An interview with Kusum Modak by Kamakshi
Ayurvedic Yoga Massage " Zero Stress"
You have devoted yourself to working with thousands of people, giving sessions, trainings, inspiring them. What does ‘Ayurveda’ mean to you?
Ayurveda is a vast science; it’s an age old science. You know, Yoga, Ayurveda, the Sanskrit language - they go back 5-6000 years. What I’m sharing with my students, you can say, is just one branch of Ayurveda. I don’t want to say that I know many things, because I focused only on the therapy side of the work.
According to Ayurveda, zero stress in the body is the healthiest body. And what does it means - zero stress?
It means that you take a little bit of care with your diet, your exercises, drink lots of water, try to be happy, laugh quite a lot… (laughs) And the most important thing is - be aware of your breathing. But in modern times, we are running with the time: it is 1 o ‘clock - I have to do this; it is 2 o’clock - I have to do that. You understand what I mean? If you keep a little time for yourself, then you will face very few problems with your body - this is the healthiest body.
Where did you learn about zero stress and the body?
One yoga friend of mine was not keeping too well, she wanted to know about some massage, any additional thing to help her. My mother said why you don’t take her to Mr. Limaye. He was very well known in this area. When I met him he was already 82 years old. He used to start his work at 6 in the morning to treat the patients with different problems – knee problems, joint problems, back problems, stomach problems… I explained to my friend that he wants to help you out, can you come in the morning at 6. And then he looked at me and said “What about you - where do you stay, what is your name?” He was a giant with his profound knowledge of the body and all that. So I introduced myself, that I had just finished my graduation in the Arts, that I was studying in Fergusson College, and that I lived with my mother, and that I had unfortunately lost my father a few years ago. And he said, “Okay I’ve heard everything, are you interested to learn this?” I said, “Oh, but I don’t know anything about anatomy, about anything…” He said “Please tell me - yes or no” I said, “Yes…” I was literally shaking. And he said “Okay then, come with your friend tomorrow” That’s how I started. I used to call him Ajoba, which means grandfather. For more than one year I couldn’t dare to ask him a single question. I used to go there, sit in one corner, and watch his work - like that. One day, all of a sudden he said to me “Come forward!” I said “Okay” One woman was having some problem, and he said “Start working on her” I said “But Ajoba, I don’t know anything…” And he said “You were wasting your time, your energy, my time, my energy…? You are coming for more than one year, sitting in the corner, and looking at the wall or something? You have to start. Start working on her, I am looking at you.” I told that woman “Please, if I do something not right, immediately let me know” This is my story, literally this is my story. And then he was happy. Unfortunately after that he fell ill. The last time that I went to see him, he said, “I’m very happy with what you have learned and I am sure you will flourish in this art” Like that. And then he started sending me some local people, “Go to Kusum, go to Kusum”
Doesn’t Ayurvedic Yoga Massage have a lot of yoga stretches?
Someone else is doing all the work for you - the lazy man’s yoga, the ultimate. If I could get that everyday I would be very happy…
You cannot just relax, lie down; and I start working on you. It is not like that. You should be aware and only then will you feel that something is changing in your body. Then after the first one or two sessions, which is our learning process – to see where you are holding the problem, the tightness, the tension. Then we know how to go forward. After warming up of your back, maybe I find somewhere in the thoracic spine, the upper spine; that I feel that the gaps are a little less - you may have to come for several sessions to feel the difference. Then I will definitely ask you to go through a little pain, and give you little bit more pressure to open the gaps. The vertebrae are nothing but the bony structure, and when the two bones start pressing each other – the friction starts. And when the friction starts, your pain starts; because we are all getting old no? Everyday we are heading towards our last breath. Every five minutes I am telling my patient that be aware of your breathing, keep your eyes open, please go through a little bit of pain; then you will come to me and say, “Oh you gave me a little bit of pain, but I feel a little better” It is not a lazy man’s work.
