Turning Fifty in an Ayurvedic Spa

on Dec 04 in Fatherhood by

This is an essay drawn from a half dozen or so blog entries made while at the Lancaster Spa.

For a variety of reasons, none of which seemed very inspiring as I prepared to leave, I decided to spend the week of my fiftieth birthday in Fairfield, Iowa at an Ayurvedic spa owned by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Let me say straight out, I’m not a meditator, transcendental or otherwise. I lumped that activity in with Scientology and following the teachings of Reverend Sun Myung Moon thirty some years back as a student in Boston, opting instead I suppose to join the Cult of Cannibis, for its ease of entry, lack of formal dress code, tolerance for original music and its complete lack of discrimination when it came to dietary restrictions. As much as I hate to admit it, after watching the years slip sliding away, I decided a few months ago that the pose I struck on my actual fiftieth birthday really mattered.

At the same time, my parents, bless them, offered to give me a gift. Something special, my mom said. I’d pay not to go to Vegas and I’ve had more than my share of fancy dinners and well-appointed hotel rooms. I’m too far out of shape to do something really bold, like climb Everest and for reasons I will explain momentarily, my wife was not available to join me in anything but a brisk walk in the woods or a visit to the Please Touch Museum.

The reason: I was and am, once again, at age fifty, a new dad, which until very recently, meant every night for the past year and a half at around eight o’clock, my wife and son would disappear upstairs, leaving me alone to surf the internet, watch videos, snack, blog and email people. So no matter how wonderful a day I could arrange or how amazing the meal my wife would no doubt have cooked, I was, unless I came up with something radical, on my own.

Part of the plan was that in addition to being pampered, I’d like to get a lot done. I’m prone to melancholia; no good at sitting still. Being productive is a way of using my mood, like sailing in a good wind. So I settled on a five-day program of massages and treatments, called Panchakarma, interspersed with yoga and meditation, which I figured would be very nice.

To spice it up, I arranged the trip so I’d travel through Chicago, where I’d get to see my sister and brother-in-law, and my cousin, Skip, who lives in Fairfield. I don’t know why exactly, but Skip and fell out of touch in our twenties and thirties, reconnecting a few years ago when his older brother, Rob, passed away. When you spend hundreds of hours giggling with someone when you’re a kid, you’re genetically predisposed to laugh when you see each other again. I like to laugh.

There was an added, unexpected benefit to this that didn’t become evident until a few days after I made my reservation, which came in the form of a four page, single-spaced instruction sheet presenting my diet for the next two weeks, along with these strange little gooey spice pellets and a special teabag that would clear the colon. To call it Spartan would be to understate it. Ignoring the pellets and the Castor oil purging they recommending, I decided to prepare the meals they suggested: grains with names I’d never heard of, well-cooked vegetables like chard and mustard greens, lots of soup, no cheese, no meat, no animal fats, no wheat, no flour, no yeast, no tomatoes, no caffeine. I decided to take the whole rigmarole seriously, pretending I was an astronaut undergoing special training for his mission. I lost five, maybe eight pounds that I’d been unable to shed these past few years. Had it not been for my wife taking pity on me, I might have lost more.


Probably because I’ve dipped seriously into my lifetime allotment of stressful activity, flying all around the world for business, forty weeks a year, I’m a terrible traveler. I do fairly well in cars, much better on foot, and decent on trains, but I’m awful in confined spaces, particularly those large metal capsules with a couple hundred people yakking to one another, consuming food and media, arguing, emitting odors and bustling about, while attendants bark, cajole and issue instructions. My coping technique is to shrivel up into a defensive crouch, quivering with hyper-awareness until I’m able to shut off my senses, before becoming comfortably numb. The numbness usually dissolves after a few days into a deep sadness and then goes away, which is a bummer if the trip itself is short and its purpose is fun.

The morning I was set to leave, there was a story in the NY Times about how airlines are losing pieces of luggage in record numbers, particularly the airline I was scheduled to fly: U.S. Airways out of Philadelphia. I showed up at the airport, fifty-five minutes before my flight, dragged my bag around, squinting at the overhead signs, trying to figure out which line to stand in, when I was told by a snarky clerk that I’d missed the mandatory forty-five-minute-in-advance check-in window and would need to take the next flight, which is oversold. I considered checking my clothing, my books, my Ipod charger, my medications, my hats, gloves, shoes and toiletries — in short, the only comforts I will have to sustain me for the next eight days — for about five seconds and made an executive decision. Then, in the car on the way back home, my wife reminded me that there’s another Ayurvedic spa in Massachusetts, also owned by the Maharishi people that I could drive to which is, in a nutshell, what I did.


