Chasing Tigers, Poking Cobras - A Yoga Blog

Oil Bath Magic

Vasu and me, one fine summer's day.

Vasu and me, one fine summer's day.

I imagine that throughout the world ashtanga yoga teachers view their personal students as the very best, the very most special of all students.  Certainly I do.  My students prove to me over and over again that they are truly gifted.  After my recent post regarding Oil Bath my student Vasu, a remarkably young at heart woman hailing from Tamil Nadu, came to me with a bottle of Ponnangani Thailam (oil used specifically to reduce pitta) and a story.  Below is that story, written in her own words.  It is a story of love and loss, memory and dreams.  Vasu is now the age her Patti was then and is a vibrant addition to my life and the lives of everyone in the ashtanga satsang. Be prepared for gentle smiles, feelings of warmth and longing, and perhaps a tear or two. 

Oil Bath Magic

by Vasu Varadhan

“Shoodu, shoodu, thalai shoodu” Patti cries out, as her fleshy palms knead my scalp. Seated with my back to my grandmother, my body stiffens at her pronouncement, which sounds more like a lamentation, claiming my head is hot, very hot. She unbraids my long single plait and runs her fingers through the strands. “The ends are dry. It must be that shampoo you use in America. What you need is a hot oil bath to cool you down,” she says with an air of finality, leaving me perplexed as my eight-year old brain tries to make sense of the contradiction in her remark. It’s an early Friday morning at the start of my summer vacation at my paternal grandparents’ home in Madras. The oil bath sounds alluring, a refreshing change from the monotony that has begun to set in. Besides, I love my Patti who showers me with the kind of attention that my mother cannot spare as she gets ready to gallivant around town to do her shopping and visit friends. Although my younger brother, Ranga, makes for a good companion at times, force of habit finds me more in the role of his caretaker. The oil bath sounds mysterious and, if Patti is right, it seems like a good cure for the summer heat that is beginning to surge.

My smattering of Tamil is enough to make me conversant and I hang on Patti’s every word. I come to learn that Tuesdays and Fridays are auspicious days for women to have an oil bath and that for men, Saturdays are preferred. Patti has no explanation as to why this is so except to say that it’s always been the custom. I rush off to have my cup of Ovaltine while Patti summons my Aunt Saroja to gently warm the Gingili oil. I return quickly to the main hall which doubles as a space to greet visitors and is essentially where my Patti spends all of her waking and sleeping hours. She beckons me to sit on a small wooden plank which she positions directly under the ceiling fan and has me strip to my underwear. Fanning out my hair, Patti applies the first few drops of warm oil and begins to massage my scalp. She chatters away describing the miraculous healing power of the Gingili oil. Normally frail of health, Patti claims to be rejuvenated and revitalized on oil bath days. It relieves her symptoms of fatigue, tension and insomnia that plague her and erases the wrinkles on her seventy-year old skin. As if she is not proof enough of its beautification properties, she declares with authority that Cleopatra herself anointed her body daily with the oil. As more of the oil seeps into the follicles, my eyes begin to close and Patti’s words seem to echo in the distance. The trance is broken as Patti gently lifts me up and slathers the remaining drops of oil on my arms and legs. With a last flourish, she swipes my cheeks with her oily palms and beams, “This is done so you’ll never forget me Vasu.” She draws me close, kisses the top of my head and pays no mind to the oil stains on her sari. We play Snakes and Ladders to while away the time it takes for the oil to work its magic.

An hour later, Patti leads me by the hand to the bathroom at the rear of the house. It’s dank and dark inside. The floor, paved in stone, is chilly and slippery under my feet and I steady myself by grasping one end of Patti’s sari. A thin film of oil, a remnant of previous oil baths, coats the tiles. Patti gently lowers me onto a broad wooden plank that not only cushions my bottom but prevents me from sliding all over the place. A low-wattage bulb emits a dim glow and the only other source of light are the sparks dancing off the firewood in the clay oven on top of which rests a huge cauldron of water that is close to a boil. Mugs of hot water are poured into two buckets and cooled with the right amount of well water without making it overly tepid. Shikakai, a powder ground from soap nuts and used as a natural astringent, has been mixed with a few drops of water to a thick paste which rests inside half of a coconut shell. Patti warns me to close my eyes as she works the Shikakai into a lather. The tiny granules have a way of lodging themselves on the eyelashes and, despite being careful, my eyes begin to sting. Patti blows sharply into my eye to loosen the particles of Shikakai and gently wipes them away with the end of her sari. She wraps my hair in a thin cotton towel, expressely made of a special weave to increase its absorbency. I run my hands up and down my arms and legs amazed at the softness of my skin as I slip into my pavadai and see in the mirror that my face is aglow. The oil bath is truly magical.

