Kayakalp: Paradise on Earth

I dreamt a few nights ago that I was packing to return to India. My backpack was open, and I was considering which clothes to tuck inside. I was heading to Kayakalp, and I couldn’t wait to get there.

Ever since I returned from India a few weeks ago, I have been thinking about when I might return. I hope that I can do so at the start of my next sabbatical, but that won’t be for a while. In the meantime, I continue to process all that I saw and learned and experienced.

On my patio at Kayakalp.

India was…marvelous. From the bright, hand-painted saris to the delicious food, the generosity and kindness of everyone we met, and the dramatic architecture of the past and present, India was stunning in its beauty. It also was mind-boggling in how this beauty was juxtaposed with post-apocalyptic scenes of intense poverty. Cattle roamed the streets freely. Cars, motorbikes, trolleys, and rickshaws filled the same streets with a combined urgency and placidity that seemed impossible. Children helped their mothers sell fried foods along these very same roadsides. The smell of the food mixed with … other smells that I tried hard not to identify. In the weeks before monsoon season everything seemed to be covered with a layer of dirt, and water was scarce. Green slowly returned as we drove through the Himalayas, where shrines dedicated to various deities appeared every few hundred meters. I wanted to take it all in.

I wasn’t there as a tourist, though. I was there to learn about how traditional healing practices are being integrated into the health care system, particularly in regards to public health issues. This meant I had a crash course into India’s various public health issues, social structure, and health care system. Being a student again was invigorating, especially since the program was so well developed and executed by the faculty and staff of the SIT Study Abroad office in Delhi. In addition to the well-prepared classes taught by the SIT folks themselves, we met with a minister of health and a leader of an NGO. We asked questions about gender and the caste system and received thoughtful, honest answers. Once we had a basic understanding of the issues and the system attempting to address them, we hit the road in order to learn about two popular traditional health modalities: Ayurveda and Tibetan medicine.

Our first stop (after an exhausting and somewhat painful overnight train ride followed by an equally exhausting and painful three-hour drive in a coach) was Kayakalp.

Kayakalp was a magical place. After the oppressive heat and humidity of Delhi and Agra, the air at 5,000′, while still warm and humid, felt crisp and refreshing. Mountains filled the horizon, directing our gazes upward. We were surrounded by lush foliage, bright flowers, and chattering birds. Our rooms were not luxurious, but they were spacious, clean, and comfortable. My private cottage even included a shower stall larger than my kitchen at home. As we walked through the grounds, everyone we encountered greeted us enthusiastically but with an aura of serenity and deep relaxation. I cannot speak for my companions, but I felt as though I had been transported to a place outside of time, apart from the worries of the world and daily life, where everyone felt peace, tranquility, and harmony. Even though I had only been there for a couple of hours, I was already planning how and when to return.

Kayakalp was established in 2005 by the Vivekanand Medical Research Trust to bring together at one site various naturopathic, traditional, and so-called alternative health therapies. Kayakalp also sought to integrate these modalities with allopathic medicine, as evidenced by the allopathic medical center situated across the street. Dr. Ashutosh Guleri, the Chief Medical Officer at Kayakalp, noted that since “none of the medical systems in the world is complete in itself,” it was far better to create a place in which they could be in communication with and complement each other. This is what Kayakalp seeks to offer. The name is derived from the Hindi words for ‘body’ and ‘transformation’. Combined, kayakalp suggests a complete rejuvenation. Who would not want that? Indeed, Dr. Guleri explained that there were no patients there. Everyone who came to Kayakalp, whether as a staff member or to stay, was a “health seeker.” At Kayakalp, they could not “treat” anybody: “The body has its own healing mechanisms. We create the optimum environment conducive for healing.” Kayakalp therefore is not so much a hospital or clinic as it is “a temple of healing.”

We began our morning with a 6 am yoga class. The instructor taught in both English and Hindi, offering modifications of various sorts. Some participants sat in chairs. Some were experienced practitioners; for others it was their first class ever. Probably most of us where somewhere in the middle, both in terms of experience and ability. We did stretching; we did breathing; we did chanting. And then the most marvelous thing happened: the rest of the class turned to my four companions and me, holding out their arms in welcome, and laughed at us. Then they turned and laughed at each other. As we joined in, we realized that the teacher had given the final instructions in Hindi only. The class ended with a forced laugh of welcome that quickly dissolved into genuine laughter and camaraderie. As someone who likes to laugh A LOT, loudly and without inhibition, I felt as though I had come home.

One of my delicious meals at Kayakalp.

After yoga, we made our way to the communal dining room. Here, food was served that satisfied the dietary and medicinal needs of the health seekers, each of whom had a folder that specified their menu. They showed it to the server before he filled their plates. Since we were guests and didn’t have folders, the server simply filled our plates. At each meal, we noticed that, while our plates were laden with delicious Indian dishes, we didn’t all have identical meals. We began to suspect that the server was using his experience to ‘diagnose’ us and feed us accordingly.

Breakfast was followed by free time for showering, napping, and getting ready for the day. Health seekers would then have appointments with their physicians and treatment sessions. On the two days we were there, we used this time to learn more about Kayakalp and Ayurveda. We had opportunities to tour the treatment blocks, to have demonstrations of acupressure and Shirodhara, and to see the grounds. On our first evening, we skipped the meditation and health lecture because we had the opportunity to meet Kayakalp’s founder and continued benefactor, former governor of Himachal Pradesh and current MP, Shanta Kumar.

Since I did not know about this visit in advance, I had done nothing to prepare for it. In other words, I had absolutely no idea who Shanta Kumar was. All I knew was that the beloved chairman of Kayakalp had graciously invited us to his home to talk about health and wellness. That alone was excitement enough! Very quickly, though, as I sat across from Mr. Kumar, I realized that I was meeting someone very special. It wasn’t just that our conversation strayed to his political work and the moments that he was most proud of — such as bringing clean water to rural areas or making tough choices that reflected his long term commitment to his constituency even though it displeased people and cost him the next election (they later voted him back in). I have since learned more about his career, know more about the moments he was speaking of, and appreciate his modesty in discussing them with us.

At the time, what struck me most about Mr. Kumar was that he radiated goodness and light. He clearly had a deep passion for the pursuit of wellness, and wanted to bring the benefits of yoga, Ayurveda, and meditation to everyone. When our discussion came to an end, we asked if we could take photos with him, and he invited us to join him and his wife in their garden. The brief time we spent out there, enjoying the view

of the sun setting over the Himalayas and chatting about mundane, everyday things, was one of the highlights of my trip. When we said goodbye, both Mr. Kumar and his wife, novelist Santosh Shailja, held my hands and asked me to return soon, to sit with them in their garden. I promised I would do so.

Remembering my brief stay at Kayakalp and meeting Mr. Kumar fills me with a sense of contentment and joy. And I haven’t even told you about all the wonderful practitioners we met there or what I learned about Ayurveda. I suppose I shall have to do another post. In the meantime, I’m going to keep dreaming about Kayakalp, “the paradise where you rejuvenate and regain your health.”

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