I'm supposed to be a mentor but I am jealous of his perfect chakras | Brigid Delaney

My colleague Michael Safi was finishing his stint as the Guardian’s India correspondent, having covered the world’s biggest election, the Sri Lankan mosque attacks, the Delhi climate emergency and the plight of members of the country’s lowest caste – the Dalits.

Yet in his three years as south Asia correspondent, he had never discovered his dosha.

Doshas are the three energies that define every person’s makeup and, according to ayurvedic medicine, everyone has a dominant one.

“You cannot leave India without trying the region’s traditional medicine! You need to discover your dosha before you depart,” I advised. And because I was Safi’s mentor in Sydney, he took me seriously.

During Safi’s last week in India, we met in Kerala, the home of the Indian wellness industry, for ayurvedic treatments that ranged from the absurd to the messy to the depressing. It was strong stuff. This was the real ayurveda – not the watered-down version most westerners get at their suburban shopping centre.

On the internet I found an ayurvedic healer, Annie, who advised us that THE first step was to get our chakras in order.

I went first. Annie scanned my chakras by moving her hands about 4cm away from my (clothed) body. The reading took a lot out of her. She huffed and strained and panted above me. I was very depleted, she said. My levels were all over the place. “There’s fear there, and rejection.” My personal vibe was low.

Automatically, I ran a mental program through all the fear and rejection I had experienced in my life, an unpleasant process no doubt further damaging my chakras.

She suggested a follow-up session, or even better: “Stay for a month and have treatment every day.”

Session over, I sat – very depressed – in the waiting room, for Safi’s session to end. Annie came out beaming.

“He’s asleep in there, like a child. He’s got perfect chakras. He’s a young man, full of vitality and energy. He doesn’t have the problems you have.”

OK, whatever, Annie.

Safi and his perfect chakras came out of the room looking relaxed and I regarded him sourly. Just wait until he’s old as I am, I thought – life will happen to him, and his chakras will degrade.

Brigid Delaney and Michael Safi

The author with Michael Safi (and his perfect chakras). Photograph: Bridget Delaney/The Guardian

Later I said to Safi: “Annie loves you. She says your chakras are so aligned that you fell into a deep sleep.”

“I wasn’t asleep,” said Safi. “I was just lying here waiting for her to tell me it was over, but she left and didn’t come back into the room.”

He reassured me his chakras weren’t perfect, he’d just lied to Annie because he found her questions intrusive. “She asked me all these questions about my sex life and work, so I just made some stuff up.”

Next up was ayurvedic massage. It was monsoon season in Kerala and the sky had this grey, cotton ball texture. Even walking a couple of blocks from the guesthouse to the coffee shop left us drenched in sweat.

So it was unpleasant to discover what an ayurvedic massage entailed: being smothered in litres of oil while lying on a high table in a hot, dark room, wearing nothing but a strange, fragile paper undergarment thing. The thing was a kind of belt with a sort of piece of string that goes under you, but they left it untied so it just hung down, getting in the way. Then lying on a slab, relaxed, wearing nothing but the thing, you have hot oil poured over you from head to toe.

Having oil poured over my head was more annoying than anything – it would take ages to detangle my hair – but the feet were a hazard.

“Woah!” I said, once it was all over, clutching at the table with my slippery hands as the soles of my feet, covered in oil (almost comically) failed to gain purchase on the floor. Just my luck that I would die in this undignified way in the pursuit of wellness (I want to die fully clothed, not nude, not covered in oil, not in this strange undergarment, not in Kerala, not while mentoring).

After the treatments, Safi and I hit the town for dinner. Our look was bad. Very oily, flat hair, oily skin, heavy sweat pouring out of every pore (but struggling to escape because it was trapped by all the oil) and, in my case, scattered energy and depleted chakras. We walked across rickety bridges over polluted waterways that smelled of wildebeest carcasses rotting on the banks.

Safi was confused and unhappy with his massage. “They covered me in oil and then filled these bags with herbs and spices and started tapping them all over my body. The room was really hot and it started to smell like someone was cooking roast chicken. And then it hit me: I was the chicken.”

At one stage “the man was hurting me and I had to say, ‘Mate, stop it.’”

By the next morning I was feeling optimistic, excited, even.

“You’re going to get your dosha today!” I told Safi. “Could be life changing. Once you know your dosha, you’ll know when to eat, what to eat and what temperature your drinking water should be.”

We returned to the clinic after a walk in the wet heat (hair still oily, stuck to damp, sweaty forehead, covering the puzzling development of acne). Safi was talking to the doctor while signalling me with his eyes. The signal said: what the actual fuck?

In a tuk-tuk on the way to lunch, he elaborated. “He said he needed to rate me against a list of physical attributes. One of them was whether my eyes were ‘unpleasant and resemble those of the dead’. He actually checked!”

I didn’t fare much better. My session was, as was the pattern, depressing. “She gave me my dosha, which I’ve already forgotten, and asked me if I was depressed.”

The doctor also drew a frightening diagram on the whiteboard – a woman shaped like a triangle with the words “vomiting”, “purgation” and “enema” on them, pointing at various body parts.

“I didn’t realise blood-letting was still a thing,” I told Safi, who had been advised to use leeches if he had a wound or sore.

Ayurveda has a long, strong tradition in India, and traditional healers practise today all across the country, in conjunction with modern medicine. But we shouldn’t have jumped straight in. We were western novices, floundering in a vat of hot oil.

I thought once our time in Kerala was over, Safi would fire me as a mentor. But, as life has not got to him yet, he kept a sense of humour about our adventures in ayurveda, even joking: “Brigid is her own worst enema.”

Brigid Delaney is a Guardian Australia columnist


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