Ponnangani Thailam

Ponnangani Thailam

I return to the main hall and see Patti lighting little gray pellets spread on a flat iron plate with a long handle. “It’s Sambarani,” she says, “a fragrant incense, that will perfume your hair.” Patti turns over a big wicker basket to cover the fumes emanating from the Sambarani and with one hand cradling my nape, she gently lowers my head on top of it. She spreads the tendrils of my hair to insure each strand dries as wisps of smoke escape through the crevices. I’m afraid my hair will catch fire but Patti’s soothing hold is reassuring. The dying embers of the Sambarani signal the end of the oil bath ritual. Slowly, with care, Patti extricates my hair from atop the basket and gently removes the knots with a short wooden comb with wide teeth. She braids my hair, still slightly damp, in a loose plait and turns me around to face her. With a self- congratulatory air, she marvels at the glossy shine of my hair, proof of her handiwork as a true labor of love. The oil bath ritual leaves me enervated, sapped of all vitality which Patti claims is one of its benefits. I succumb to the languorous feeling it induces and doze off curled up in Patti’s arms. It is a sweet remembrance--sensuous, loving and intimate--of an oil bath that belongs forever to another place and time.


Barely three months later, news of Patti’s death reaches us in New York with an early morning telegram that arrives on one of the most celebrated days throughout India, Deepavali, the Festival of Lights. The October sky casts an even darker shadow over our apartment and the oil lamps Amma traditionally lights that day, are put away. The holiday which signifies the triumph of good over evil makes Patti’s sudden death harder to comprehend. How could an inauspicious event occur on such an auspicious day? In the quiet of my room, I mentally rewind to the times we last shared this past summer and I can almost smell the sesame roasted Gingili oil and aromatic Samabarani. I want to be whisked away into Patti’s arms and feel again the warmth of her embrace and, most of all, I long to have another oil bath with her.

Amma, much like Patti, invests the oil bath with a magical potency capable of curing everything form insomnia to indigestion. In keeping with her strive to authenticate and preserve as much of her Indian traditions as possible, Amma has tins of Gingili oil sealed in wax along with packets of Shikakai powder shipped from Madras. Like most South Indian Brahmin families, she is accustomed since childhood to take an oil bath at least once a week. Her long hair, jet black with a glossy sheen, attests to its benefits. However, I can barely remember Amma taking an oil bath here in America. I have but a fleeting image of her hair coated in oil and later seeing her in the kitchen with a thin towel wrapped around her head. I can only infer that she indulges herself in the ritual when I’m away at school. Strangely, my first memory of an oil bath is the one with Patti although Amma assures me she has given me several before. The only other oil bath that sticks in my mind is the one I have during the summer following my Patti’s death.

On a hot Sunday in June of 1956, I rise early, my mood somewhat foul, as I trudge downstairs to grind the coffee beans, a chore that has become as routine as brushing my teeth. Just last night, Appa, his arm around me, has pleaded with Amma, “Let Vasu sleep late for once. Tomorrow’s a Sunday, the last day of her weekend. The coffee can wait until later.” Amma responds with a noncommittal shrug but I can tell from the look in her eyes that tomorrow morning will be no different from all the other mornings. As the water drips through the filter, I feel deeply touched by Appa’s concern for me and exceedingly grateful to have him as an ally but it is of cold comfort when I realize that his regard for me is as short-lived as his presence in my life.

Amma fixes the coffee South Indian style, pouring the brew, she calls “decoction,” into the stainless steel tumbler placed inside a dabara, a wide saucer with lipped walls. Lightened with hot milk, it is the perfect way to start her day and the only proper way to drink coffee, she says. Porcelain cups, in her view, mar the flavor. Appa, prefers to have his coffee in bed while poring over the international and national news in the Sunday New York Times. Amma saves the advertising sections for later reading. My older brother, Ramu, is tinkering with his Erector set, while my younger brother, Ranga, reads in his room. With everyone suitably occupied, Amma is free to focus her attention on me and start the preparations for my oil bath. As she warms the Gingili oil in a cast iron skillet, I smell the nutty aroma of the sesame seeds. Seated on the kitchen floor with an old towel wrapped around my pajama top, I unbraid my hair, normally in a tight plait, and feel weighted down by its length and thickness. Amma, clad in an old sari that bears the stains of previous oil baths, takes a palmful of the warm Gingili oil and gently begins to massage my scalp. Her breathing is labored as she musters as much strength as possible with her bony fingers. I savor Amma’s sensuous presence much like I did Patti’s and am soothed by the touch of her hands, the smell of her body and the taste of her breath redolent of morning coffee. I have an irrepressible urge to bury my head in the folds of her sari but I stop myself. Amma does not like to display or receive affection in a physical manner. She has an aversion to being kissed and pushes me away exclaiming in distaste that kisses carry saliva filled with germs. She even rebuffs Appa who has a habit of kissing her hello when he returns from work. Without fail, Amma turns her cheek as Appa’s lips brush her hair. Although hugs and cuddles are germ-free, Amma saves these for my older brother, Ramu, and has none to give for Ranga and me. She feels Ramu has been deprived of affection since he was sent to boarding school at a young age and must therefore be compensated. The oil bath is my only opportunity to grasp at a shred of intimacy with my mother no matter how restrained.