I arrived in the tiny town of Lancaster, Massachusetts in a driving rain just after nightfall. The Lancaster Spa, which is known to the TM world as one of twenty-four Peace Palaces is a huge mansion at the end of a very dark, very poorly lit, mile long driveway. Inside, it’s very quiet, very odd-smelling and very empty. Because of my near-sightedness, bad lighting and non-existent signage, I entered the basement and made my way, dragging my bag, through a huge commercial kitchen slash laundry facility and up a set of concrete stairs emerging into what looks like the private home of a Governor or famous industrialist, which in fact it was until about twenty-five years ago. I called Hello a few times, spun around twice and poof, there was Leslie, a very friendly woman who told me I’d come to the right place and welcome.

I looked around. There were high ceilings, long corridors, huge, leaky windows, elaborate wooden molding, and TM brochures sitting on polished mahogany tables, and closed-off rooms that look to be servant areas. Over the next few hours, I learned that the Peace Palace is staffed, or inhabited, by men and women who volunteer in exchange for room and board. Even though TMers don’t consider their meditation practice a religion, there was a monastery-like vibe happening. People had that look of renunciation. And there were also only two, maybe three, other guests in that huge facility, including a fellow who does’t like people, and only allows someone from the staff to come into his room once a day.


When I was in my early thirties, three very different adventures, the first by choice, the other two, for business, helped me to suspend discomfort in new situations. When I was in my thirties, during a very rigorous canoeing trip with Outward Bound, our leaders asked us what single item each of us would take from our packs if, hypothetically, we were going to be stranded on an island for a night. Minutes later, without realizing it, we were beached on mosquito-infested little strip of land in the middle of a lake in Maine, where they left us, clutching our flashlights and candy bars.

The second was into the very center of China in a city, so dirty you could darken a handkerchief just by holding over your mouth and breathing for ten minutes. I’d been invited as a guest of an American who was trying to buy state-owned companies on the cheap, and found out mid-trip that he wanted me to purchase this particular one in Wuhan. On the second night, I found myself in the back room at a restaurant with a table full of Chinese people with a translator who was too inebriated to translate anymore, except to let me know that the head of the local communist party, a very sturdy-looking woman in her forties, had challenged me to drink shots with her in honor of the company she wanted me to buy and that it would be very bad form to decline.

But the trip that most improved my tolerance of difficult situations occurred when I was traveling from the United Arab Emerits to Israel, a journey that, especially as a Jew, you make covertly. Having missed my connecting flight through Athens or Istanbul, I found myself stuck with my (then) partner in Bahrain. Only thing is, he anticipated our problem a good hour before I did, and had the sudden good fortune to book himself the last seat, first class, on a plane heading to London, leaving me, with a casual wave, standing in a line, at the end of which I would be asked to state my name, nationality and ethnic identity along with my destination.

Such things happen to you over the years. Finding myself hungry, confused and a little weirded out by a bunch of TMers in a placed called a Peace Palace didn’t really phase me.


Dinner was communal style, with six women, five guests, all but one of whom were leaving the following day and one very pleasant, voluble senior who’d come up to the center from her retirement condo in Delray Beach Florida. We had an assortment of easy-to-digest vegetables and grains, set out in seven chafing dishes and talked almost exclusively about the treatments, most of which involved the alimentary canal. It was banter of people who’ve already had a strange or deep experience who wanted to impress an initiate, even if it meant grossing him out a bit. I had a poop! and, after that, a round of assurances that I would simply love it. At least in that light, the ones in their late sixties and early seventies who’d been coming here every year since 1985, looked very youthful and healthy.

Afterwards, I went back to my room, a very large, very warm, very clean, very comfortable place with high-speed internet, a television that carried only the Maharishi channel, a lovely sitting area where I could set up my laptop and a terry cloth robe on the back of the bathroom door (the fact that there were also adult diapers and enema bags seemed a little odd, though I didn’t think much about it), and I was quickly summoned to an office downstairs where I had my intake appointment over the phone with the Vaidya, the medical counselor, (they’re careful not to call him a doctor and you sign pages and pages of releases saying, among other things, that you understood that this ancient form of medicine is not a substitute for your HMO or traditional doc). Upstairs again, just before ten, exhausted, I looked around for my headphones.

