I am lying on a wooden table with warm oil steadily dripping onto my forehead. My body is covered only in a white sheet and two women are gently directing the stream of oil onto my ‘mind’s eye’ just above my eyebrow. Slowly, the deep-rooted tension I’ve become accustomed to for years starts to dissipate and I feel my forehead relax in a way I didn’t know was possible.
This is shirodhara, an ayurvedic treatment that is designed to heal both mental and physical conditions - from anxiety and stress to insomnia, neurological disorders and sinusitis. Its name comes from the sanskrit words of ‘shiro’ (head) and ‘dhara’ (flow), and it is believed to have originated from ancient India.
My shirodhara experience takes place at what is believed to be the world’s first official ayurveda resort: Somatheeram. It was created back in 1985 in Kerala, the region of India best known for its ayurveda and holistic healing, and now helps thousands of visitors with their health concerns. Many of the guests I met from across Europe are return visitors who want drastic weight loss, general health improvement, and in one case, to detox their bodies after chemotherapy.
It is this focus on health that separates Somatheeram from a spa resort. There are daily full-body massages, a pool and free yoga classes, but the resort describes itself as an ayurvedic hospital, and any guests heading to the resort looking for western spa luxury will be severely disappointed.
Treatments are kept traditional - which means any guests who are uncomfortable with nudity may struggle - while facilities are basic, with simple but clean cottages complete with outdoor hammocks. Guests stroll around in green gowns post-treatment with dark red sandalwood masks on their faces. All are there on bespoke ayurvedic packages - from rejuvenation therapy to anti-ageing and body purification.
Every guest is given a personalised schedule after an in-depth consultation with an ayurvedic doctor who looks at their health, digestion, personality and ‘dosha’. In ayurvedic science, everyone is made up of three doshas, or body and personality types: vata (air and space), pitta (fire) and kapha (earth). Doctors use these to prescribe particular diets and treatments in packages that range from seven to 28 nights.
My package aims to de-stress, and I am given a daily schedule that includes yoga, meditation and treatments. As well as shirodhara, I am given a milk bath, where my entire body is bathed in buttermilk, a vigorous massage using heated pouches of herbs, and pizhichil, where warm medicated oil is is poured onto my shoulders to ease tension
When my doctor discovers I have an ear infection, the next morning I find a therapist lighting a fire in the treatment room. She uses this to send medicated fumes directly into my ear using a large traditional horn that cups onto my head. Two days after this bizarre procedure, the infection has subsided.
Each of my treatments follow abhyanga, a lengthy massage carried out by two therapists, and my day ends with sunset yoga alongside meditation. I am taught pranayama, a series of breathing techniques that increase the body’s energy of prana, meaning life force, and advised to incorporate it into my daily routine.
It is no wonder that I leave the resort feeling lighter and yes, less stressed, than when I arrived. The daily diet of food recommended for my dosha (as a vata type, I’m allowed endless dosas and warm curries - but no chilli) is delicious yet miraculously healthy, while the combination of intense treatments and evening meditations looking out onto the Arabian Sea have taken away several years’ worth of tension in just one week.