Amma gathers my hair into a knot and tucks it under a few strands to keep it in place and, with the little oil that remains, she coats my face and arms. I wait for her to say, “I won’t forget you Vasu,” like Patti did but her lips don’t move. I have an hour to kill before my bath and wish I could play a board game with my younger brother, Ranga. I remember how quickly the time passed when Patti and I played Snakes and Ladders. But Amma will hear nothing of it. She is afraid I will accidentally ruin the furniture with grease stains and steers me towards the bottom step of the staircase where I’ll be out of harm’s way. I can feel the droplets of oil seep into my follicles, and am intoxicated by the aroma of the Gingili oil. The tension and tautness in my muscles start to abate and I close my eyes.

I am roused by the whisper of Amma’s sari as it brushes against my arm and follow her up the stairs. Now, nine years old and more self-conscious of my body, I persuade Amma to let me bathe in my underwear. The steam arising from the two plastic buckets of hot water does little to ward off the chill of the cold ceramic tile as I lower myself into the bathtub. Goose pimples rise on my arms and I begin to shiver. I look up at Amma who drowns my stare with mugs of water and cautions me to keep my eyes closed as she applies the Shikakai paste. “Your hair is thick and long and will use up a lot of Shikakai which I can’t get here for love or money. I’ll have to use a little shampoo at the end to get rid of the oil,” she says. I love the smell of Johnson’s Baby Shampoo in my hair and that it’s the Baby No Tears brand is an added plus. Amma concentrates all her efforts on cleaning my hair as if she is ridding a cloth of deeply-set stains. She seems to forget it is attached to a human being. Once my hair is cleansed, she sweeps it up into a pile and stuffs it under a shower cap. She abruptly leaves having done her bit and instructs me to wash the rest of my body. Amma’s cold efficient attitude makes me shiver again and I seek warmth in the bath water that has now risen to my waist since the grains of Shikakai have clogged the small drain. I sit chest-deep in a stagnant pool of murky brown water, a ludicrous cloud of white shampoo bubbles floating across its surface. I finish bathing as quickly as I can before the tub overflows. The only part of me that is squeaky clean is my hair.

I inspect the strands for any tell-tale signs of the Shikakai of which there are many and it looks like I have a bad case of dandruff. I bend my head over the sink and using a terry towel like a threshing machine, I try to shake loose as many of the tiny particles as possible. My efforts are in vain. My wet hair is a magnet for the pesky granules. I have no choice but to wait until my hair is dry to comb out the remnants of the powder. My stomach begins to growl and suddenly I feel famished.

I know this Sunday lunch will be special because Appa’s home. Amma breathes her love into his favorite dishes: fenugreek sambar, tomato rasam, small eggplants stuffed with spices and a carrot and cucumber salad. Forsaking our usual habit of sitting around the dining table, we revert to the custom of eating Indian style. Unwanted sections of the day’s New York Times are strewn across our kitchen floor. Although we are cramped for space, we manage to sit cross- legged in a circle, each of us with our own stainless steel thali, the traditional plate for eating food, that Amma had shipped from Madras. Using only our right hand, we scoop the food into our mouths smacking our lips in appreciation. There is a look of pride on Amma’s face and in every morsel of food, I taste the love she cannot express in a hug or a kiss. It is the kind of nourishment that comes natural to Amma and it is all I can come to expect. This miniature tableau of family togetherness is a rarity and it satiates a hunger in me that far exceeds the satisfaction of a good meal.

I am in dire need of a post-prandial nap but Amma insists I either get the tangles out of my hair myself or let her do it. With no hesitation I opt for the former. Amma is rough with the comb and yanks at every knot and snarl with such vengeance I often fear my hair will be pulled from its roots. The heat in the apartment is unbearable and with no air conditioning, the only source of relief is the standing General Electric fan in my parents’ bedroom. Amma, more than Appa, relishes her afternoon nap and, as a rule, my brothers and I are not to disturb them. Amma makes an exception this day and says as long as I am quiet, I can use the fan to dry my hair. It’s an unexpected concession on her part which I am only too eager to accept.