Entry 3: Day One

Imagine two attendants and a gallon of warm sesame oil. Imagine yourself, wearing only a loincloth, basically a linen thong, being massaged in synchronous motions for two hours with copious amounts of said oil: oil in your hair, oil on your face, oil on your shoulders, back, stomach, legs, feet. I was marinated. I smelled like a kitchen. My limbs made slapping sounds when I rolled over. And my monkey mind, which had been racing since I’d started this journey thirty-six hours ago, finally settled on the not-altogether-unpleasant image of my wife and me, slathered, wrestling in a wok-shaped bed with stainless steel sheets.

It is a little awkward at first, I will confess, being manipulated in such a way by two men who, until that first morning, were complete strangers. But the lead technician, Daniel, was so soft-spoken, so modest and respectful of my privacy though, that that quickly fell to the side, and I was able to lose myself. After the massages, they arranged a steam tent over my torso and after that, when the heat had caused my body to release the more toxins, they bathed my forehead in frozen coconut oil and dripped warm sesame oil onto my forehead, one of the most counter-intuitive, yet amazingly pleasant experiences I have ever had occur inside or outside my head. The fourth and final treatment of the day was basti, an herbal enema, which I couldn’t imagine myself describing either enthusiastically or otherwise over dinner with my fellow guests.

During my treatments, I dozed, I worried, I relaxed, I luxuriated, I made jokes (to myself…no talking in the treatment rooms), I thought about my book, my wife, each of my children, my parents, my friends, and I meditated a little. I felt pampered but also, exhausted. The whole day, the whole week actually, was designed, as Daniel, said, to balance my physiology, which I did have the feeling involved great effort, though little of it conscious. The Vaidya told me that with all this stimulation, the toxins were being rounded up and marched toward my digestive tract for elimination. Too weary and not at all hungry, I went back to my room, put on my headphones and laid down. I listened to Pink Floyd. Comfortably Numb is really an amazing song; one that describes the way I lived my life for well over twenty years.

After napping and then writing some, I had my in-person appointment with the Vaidya, a charming little man with a warm smile and the odd habit of writing every single thing I said down. He listened attentively as I listed my medical complaints (high blood pressure, slightly high cholesterol, insomnia, and depression), and then felt my pulse for two or three minutes, the second time that day I’d held hands with a man, the two of us sitting there, touching knees, in one of the many mahogany studies.

Pulse-taking is the primary diagnostic in the Ayurvedic system: three fingers on one’s wrist and a look on one’s face of intense concentration. With no bloodwork or expensive technology to recommend (and profit from), you can see why the AMA (interesting, the AMA, which is acronym for the American Medical Association, in Sanskrit, is the word for toxins) is acutely unfriendly towards it.

In the Ayurvedic system, human beings have three doshas (the word means structure or function) in varying amounts at various times. Each of them — kapha, pitta and vata — have physical, psychological, emotional attributes as well as seasonal, elements & probably mythological correlatives as well. My body type is naturally a combination of the two doshas, Vat-Pitta, and, according to the Vaidya, I had a Vata imbalance. Not super bad, he hastened to assure me, but good to correct before it gets worse and becomes illness. Years ago, I read Deepek Chopra’s Creating Perfect Health and completely changed my diet, my schedule and began doing biofeedback. I must admit I felt better, but nothing compared to after I quit my job and got divorced.

The Vaidya’s recommendations were as follows:

* Go to sleep early, preferably before ten. Six PM to ten PM is considered kapha time (water), ten PM to two AM, vata (air) and two to six AM, pitta (fire). Kapha is the best time to sleep. Sure. Early to bed, early to rise. Hard to argue with that.

* Eat moist, warm, salty, sweet and sour food, especially in the winter. This will reduce Vata and increase kapha, reducing my imbalance. I like this diet: Eat my favorite kinds of foods. I’m ready to eat for pleasure again, not just to purge my body of ama.

* Practice TM. What a surprise. Don’t you recommend that to everyone? I asked. Yes, but especially for you, the Vaidya said, smiling. It will stop your mind from racing. It will cure the insomnia. My mind flashed to ebay. Maybe I could get a gently used mantra cheap.

After a quiet dinner with Bill, the only other guest, there was lecture on Ayurvedic health that could have put a screaming child to sleep. I was among true believers, which I think creates a certain clannishness and a decided lack of vigor. The way I look at it: death arrives for us all, usually too early and with much suffering, so if somebody finds a system of thought or behavior that eases their pain without hurting anybody, I’m all for it. Besides, tomorrow’s my birthday and I want to chill.

