east meets west, vol. 1: poison sumac

It’s easy, when getting interested, learning about and developing a lifestyle in Ayurveda, to get excited about staying so healthy so naturally, and using foods, spices, herbs and traditional techniques as the primary source of medicine. It’s easy to forget that the use of modern, Western medicine most definitely holds a very important place in our lives, and there is a reason why it has come so far: we’ve needed it to! Things happen sometimes that are either accidental, out of our control, or simply weren’t caught in time to resolve naturally. When this is the case, it’s nice to have a back-up plan. While that back-up plan might come with some side-effects that feel uncomfortable, this is where Ayurveda can step in along with Modern techniques to make a recovery that is as effective, safe and comfortable as possible.

Remember that really warm Saturday a few weeks ago? It was in the 70’s by 9am, it got somewhere in the mid-high 80’s in the afternoon. It was sunny, there was a nice breeze, it was a perfect day to spend outside, and that’s exactly what I did. I threw on some shorts, grabbed some gardening tools and attacked the garden space outside my new apartment with full force. Filled 2 of those big brown bags with weeds and various unwanted debris, and in my mind started to envision which herbs would go where and what flowers would line the outside of my home. It felt so inspiring to finally feel Spring weather again, and I felt empowered to be putting together a garden that would be my own.

In all of the excitement, what I didn’t realize was that somewhere amidst the weeds I was pulling was something poisonous. A few days later, and seemingly all of a sudden, a sharp, red blotch appeared on my left leg. Painful, yet quite small, almost looked like a simple cat scratch, I put some calendula salve on it and carried on. Fast forward a few more days, that first blotch was bigger, angrier, and had invited some friends to scatter across both legs now. Realizing what I was dealing with, I went through home remedy after home remedy: herbal compresses and pastes, oatmeal, baking soda, neem tea, on to benadryl, calamine, cortizone 10; my full-time job became applying things to my angry skin. Finally, when I woke up to find the fire had spread to my arms and chest, I gave up and took myself to Urgent Care to get the steroid that, while making me scattered in my mind and drying out my skin, would ultimately clear the rash and give me my life back.

It’s hard not to feel like I’m being punished for getting excited and forgetting the importance of wearing pants while gardening. It’s hard to go days, close to weeks in which my normal yoga practice is far too painful and have to settle for something with close to no movement in my body. It’s hard to look at my own body parts and see something that looks completely foreign, like a biblical plague. In the thick of Kapha season when I’ve anticipated the soft, cool, grounding qualities of earth and water, instead I’ve found myself struggling to cool down the fire all over my skin, and slow down the constant mobility in my airy, scattered mind. So, surely, there’s a lesson somewhere in the curse, right?

When I drove myself to Urgent Care, I kept thinking how disappointed I was that all my reference books, lectures, manuals and intuitions on Ayurveda had failed to clear up the poison from my skin. Or maybe that I was just being impatient and if I just held out a few days longer I wouldn’t need this modern approach. This is just madness, because as I said, I wanted my life back. The Prednisone tablets are giving me that, and of course giving me a list of side-effects which I am keeping in check using (you guessed it) Ayurveda.

Ojas milk and cooked, nourishing foods are keeping me grounded when Vata has me dry, airy and depleted. Cooling herbal teas (mint and Saint John’s Wort from last year’s garden) keeps my mind calm when Pitta has me leaning into rage. Visits from good friends and puppies keep my spirits up, and frequent walks in my new neighborhood provides fresh air and exercise. I’ve increased my intake of turmeric by adding it to more teas and spiced milk to help reduce the inflammation, and I’ve cooled off my shower water to keep my skin a little more comfortable. When the medication keeps me awake late at night, relaxing herbal teas and deep, mindful breaths help me to slow down the moving mind. Day by day, little by little, I’m more and more back into my own skin and familiar routine, and I’ve never appreciated it more.

There will be times when the natural, holistic route works perfectly. This time I needed some help. It wasn’t the first time and it won’t be the last, I’m sure.