If I’d had enough time, I would’ve gotten an Ayurvedic massage in southern India in Chennai closer to where Ayurvedic medicine originated (it came from Kerala, on the opposite coast, but still). It’s been my experience that it isn’t that easy to find reputable massage or medicine clinics anywhere in the world and when we were in Chennai, I never saw a place that looked clean enough to approach for massage or any type of “medical” experience. But I had an opportunity in Naddi Village, just up the hill from McLeod Ganj to survey a massage studio at the Asian Health Resorts and Spa before signing up for a session.
In the United States, I’m not that enthusiastic about massages, actually. But since massage is a type of medical treatment that’s available in most countries I sometimes sample them along with other weird and rare treatments from a variety of medical models and traditions, as long as it seems unlikely that they’ll kill me or make me seriously ill. I’m not aware of a particular style of massage associated with Arabic countries but John was pulled, twisted, and contorted into a variety of positions by men in a hammam in Fez, Morocco. Women washed other women in these public bathhouses, but massage, as a concept with an actual label, may very well be too sexual for Arabic sensibilities. In China, there are innumerable blind masseuses advertising their services and though I never partook in one in China, I did end up at a special school for the blind near Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia where I got a massage from a blind woman there. Lydi and I got massaged in Nepal at Chitwan National Park—supposedly a “traditional” massage, but actually it seemed more like amateurs pretending to be masseuses. And then there was the temazcal in Guanajuato, Mexico, which was not exactly a massage-experience, but people did help each other slather homemade lotion all over each other’s bodies. These experiences sound so sexual. I become aware of the sexual connotations when I start writing about them for an American audience, but none of them were sexual. I guess that’s part of what interests me about these things. Why are we so scared of touch in the United States?
Since Ayurvedic massage was offered at the Asia Health Resort and Spa where we stayed in Naddi Village, Lydi and I decided we’d try it out. We went down to the massage studio first to look at the beds and make sure they were clean, since often, things like this just aren’t clean in India. But they looked surprisingly immaculate so we signed up.
I’d read a little bit about Ayurvedic massage before I got one, which was good because otherwise I might have been put off by parts of it. You see, one of the goals of Ayurvedic massage is to rub oil into the skin until the skin simply won’t absorb any more of the oils. In the western world, we take pills and ingest things for medicine that are absorbed through our digestive tracts. But our skin actually absorbs things much more effectively than the digestive tract and Ayurvedic medicine makes use of this fact by rubbing essential oils all over the body using special massage techniques.
I think my masseuse used Bergamot oil on me, but I’m not sure. She didn’t speak a word of English and in fact, she even struggled to understand me when I held up my fingers to communicate my room number to her (2-0-1). The massage was lighter than say, a Swedish massage, but it was more “intimate” in some respects than any massage treatment I’d ever received before. There was nothing sexual about the experience, mind you, but I’ve never had a masseuse massage my breasts before, which was new. In fact, she spent a substantial amount of time working on my girls and I had to bite my tongue not to start laughing. My masseuse was very serious about her work. And I couldn’t have explained my laughter if I’d suddenly busted up since she didn’t speak English and she obviously felt very “normal” (indeed, perhaps even bored) with what she was doing. She was shy, serious, and definitely not schooled in western standards of modesty. So I bit down hard, cleared my throat, and waited for the “chest rub” to end.
Other than that, the massage was pretty normal. Lighter than a Swedish massage, and oily-er. It was “full body” excluding the face. I really liked it when she worked on my arms. That part was nice. I had trouble walking in my flip flops after because I was so thoroughly oiled as to be slippery. At the end of the massage, she had me stand in a steam bath for 10 minutes or so and then shower off in cold water. I protested against the cold shower since I’ve taken so many of them on this trip, but she got a deer-in-the-headlights-look on her face when I shook my head and refused, “No thanks.” I said. But she just stood there in the doorway of my steambath staring back at me, with a confused, “Why not?” look on her face. “I don’t need to do this.” I said and shook my head again. But she reached for the cold water tap, maybe thinking I didn’t understand her, and turned it on with me underneath.
Overall, it was a good experience, sans the cold shower at the end, but I wouldn’t go into any Ayurvedic massage in India without checking out the space first to make sure that it’s clean and legit. Indian standards of cleanliness aren’t the same as in the west. This is especially true in northern India. Think parasites, ringworm, that sort of thing. And scams are abundant. If you’re not comfortable saying, “No,” to a massage-in-progress that makes you feel uncomfortable then don’t say, “Yes,” to one in the first place; at least not in India. Generally speaking, I’d recommend signing up for a massage with a masseuse of the same gender as you. Or, if you’re not in the mood to deal with the immodesty of a full-body massage, sign up for a reflexology session. That’s what John did. He didn’t get a steam bath but nobody messed with his “man stuff” or made him take a cold shower at the end.