Entry 4: Day Two

My fiftieth birthday. My wife calls and wakes me up. I miss her, but I’m very happy to be here. The morning is nice, but the afternoon is quite painful; I spent much of it doubled over in abdominal pain from the element of panchakarma that is too disgusting to write about. The bastis. Comfortably numb is definitely how one would best tolerate these warm, herbal enemas; however, I was not very swami like when it was my time.

There were massages with even more sloshing around in sesame oil, the discovery back in my room of Grammar Girl, a podcast dedicated to teaching things like when to use affect and when to use effect. And lunch, a surprisingly welcome plate of unspiced, well cooked asparagus and zucchini, preceded by a bowl of rice water and a walk around the grounds, which, after three days of rain, were mushy. I got some work on my novel done, working through a gnarly plot problem.

One thing I will say for this kind of experience is that time passes differently, in a wonderful, stop-and-smell-the roses new way. I like to read poetry journals in my day-to-day life: the American Poetry Review, Agni, Threepenny, an occasional book off the shelf or a poem emailed from a friend. A simple rule of thumb for enjoying poetry is slowing down, realizing that the language of verse, as opposed to the language of discourse, of journalism, even of fiction, is meant to be spoken aloud and savored.

I found myself settling into a new book of poems by Liam Rector, Executive Director of the Fallen World, settling in with a poem entitled, Now, which considers that point in a human being’s lifespan, when he realizes, perhaps at age fifty:

“Then, through no inherent virtue
Of one’s own, but only because
The oldest ones are busy falling

Off the edge of the planet,
The years of governing,
Of being the dreaded authority

One’s self; then the recognition
(Often requiring a stiff drink) that it
Will all soon be ending for one’s self.”

Entry 5: Day Three

Today was a lovely day. On a deep level, this system of medicine, looking at the three doshas, one’s natural proclivities toward types of food, seasons, temperaments, makes a lot of sense. One doesn’t feel the need for scientific proof or debate either. As James Brown made so clear, one feels good or one doesn’t.

I happened to hit on an article on the Internet after lunch about indigestion as a primary cause for insomnia. It was a typical 500 word fluff piece, outlining the problem and offering various suggestions, including fantastic new drugs. How striking, I thought, that nobody gave what would have been the Ayurvedic answer: eat a light dinner. Who’s going to make money from that?

The night before, Helen brought me a clunky old cassette player with a half dozen tapes of flute, sitar, dulcimer and various percussion instruments played by Indian masters (signed to the Maharishi’s record label). They delivered as advertised, “giving rise to a celebratory feeling.” In addition, they are among the very few pieces of music I can actually listen to while I’m writing. I am clearly in the midst of an ideological movement, aka a cult, but as my dinner partner Bill confirms, a nice cult. I’d have to agree. It beats the cult of consumerism. The cult of the Republicans and Democratics. For me, it beats the cult of the big three religions, science, even the cult of the disaffected artist.

Still, I have two peeves, or perhaps what are larger than peeves with the whole Maharishi thing.

Transcendental Meditation, or TM, is a trademarked method of meditating, developed by the Maharishi back in the Sixties and exported all over the world. It offers all the many benefits of meditation — health, mood, improved thinking and more – all of which are well documented and scientific, through an easy methodology (I don’t know this firsthand, because I’ve not been trained). Developers sell ocean front land, Poland Springs sells water, and people sell diet books that boil down to recommending people eat less. I have no problem with this.

But you can’t have a conversation about meditation with a TMer without hearing about studies that prove that by meditating, people can heal the world. There is an oft-mentioned rather screwy sounding idea, which is supposedly proven through statistical research that even if only 1% of a population meditates, the area they are in will have less crime and more prosperity. As if to prove it, Maharishi often recommends and facilitates his followers gathering and meditating with that specific goal in mind.

Yet the cost of learning TM is $2500. Why so much?

First, its proponents tell me, the value in one’s life is that high. Since scientists have clearly shown its healing properties, so the reasoning goes, if you spread the cost of the training over the number of times you meditate in your life, (assuming you’re not going to die soon) it’s really quite a bargain. I can accept this. Really. I like a bargain.

