Peeling away our layers on a 10 day course of Chavutti at PadmaKarma in Kerala

Rosie Walford reviews PadmaKarma yoga and ayurveda retreat in Kerala and finds an exceptional 10 day course of Chavutti – the ancient art of Indian foot massage – transforms her body image for the better

I travelled to PadmaKarma to be massaged for ten days by Padma Nair, who is an expert in Chavutti, the ancient South Indian form of  foot massage. Unlike most binges of sensual indulgence,  this  two week trip worked miracles on my body. The speed that used to make me run at the gym I now walk; the sensation that my thighs were an immovable deadweight has gone. The trip was exotic and wonderful at the time – and two months later I’m still standing taller, still feeling fantastic from the inside out. 

I’d peel off all my clothes, and pad to the leatherette massage bed at floor level. A big brass deity ignored my nakedness, and with no more ceremony than a few mumbled words of prayer to this deity,  Padma would kick off her flip-flops, grasp the rope above her head, and begin. 

There’s nothing quite like Chavutti, and nothing like being massaged ten days in a row. Each day’s massage was utterly absorbing. Each was the same. But the effect on my body – and body image – evolved and cumulated in a way I’d never have believed possible.

At first, it was quite overwhelming to be smothered in pungent Ayurvedic oil, to see a heel looming towards my neck, to feel the deep even pressure of a foot running in unbroken sweeps from my ankles to my fingertips.  Awareness of clamorous India outside disappeared. For ninety minutes, Padma applied her weight as continuous, exquisitely controlled movement. The pressure reached right through my scrunched-up muscles to every bone – it was thrilling to feel at such depth, and at the same time, profoundly soothing. It was like having my posture released and more spaciously rearranged. 

But even on the first day,  I felt something else going on. Because the pressure swept back and forth over fleshy and boney areas without descrimination, I couldn’t isolate and disown my fat patches any more. I could only feel the layout of my muscles and bones. The moving foot painted a picture of my body as I had never envisaged it before – as it felt from the inside – like a lean anatomical diagram. The new image  – or sensation – was so compelling that I was fleetingly disappointed to find in the mirror  that I looked the same. 

‘‘I realised that for most of my life I had been directing shame and private condemnation at my overweight thighs, flesh which since childhood I wished I could ‘lose’’

As the days progressed  the sensations changed. I learned the sequence Padma would follow, learned to submit more actively to the pressure. As superficial tensions were released, I could feel her reaching progressively deeper into my frame. It took four sessions to realise that beneath the layers, much older tensions – now postural habits – remained. I had never stopped clenching my sacrum and the muscles of my hip joints. It was a conscious effort to let go of this area, and one which made me feel desperately vulnerable, but as I did I felt an unimaginable surge of fluidity throughout my body, as though for years some axis of internal  movement had been restrained.  I love that openness now, but when I first walked out onto the street that day, my legs felt uncontrollably light and loose. I didn’t feel entirely safe. 

During the sixth session, the flesh of my buttocks and thighs  burned, protesting furiously at Padma’s touch. I struggled not to flinch or make her stop, all the while experiencing clear visual images of a noxious red fluid being squeezed right out of my most persistent, cellulitey flesh. Like cramp, I had the impression of toxin accumulating around my knees, then as Padma worked down my calves, accumulating at my ankles, before she flicked it out via my feet. 

On the seventh day, the burning happened again, but when Padma eventually reached my toes, I had an explosive, soaring sense of release, not just physical but also emotional. I’d always believed that people’s emotions affected their postures, and so could be written into their muscles long-term. At that instant,  I realised that for most of my life I had been directing shame and private condemnation at my overweight thighs, flesh which since childhood I wished I could  ‘lose’. Suddenly, a history of negativity  long locked into my flesh, felt squeezed and flicked out of me, erased. 

I said nothing – I was too amazed to speak. But Padma yelped with joy. When she first felt my body on day one, she diagnosed  a problem in that area;  I’d denied it, since I’d never experienced discomfort there, no symptoms of the sort I believed massage addressed. But she worked according to what she could sense –  physically or intuitively –   and had been struggling to release a deeply resistant tension in that area  for days. We were both left grinning after that massage; something significant had taken place.