You are actually increasing their awareness…
The person who takes the work and the person who is doing the work - they are both fully aware of what they are doing and what they are receiving. For me, I’m sorry, please don’t feel I am exaggerating, but for me this work is nothing but meditation. The moment I touch your body, this is completely empty. (gestures to her head) The moment I enter in the room, to teach or share with my students, this is completely empty. (gestures to her head again) So for me, this is the best way of meditation.
You have spent 20 years with Shri B.K.S. Iyengar, how has that enriched you?
My health was not good, I had a lot of physical problems, I was a very weak girl, my spine was like this, my breathing was bad, and my immune system was very weak. I had tried many different things, but nothing helped. Then I thought one last thing I would like to try to do – that is Yoga. So I enrolled myself in the Ramamani Iyengar Yoga Institute, I owe quite a lot to my respected Guruji B.K.S. Iyengar for what I am having today. I am not teaching Yoga or anything, that is not my field. I just do it for my good health. When I started going to the Institute - once, twice a week; slowly, slowly I started getting healthier. I could feel it, my posture was becoming good, and my appetite and breathing started getting much better. Now you have the example in front of you. I am a 69 years old woman…
And you look great…
How did you begin to incorporate yoga with massage?
For example, someone comes with a severe back problem, and then I would say, maybe I will try to use my foot to do a little bit more pressure, maybe I would like to try this stretch to see how she feels, or he feels with that. And the next time when the patient comes, the client, they said “Oh I feel a little better with what you did. When you were doing the work I went through a little bit of pain, but I feel a little better after that.” Then I felt that this is a good stretch for this, this is a good pressure for that. Like that I’ve developed this work. The work that I’m sharing with all my students - nobody taught me. All my clients are my books. I hate to study, to read books, and this and that. I always say they are my books, with them I learned many, many things. Since I’ve started working, I’ve never looked back.
Why do you use stretching and breath work?
Because when we are trying to do the stretching, it is more intense work for you; and if you hold the breath, instead of opening the body - you try to resist my work. So you have to be fully aware with your breathing, to help me. For example, you are doing the stretch with fear or with tension, not knowing what is happening with your body; then if I hold my breath, instead of having good results, you will get bad results from me; because I feel suffocating sensations in my lungs. So, breathing is the most important thing; especially when we are doing deep work. When they come after a few sessions, they say, “I don’t have the desire to smoke anymore, I don’t have the desire to drink” Because when your body is healthy, your mind is healthy - your life is happier; so you don’t have the desire to go through the side ways, to do all these things.
What are the three humours, Kapha, Vata, and Pitta, how do you work with them?
Kapha, vata, pitta are the elements we are all having, and according to my understanding, if one goes down, your energy goes down, then you feel the tension, then you feel the pain. So with our complete bodywork, with the stimulation of the organs, the body, the joints, the muscles, we are trying to balance everything. You may come with a back problem, but we don’t concentrate only on your back; because you should feel the complete body work. Then only it helps you. And we always keep the problem in our mind. Because everybody has some different problems, so we keep that problem in our mind, and first start to work on the spine, because the spine is the foundation of our work. If you come with a knee problem, I will never start with the knee, or my students will never start with the knee. We first have to warm up your spine, later on we concentrate on the knee. The session starts with the spine and ends with the eyes. Back as well as front. We never work only with the problem area.
Traditional Ayurvedic Yoga Massage - is this a term you have coined or was it there? How does your system differ from traditional massage?
Because we are using a lot of stretches for the body, no? That comes from Yoga. If you go to Kerala, they do with a lot of oil, and just the bodywork. But my experience is that after warming up your body, when we are trying to do little stretches - the progress is easier. That is why we are calling this Traditional Ayurvedic Yoga Massage. Until today, whoever wants to come to me to learn this art, I am open for that. But I never do any kind of publicity, because I believe that word of mouth is a much better way.
Is the massage according to the individual?
Yes, of course. If the patient is very chronic you cannot do a lot of the hard work for the first one or two session. Let them get feeling of some opening, let them get the feeling of their breathing, and then later on you can proceed further.
