffer and stiffer with each day, I thought I’d give it a whirl.
It turns out that there are only two people in Lakshimapuram giving castor oil massages – one is an old student of Pattabhi’s, who has massaged many of the first western students that came out here, now veritable yoga celebrities. However, I went with a masseur closer to home, Lekhan, who had been recommended to me by a friend. I found out that the reason so few people offer the massage is because it’s such hard work moving the thick, gloopy oil around the body: “Two or three castor oils massages in one day ad I’m finished!”, Lekhan exclaimed.
I have had many massages in my time, yet even with my massage credentials, the castor oil experience was pretty novel. For a start there was the slightly sinister Ayurvedic massage table, which dominated the candle-lit massage room and wouldn’t have looked out of place in a fetishist’s chamber of sordid horrors. It was huge (you had to go up some steps to get onto the table) and made of dark wood and black leather. A large copper bowl hung from rope above where the head goes, like a threat.
Then there was the unusual situation of using Lekhan’s personal bedroom to change in rather than a dressing room. I had to restrain my nosy tendencies somewhat… Then there was the usual confusion regarding ‘how undressed to go’, having been handed a towel and left to get on with things. Lekhan had mentioned that towels would be used on the table, by which I assumed he meant in order to protect my modesty. However, I was very aware that I was in a country where women tend to remain very covered up and would never be found in the situation I currently found myself in: wearing just a thong and a towel, alone in a strange man’s house. So I hoped I’d not overdone the undressing… Thankfully, Lekhan didn’t bat an eyelid when I entered the room, phew.
To begin with I sat in a chair whilst Lekhan vigorously massaged thick oil into my hair and scalp and I was introduced to his thumbs – blimey, they were quick and strong. I guess it’s all those castor oil massages… He is the kind of masseur that shows no mercy – those thumbs weren’t stopping for anyone, even when a whimper escaped my lips. It made me chuckle that, above the hauntingly beautiful sacred chant music playing softly in the background, you could also hear the neighbour noisily hawking up phlegm, just to remind me that I was still in India.
Then it was time to mount the steps to the massage table of doom. At this point things got very messy, and I realised I had left my dignity at the door along with my flip-flops. A LOT of warm castor oil was poured over me and those thumbs worked their sadistic magic into my aching muscles once more. I couldn’t stop thinking about the amount of time Lekhan must spend cleaning up – there was oil everywhere, so much so that, when I was instructed to turn over, Lekhan had to hold onto one of my arms to stop me sliding off the table!
Towel etiquette was present, but not as stringent as in the paranoid, litigious west. I definitely inadvertently flashed my bum at him a few times. But it was all very professional and Lekhan clearly knew his stuff, helping me to un-stick a collar-bone injury that I’ve picked up this week (blimmin’ supta kurmasana) and kneading into some very tight areas. He found a particularly tender spot above my right buttock that I hadn’t been aware of before (suddenly I was VERY aware of it!) and he worked on this for some time, pulling my leg around whilst leaning into the spot with all his weight – I nearly yelped in pain but the area definitely eased afterwards. Since returning and reading up on the benefits of the massage, I’ve discovered that excess pitta is often felt as intense tightness and pain in the right lower back/hip area – coincidence?!
After the massage I was given a bowl of black paste (soap nut powder and water) and sent to Lekhan’s personal bathroom to shower off (again, nosiness reluctantly reined in). I had to rub the paste into my hair and body and shower it off twice, then do the same again with normal soap – apparently the soap nut paste is the only thing that will cut through the extreme grease. Excitingly, Lekhan had an actual shower with actual hot water – bliss!
I was told that I might feel cold and tired for the rest of the day and to take it easy. As I type this, my hands and feet are unusually cold and I am a tad wiped out. Still, back-bending beckons so off I trot…
Would I do this again? Yes, I think I will try and do it weekly as Pattabhi recommended, at least for the experiment, to see if it eases my stiff joints. As they say, ‘when in Rome…’ (or rather ‘when in Mysore…’). 😉