Second, as a dinner guest the other night said, you value things you pay a lot for. Get something for nothing and you may feel it’s worthless. $2500 is significant, so this argument goes, and you will attach a high value to TM. I’m ok with reasoning, but only to a point. It feels manipulative, as if either the technique is too subtle or I’m too coarse to understand its value, or that I’m being treated as a purely economic being.

Of course, in a capitalist society, both of these pricing strategies are legit. The CEO of a for profit company is absolutely entitled to set price for his product or service based on whatever whim he feels, and of course, must deal with the consequences in terms of the demand. And yet when it comes to Pfizer or Merck charging more in the third world for a drug that could cure a disease than anyone in that company can afford, one wonders if that’s ethical Similarly, if, as Maharishi so boldly asserts and claims to believe, meditation can heal the world, why price it so high that most people can’t afford it? It sounds like he might not really believe the evidence? Like he might not really care if world gets better?

If the first problem I have with this, is the profit motive, the second, is ego. You don’t have to be a marketing genius to know that the Maharishi has a branding problem. Last night, a staffer told me that the Canadian government had done a study that determined without a doubt meditators use the national healthcare system less than non-meditators. Terrific right? So how come the Canadian government, and many others who are in a position to spread this practice, doesn’t train everybody in TM?

As best I can tell, it’s the unfamiliar creepiness factor. People don’t like strange sounding cults. People are mistrustful of bushy-bearded gurus. Americans feel gurus are always seducing their young adherents or buying meth from gay masseurs. And TM, like these Ayurvedic products that the Maharishi sells, have his name, his image and his arcane packaging plastered all over them. In line at the supermarket, it’s a guaranteed to raise eyebrows.

So why does Maharishi insist on plastering his name and image on all his products? Why doesn’t he hire a Western ad firm and do some good old Western branding and packaging? Nobody I talked to knew the answer, but it seemed rather Donald Trump-like.

Entry 6: Day Four

Last night, in response to my blog posting, my friend Dan wrote: “Gotta hand it to the Maharishi, though. He’s a survivor. His stock definitely went down after the Beatles renounced him (as I recall, Ringo was the first to leave, saying he couldn’t stand the food). But the [old guru] stuck it out, got himself a registered trademark, and has long outlasted his contemporaries (remember the Guru Maharaj Ji, 13 year old perfect master, or the Children of God, or countless other 60’s luminaries?).”

Dan’s right. You half to give the guy a lot of credit. Not only has he outlasted all the others, but he’s worked hard to bring about a vision that is largely positive, embraced by thousands all over the world. There is, in my opinion, a kind of muddy-thinking that appears any time large groups agree vehemently about anything, but so what? If you want a really well run organization, go to work for a fascist dictator or in a corporation like Wal*Mart.

Entry 7: Day Five

I’m feeling better than I have in years, lighter, my skin, clear, the whites of my eyes, whiter, and my mood, buoyant. This morning, my blood pressure was 90 over 60, which is ridiculously and wonderfully low. No indigestion. No aches and pains. No racing mind. No worries. Of course, withdrawing from civilization for a week is going to do this for a person, but the Ayurvedic system, with its doshas and paying close attention to the natural rhythms of one’s body and the world, really has made a difference in my physical and mental well-being.

If I had to write something for a travel magazine, I’d say: The staff at Lancaster delivers good health using methods that have been perfected over thousands of years, in a clean, luxurious, positive environment and in a pleasant, caring, and efficient manner. For this, one gives up comfort food, television, and socializing, but it’s worth it. At the end of my five days, I was more enthusiastic about maintaining my regimen than I am wistful or frustrated about not having had a steak or lobster as my farewell meal.

Entry 7: Day 6

Signing my assets over to the Maharishi (just kidding).

Entry 8: Going Home

So what of comfortable numbness, which I professed to being my steady state, my primary coping technique through my teens, twenties, and thirties? Am I still like the guy in the song, having drifted beyond a place where I could once see what I routinely saw when I was a child — the fleeting nature of life — before I was spooked by the reality of a human being’s short tenure on this earth? In the car on the way home, I listened to the rock opera, Tommy, remembering how I identified with the deaf, dumb and blind kid as a teenager, back when my parents and adults in general were only coming through in waves, and then, for a long time, not at all.

Born alone, die alone, Rector says in that poem.

Never to have been completely
Certain what I was doing
Alive, but having stayed aloft.

What now? Fifty years old, more or less purified, less numb than before, tethered to this precious life more by aesthetics than by ideology.

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