Do you mix oils with powder? What is the powder? What oils do you use?
We use pure oil, whatever oil is available, that is, sesame oil, peanut oil, sunflower oil, almond oil; olive oil is also very good. We never use coconut oil for the body massage because it is not good for the skin; it is only good for the hair. And the powder we are using is called ‘vaikhand’, in English it’s called ‘calamus’, it is a root and it is very good for blood circulation, it brings out the toxins from the body, it stimulates the blood and it is antiseptic. You can get it in ayurvedic shops, the root of calamus.
I was doing a Google search on ‘Kusum’, ‘Ayurvedic Yoga Massage’, and you are attributed on so many people’s sites and blogs as their Guru in this art. There is absolutely no information about you, but you are everywhere…
That’s what I said; I’m a very low key person. Even from the ashram, many therapists learned this work from me, many of them. One of my students Taruna, is giving groups and sessions in the ashram. She learned from me 4-5 years ago. A few doctors also learned this from me. The ashram story is also very interesting. I had been going to the Yoga Institute for something like twenty years. When Osho came back from the States, a friend from Yoga was at a party in Koregaon Park; and he was talking about me to some of his friends. One German lady who was listening to him, said she would like to try some work with this person you are talking about, who is she? And he said it’s my Yoga friend, Kusum, who is doing some body work, and it’s very strong work; but it helps tremendously to do yoga more easily, and makes you more aware of the physical body also. She asked for my number, but at the time I didn’t have a telephone, nothing. So he gave her my address. And one day she came. My mamma said, “Someone is looking for you.” She came in and said “I’ve heard about you, I would like to try your work. And then like that one, three, five, twenty came…just like that. According to me, your Master Osho is the man of the century, I respect him a lot, I like his understanding; I like everything.
What do you feel of the new ways in society, where people are less and less in touch with their bodies?
If you tell an Indian college-going girl, that I don’t have a dining table; you have to sit down on the floor and eat; like in the olden days, what we used to do. She will say, “Oh, I have difficulty sitting down…” which is a very disturbing thought. I don’t want to say that everything modern is bad, and everything ancient was good. But we try to take the middle path; we try to make the balance in between that. We have to accept some new things, and we have to accept some old things also. Why don’t you listen to your own mind? Why don’t you listen to your own feeling? Most of the time, we are following the society. Many people ask me, “You are feeling comfortable with the sari? You are giving massage with the sari? You are teaching this work with your sari?” I feel very comfortable with my sari, I am very happy. I am a very traditional woman, and I am very happy - this is the way I am. I must say that living in India, not getting married, doing this work with men and women; all the credit goes to my Mamma, because she was a pillar behind me. (tears flow down as her voice falters) Otherwise I would not have been able to do all this. She never forced me to get married, she never ever, not even once; did she ask me what work I am doing, whether I am comfortable like this. So all the credit goes to her, she was a very firm strong pillar behind me. I miss her quite a lot.
I have heard that your work is very structured; it covers every part of the body systematically. That once you’ve had this kind of a massage; with another style you feel the difference, you have shared something amazing with all your students, who are taking it all around the world…
I feel very happy and contented that my students are flourishing. I’m just doing one drop of the work, but I feel very happy with what I’ve developed a little bit. And to be very honest with you, now at this age, I’ve done a lot of work, individual sessions also. Now at this stage, I would like to pass on as much as I can. From the olden days there were still so many hidden secrets which we don’t know about. It carries on just within the family. You are my son, you are my daughter; and I pass it on only to you, not to the others. So many hidden secrets are still hidden. But my thinking is the other way around. Till today, if I feel that this might be a good thing, I feel very uneasy till I can pass it on to my students, because maybe the next time won’t come. You get my point? That’s why I always wanted to pass it on. That is why all my friends, my senior students, say that not a single workshop of yours is the same, it is not monotonous. Every time something comes, I pass it on.