A couple of years ago I visited Kerala, India, and spent a few days in the Cardamom Hills at a retreat that practises Ayurveda.  This (and I quote) is ‘the ancient Indian health science developed by sages, unfathomed scholars, through the centuries’. Ayurveda means ‘knowledge of life’ and is (I quote again) ‘not only a system to cure diseases but a regime teaching us how to achieve and maintain perfect health and the bliss of meaningful life’.

The retreat, Sree Sankara, turned out to be a reasonably modern building, with an extensive herb garden, surrounded by hills and, like all good retreats, didn’t appear to be near anywhere.  My room was sparsely furnished, with its own veranda and with an en suite massage room/shower room/toilet. This was dominated by a big black leather massage table giving off a sickly sweet smell. The whole thing looked a bit scary – not unlike a morgue in a hospital or one of those places where they do autopsies. At night, large black cockroaches feasted on the struts of the massage table. It was easy to imagine a hidden trap door somewhere in the floor that might open without warning swallowing up unsuspecting guests.

Life at the retreat was dominated by three routines.

Firstly, herbal medicines. Twice a day little plastic cups appeared containing the medicines the doctor had prescribed for my wellbeing. I had no idea what these were and when I queried the wisdom of taking medicines blindly, I was reassured that they were ‘harmless’. The medicines were mostly pills of different shapes and sizes washed down with a drink that looked like cold tea but tasted foul.

Secondly, a daily massage. At the appointed hour, two men arrived carrying a flask of oil and lit a candle.  The process was always the same; strip off, clamber onto the massage table and submit, prostrate and at their mercy, while the two men rubbed oil all over you. Then, for one hour, allow yourself to be pummelled front, back and sides by the two men working wordlessly, one each side of you, like bored synchronized swimmers. The whole experience left me in no doubt that I was nothing more than a large slab of meat.

Thirdly, yoga twice a day. This took place in a big hall with a cast iron roof that made an incredible noise when it rained.  Our yoga teacher was an old Indian who was an absurdly supple contortionist.  At the start of each session he took us through a relaxation routine while we lay flat on our backs on mats. In a deep, chocolate brown voice he droned, ‘Relax your toes. Ree-lax your calves. Reee-lax your thighs.  Reeee-lax your hips’ and so on all the way up to your forehead.  Then, with a final flourish, he intoned, ‘Reee-lax your orrr-gans’ and proceeded to work his way through kidneys, liver, spleen etc.  I never quite mastered the art of relaxing these vital organs, if indeed it was possible to do so, but it was nice to think they might be rested.

These daily routines gradually seemed entirely normal. It was easy to imagine staying there for weeks, or months, perhaps even for years, totally submissive and institutionalised.

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