I’ve suffered great discomfort for beauty, but nobody has punished me for paying them lots of money more than a traditional Ayurvedic therapist. If you’ve been to an authentic Ayurvedic spa or center, you’ll know exactly what I’m referring to: It’s a specific kind of firm handling that only an expertly-trained Ayurvedic practitioner can dispense. 

Your comfort is not our concern could be the unofficial tagline. I’ve been steamed in wood sarcophaguses and massaged on solid planks of wood, my fragile spinal discs protesting as they were ground into the unyielding table with every stroke. The treatment spaces are dingy and spartan, subway tile is often the wall finish of choice, and the therapists can be stern and dictatorial—one Ayurvedic doctor actually tutted at me when I honestly reported my daily caffeine intake. 

I unfailingly emerge from Ayurvedic treatments resembling an unfortunate bird caught in an oil spill, in desperate need of a Dawn degreasing. For days after I reek of fenugreek, which is definitely not a sweet-smelling spice in the pumpkin family. But don’t mistake my kvetching for discontent. On the contrary, I welcome the discomfort as part of the charm. It’s also what differentiates a serious Ayurvedic treatment that one undergoes for its health benefits from a fluffy spa massage that’s relaxing and indulgent. It’s a masochistic but rewarding habit I just can’t quit because of the deeply restorative and revitalizing aftermath. 

If you, too, want to be ground into a solid neem wood massage table, it’s only fair that you know what else to expect. For the benefit of those uninitiated in Ayurvedic bodywork, I asked two Manhattan-based specialists to help me compile CliffsNotes on abhyanga, a full-body massage that’s one of Ayurveda’s best-known treatments.

The vibe is tough but tranquil

In case it wasn’t clear already, don’t expect a typical spa-like pampering. “Regular spas are designed to feel good and cater to your five senses. An Ayurvedic place can smell like an apothecary, it might not be pleasing to the senses, and the therapists won’t have a loving bedside manner, but they have skill,” says Nidhi Pandya Bhanshali, a third-generation Ayurvedic practitioner. She describes the aftermath as “heal-good rather than feel-good.” She continues, “Instead of feeling like you’ve indulged and been indulged, you come out with a feeling that is more therapeutic.” 

Dr. Bhaswati Bhattacharya—a neuroscientist, MD physician, and Ayurvedic doctor—likes the energy of the spa she’s visiting and its staff to radiate calmness and tranquility. However, both experts confirmed that I definitely hadn’t imagined the tough love I had received in previous treatments. Bhattacharya explains the firm treatment is actually by design, a fact Ayurvedic experts rarely reveal to civilians. “Kaphas have been over pampered, so they need to be beaten up a little bit,” she says, referring to people whose body type falls under the kapha dosha. In Ayurvedic philosophy, three attributes or doshas (vata, pitta, and kapha) are present in varying degrees in each person’s body and mind, and their balance, or a lack thereof, is what shapes each one’s constitution. “You need to be a little bit sharp with them to break up the fat—both physical and emotional. You want to get them to mentally steer their own course away from laziness,” she says. 

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