Skin-Care Tips

How an Ayurvedic Massage in Thailand Helped Me Feel More Connected To My Grandmother 8,000+ Miles Away

Photo: W+G Creative
As I lay on the table at the VLCC Wellness Center in Hua Hin, Thailand, a massage therapist plastered my skin with a concoction of rubbing oil and herbal powders. She massaged my back with upward strokes, moving her hands in the opposite direction of my hair. As she worked her magic, I inhaled familiar smells—amla, black pepper, and Bibhitaki—all of which were mainstays growing up in my South Asian household. After my whole body was covered in paste, I sat in a steam chamber and allowed my pores to open as the combination of herbal oils and powder helped my body shed excess water and dead skin cells.

The seasoned therapist was treating me to an Udwarthanam massage (Urdhwa meaning upward and Varthanam meaning move in Sanskrit). This Ayurvedic therapeutic deep-tissue massage has a wide range of purported benefits, including treating lymphatic congestion, managing weight, and exfoliating skin to leave it soft and radiant.

The irony was not lost on me: Here I was in Thailand, and instead of receiving one of the traditional Thai massages that the country is revered for, I opted for Ayurvedic treatment. Growing up, I learned how to utilize Ayurvedic medicine and methods as part of my daily routine—my mom would prepare a potion of turmeric, almonds, saffron, and hot water (or milk) to treat bad coughs and sore throats, or grind up cardamom seeds with ginger to cure an upset stomach. As Ayurvedic medicine continues to become mainstream, I've struggled with the fine line between what I know to be “authentic” versus modern adaptations. So, when presented with a full menu of treatment options at this Thai wellness facility, I was inclined to try something most familiar to me.

Turns out, the treatment was even more familiar to me than I realized—and despite being thousands of miles from home, it connected me to my family and my roots. After coming back from my trip, I learned that my late grandmother repeatedly received Udwarthanam massages to manage her weight and assist with pregnancy complications related to her polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), a condition I also have.

In India, PCOS was once considered taboo, and the discourse around it was limited, if not nonexistent. My grandmother was so embarrassed and ashamed of her PCOS that she hid it from my grandfather because she was worried her marriage suitability, in the era of arranged marriages, would decrease if he knew the truth. Instead, she secretly began receiving weekly Udwarthanam massages, which she said helped reduce pain and remove blockages.

“According to Ayurveda, a condition like PCOS is caused when minute channels in the body are blocked by toxins or undigested waste," explains Nidhi Pandya, an NYC-based Ayurvedic practitioner. "This slows down overall circulation and prevents nourishment from reaching all the tissues. As the inner environment gets affected, the reproductive tissues get damaged and PCOS can arise. Udwarthanam works to mobilize blockages, open up channels and get things moving so the body can restore its function."

Once back in New York, I thought about how the massage was a way to ease some of the PCOS symptoms and pain my grandmother routinely felt. Coupled with a diet that avoided excessive sour foods and dairy products, but included ghee, rice, and high-fiber fruits and vegetables, she was able to manage her symptoms over time. I recognized how the massages could help me deal with my own PCOS, or at the very least, offer symptom relief for a condition I struggled with.  Later in my grandmother’s life, she continued to receive Udwarthanam massages after having my mom and my uncle, as it helped to strengthen her abdomen and other muscles after childbirth. This preventive approach even appeased my own fears related to future childbirth; if she could get through it, so can I.

I’m fortunate that in my world, PCOS doesn't carry quite the same stigma for me as it did for my grandmother, and that there's now a deeper understanding of how to treat the condition with hormonal and lifestyle changes than there used to be. Even so, the 60 minutes I spent experiencing the Udwarthanam massage taught me about being open-minded to holistic solutions, which I might have previously dismissed. The massage not only made me feel connected to my grandmother and our Ayurvedic heritage, but it also reminded me that I'm not alone—there's an entire community of women who are in the same boat, and none of us should have to suffer in silence.

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