Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 31/10/2011 (2092 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
It may sound like a version of Chinese water torture, but in India, having a continuous stream of warm oil dripped onto your forehead is something your physician might prescribe.
It's an ancient Ayurvedic treatment called Shirodhara, and it will drive you blissfully sane.
Just be sure to leave enough time between your appointment and the next time you have to appear in public to shampoo out the litre or so of herbalized sesame oil that will have been massaged into your hair and scalp. (Ideally, that will be followed by an extended nap.)
Shirodhara (pronounced shi-roh-dah-rah, with "shiro" meaning head and "dhara" meaning flow) has been used for more than 5,000 years to ease stress, promote relaxation and treat headaches, insomnia and various other ailments associated with the head and the mind.
"It helps to rejuvenate your brain," says Winnipeg Ayurvedic physician Ranjit Rai, who keeps refilling the stainless steel pot suspended above my head as it gently drains on to my "third eye" (or sixth chakra), an important energy centre in many spiritual traditions.
When the pot is empty, Rai's wife, Paramjit, performs abhyanga massage -- using specific pressure and movements -- on my forehead, scalp and neck. The entire process takes more than an hour.
The liquids used depend on what is being treated, but they can include buttermilk, coconut water and just plain water.
Shirodhara is part of a Hindu spiritual science known as Ayurveda, believed to be the oldest medical system in the world. The term combines the Sanskrit words ayur (life) and veda (science or knowledge), so Ayurveda is literally "the science of life."
Like traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), it's a holistic approach to health rooted in the five-elements theory (earth, water, fire, air and ether) and emphasizes bringing body, mind and spirit into balance. Illness and disease are said to occur when the three doshas, or vital bodily energies that compose each person's unique constitution, are thrown out of balance.
In modern India, nearly 80 per cent of the population uses Ayurvedic medicine, either as their primary source of health care or combined with conventional (Western) medicine. Here in North America, however, it's considered an alternative or complementary practice. Ayurveda is unregulated in North America, and so practitioners are not licensed.
Though it has been slower to catch on here than TCM, Ayurveda has enjoyed a boost in popularity over the last decade thanks to the star power of Deepak Chopra, a western-trained endocrinologist and New Age guru who combines the traditional Indian practice with allopathic medicine.
Rai, 45, who left behind a successful clinic practice in his native Punjab to immigrate to Canada in 2009 -- his family followed him a year later -- hopes it'll catch on enough in Winnipeg to allow him to quit his two other jobs and practise Ayurvedic medicine full time. He and Paramjit, who trained as a nurse in India, are both currently working as health-care aides.
He believes he's the first accredited (in India) Ayurvedic physician to hang a shingle here.
To become an Ayurvedic doctor, Rai had to earn a bachelor of Ayurvedic m and surgery (BAMS) and an MD (doctor of medicine) in alternative medicine. Back in Punjab, he also used conventional medicine in his practice, having taken many courses in anatomy, physiology, pathology, gynecology, pediatrics and surgery.
"My brain works both ways because I studied everything" says the father of three, who opened Winnipeg Ayurvedic Centre in the basement of his Fort Garry home in the fall of 2010.
Western medicine definitely has its place, he says -- if you have a heart attack, you go to the hospital, you don't do yoga and take herbs -- but it has a fundamentally different concept of illness and health, Rai says.
It generally defines health as the absence of disease and treats the organ or system causing the symptoms, whereas Eastern modalities treat the whole person and seek to know what's going on with the person as a whole to get to the root of the problem.
"Ayurveda always stresses prevention rather than cure, " says Rai. "It always stresses to eliminate the underlying cause."
So if you go to see him because you're feeling sick and tired, the first thing he's going to do is check what's doing with your doshas. He'll do that by listening to your pulses (there are 12 in Ayurveda), examining the surface of the tongue as well as your skin, lips, nails and eyes.
Recognizing that human beings are part of nature, Ayurveda defines three primary energies that govern our internal and external environments: movement, transformation and structure.
In Sanskrit, the doshas are known as vata (wind), pitta (fire) and kapha (earth), and each of us has them in a unique proportion that shapes our essential nature, or metabolic type. One dosha is usually predominant and may be imbalanced, most often owing to poor diet and unhealthy habits.
After determining your "prakriti" or body type/constitution, an Ayurvedic physician will create an individualized, balance-restoring treatment plan that may include diet, exercises, herbs, yoga poses, pranayama (breathing exercises) and detoxification.
If you're lucky, you'll leave with a prescription for the mother of all hot oil treatments.
(A Shirodhara treatment, which includes head massage and takes about an hour, is $80. For a full list of services and therapies, go to www.winnipegayurvediccentre.ca.)
Some at-home Ayurvedic remedies
To control cholesterol, eat two cloves of raw garlic in the morning, preferably on an empty stomach
To quell nausea, take two cups of water and add one teaspoon each of coriander, fennel, carom seed and a pinch of asafoetida. Boil it until it reduces to one cup and let cool. Slowly sip the lukewarm liquid.
To control diabetes, take one tomato, one bitter gourd and one cucumber. Blend into a juice and drink every morning on an empty stomach.
What's your dosha type?
Vata: These folks are usually thin, with a light frame and excellent agility. Their energy comes in bursts, and they are likely to experience sudden bouts of fatigue. May have dry skin and hair and cold hands and feet.
Balanced, vatas are energetic, creative and flexible. Imbalance may manifest itself in weight loss, constipation, hypertension, arthritis, weakness, restlessness, and digestive challenges.
Pitta: When this dosha is predominant, people tend to be of medium size and weight, sometimes with bright red hair, although thinning or baldness is common. They have excellent digestion, a warm body temperature and a strong sex drive.
When in balance, pittas have a lustrous complexion, abundant energy, a sharp wit and a powerful intellect. Imbalanced, they may suffer from skin rashes, peptic ulcers and indigestion, and be short-tempered and argumentative.
Kapha: This type has a strong build, radiant skin, thick hair and large, soft eyes. They have excellent stamina, sleep soundly and have regular digestion. But when kapha builds to excess, weight gain, fluid retention and allergies manifest in the body. Kaphas are naturally calm, thoughtful and loving and are comfortable with routine. When they're thrown out of balance, however, they may sleep excessively and suffer from asthma, diabetes and depression and hold on to things, jobs and relationships long after they're nourishing or necessary.