I pirouette softly on my toes in front of the only full-length mirror in our apartment. I take my time with the knots in my hair and gather it up to catch the fan breeze around the nape of my neck. I fluff my hair and give it a gentle shake to dislodge the granules of Shikakai. I glance in the mirror and the fan appears to have receded in the distance. I step back and in an instant I feel the steely grip of the blades as they grab at my hair and suck the strands into its greedy vortex. I pull with all my might as if in a game of tug-of-war and scream as the weight of the fan lands with a thud on the back of my head. The last thing I remember is Amma switching off the fan and cradling me in her arms.

The accident bores a hole in my memory. I am frozen in time. A cacophonous stream of voices flood my ears that I can barely identify the speaker. I think I hear my mother telling me that Appa had a heart attack the night of my accident brought on by his fear that I might have suffered brain damage. Someone, maybe a kindly neighbor, or a friend of the family, says I cannot visit Appa at Queens General Hospital because children are not allowed in the intensive care unit. I am shocked by the news and even more shocked to discover that up to now I am not even aware that Appa is no longer home. I am inured to his habitual absences which run like a scar across my childhood rendering me numb to any sense of loss.

Another scene is etched in my mind. Amma is seated at the dining room table, her hands cradling the soft folds of flesh below her navel. She points to her stomach and tells me there’s a ball growing inside. The doctor told her it’s a tumor that must be removed as soon as possible which means Amma must undergo surgery at Mount Sinai Hospital with Appa still hospitalized. Amma assures me we’ll be taken care of by a good friend of Appa’s, a certain Miss Olive Reddick, who will live with us for a short time. An emotional vacuum stretches across the absence of both my parents. Whatever feelings I have are buried in forgetfulness.

Ranga and I are amused by the prim and proper, no-nonsense attitude of Miss Reddick. Although diminutive in stature, she wields her authority with a heavy hand. We plan a childisprank to take our revenge. I see myself climbing through the window of my parents’ bedroom onto the roof, waiting for Ranga to pass me a bucket of cold water. Both of us are perched on the roof’s edge, on the lookout for Miss Reddick who has stepped out to run a quick errand. We finally spot her as she heads home and with great precision we calculate the right moment to tip the bucketful of water over her and congratulate ourselves as it hits its mark. Miss Reddick, her face beet-red, admonishes us in her Canadian accent which sounds British, and banishes us to our room. Without any feelings of remorse, we squeal with laughter and it is the only moment of hilarity that stays with me forever.

My mind fast forwards to an image of my father combing my hair. It appears anomalous since Amma is the only one who does my braid. She must still be in the hospital. Appa and I are seated cross-legged on our maroon-colored Bokhara carpet, my back to him. His hand gently glides the teeth of the comb through the strands of my hair as if it is brittle. I hear and feel Appa’s exasperation with every breath he takes. Short spurts of warm air seep into my cotton top, as he repeatedly tries and fails to braid my hair. I wind up with a pony tail but the tenderness of his touch wraps around me like a second skin.

These mental photographs are the only ones that flash before me. The faces of my father, mother and younger brother stare at me in all their prominence while that of my older brother is curiously absent. The image I have of myself is a mere blur. I cannot recall if my hair is as long as before or whether the blades of the fan chopped some of it off. All that remains is a watery reflection rippling across a dark pool, shards of memory bobbing along the surface.

There are no hints from either friends or family that anything is amiss which leads me to believe that the customary cadence of my life both at home and at school has returned. There is no mention of the accident and its occurrence is but a dramatic pause in the passage of time. However, that oil bath Sunday with its allure of restorative calm and peace of mind stokes a burning disquiet that is palpable. Appa resumes his trips to Geneva but now as he is ready to depart, I hear Amma lecture him as if he is a child. She compiles a list of what and what not to do: No salt in your diet; cut down on eating rice, have fish or chicken instead; do not stay at the office late; try to get eight hours of sleep; and please, please, cut down on your smoking. Appa’s heart attack makes Amma cruelly aware of his mortality and she is afraid to be far from his side. He comforts her with his promise to do as she requests and in his signature fashion, he urges my brothers and me to be on our best behavior. I hug Appa tightly, so tightly, I can feel his heart throb against mine, the beat of its pulse loud and strong. But the usual sadness that accompanies his departure suddenly seems a lot heavier. I retreat to my room for longer periods of time afflicted with a certain melancholy. I fall silent unable to voice thoughts I can no longer remember.

That oil bath Sunday leaves a sadness in its wake, a sadness that bears no connection to its aftermath. It has more to do with the fact that it is the only oil bath I can remember, the memory of other ones in our Queens apartment lost in the shadows. I appreciate Amma’s efforts to safeguard a tradition cherished since her childhood, but somehow upon its arrival in America, it is stripped of its potency and mythical properties. I have a deep-seated need to transport the oil bath back to the land of its birth where it rightfully belongs. I take a mental journey to my grandparents’ home in Madras and once again look up into my Patti’s smiling eyes as the first drops of warm Gingli oil sink into my hair. This is the oil bath laden with magic.