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Indian Beauty, Health Traditions Reborn

Many of the health and beauty treatments we pay top dollar for in the U.S. come from India and are hundreds -- if not thousands -- of years old.

By Denise Mann
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario

When Leah Tejpal, now a skin care specialist at the Paul Labreque East salon/spa in New York City, moved here six years ago, she was hoping to hone her craft by learning cutting-edge beauty treatments. But she quickly found that what her clients really desired were the traditional health and beauty regimens of her homeland -- India.

From threading (a method of facial hair removal) and aromatherapy facials to sugar body scrubs and yoga, many of the health and beauty treatments we pay top dollar for in the U.S. come from India and are hundreds -- if not thousands -- of years old.

WebMD tells you what you need to know now about these treatments -- many of which are probably showing up at salons, spas, and clinics near you.

Threading. Perhaps you have already of heard of this method of facial hair removal in which Tejpal or another aesthetician would quickly spin a fine thread (about the same width and consistency of dental floss) in her fingers close to the unwanted hair; removing it in a split second. "It's relatively new here, but has been done in India for hundreds of years," she says. "It doesn't strip the facial skin which is so delicate and sensitive. It also gets every hair from the root so you don't have ingrown hairs like you may with waxing," she says. Plus "it's faster and less painful than tweezing and can take out the finest of hairs which is not possible with tweezing or waxing," she says. Prices are similar to waxing and tweezing. Before you book an appointment, ask the technician how long they've been threading and ask for a reference, Tejpal recommends.

Aromatherapy facials. No doubt you or someone you know has paid top dollar for facials that use essential, aromatic oils to hydrate, exfoliate, or balance your skin. While relatively new here, such facials have been the norm in India for centuries, Tejpal says. "A lot of aromatherapy facials that have been done in India for ages are becoming popular including those with green tea and turmeric," she says. People are discovering their calming and antioxidant benefits.

Body scrubs. Everything from brown sugar to sea salt body scrubs that exfoliate the skin are available at stores and at spas all over the U.S. But again this tradition takes its roots in India. "One very beautiful thing is that at bridal showers the day before a wedding in North India, women are smeared with turmeric pastes and sandalwood on their body and head," Tejpal says. "Both are great for the skin, she says, adding that they are rich in antioxidants and excellent at getting rid of dead cells and making the skin baby soft. "In South India, coconut milk is massaged on the body and hair the day before the wedding, " she says. "This is also a highly, highly moisturizing treatment."

You can make your own Indian body scrub with ground chickpeas or rice. "Take it in your hand and scrub your body when you bathe or shower." Sugar scrubs cost a fortune at spas and even do-it-yourself kits can be pricey but Tejpal says that you can make your own using pure limejuice and sugar. "It has zero chemicals and you can use it on your entire body to make skin silky and smooth," she tells WebMD.

Her recipe: Use three parts sugar and one part lime juice

Massages. Massage is big business in the U.S. and a growing number of studies are showing that it can have actual medical benefits on a host of conditions including staving off postpartum depression in new mothers and helping premature infants to thrive. "When kids are born in India, mother and child are given a full-body massage for 40 days -- from head to toe -- and then a warm bath to help the body recover," she says. "Now we hear so much more about baby massages here and that they help women to prevent post-partum depression." In India, it works like this: the masseuse comes to the house early in the morning and massages the baby, then bathes him or her and holds him or her in the sun for vitamin D, and then when the baby sleeps, the mom gets a full-body massage and a hot bath.

Ayurveda. Perhaps you have read or heard about Ayurveda, the traditional healing system of India. With ayurveda, no particular treatment is offered for any specific symptom -- instead, each person is looked at individually and treatments typically involve diet, herbal remedies, exercise, and spiritual practices including yoga and transcendental meditation. It is based on the 5,000-year-old tradition of Vedic medicine, explains Nancy Lonsdorf, MD, medical director of The Raj, Maharishi Ayurveda Health center in Vedic City, Iowa. "I have seen ayurveda medicine go from being on the fringe to being totally mainstream for prevention to serious illness," she tells WebMD. "There is a real great appreciation that something natural is needed to enhance health and I have seen the use of ayurvedic medicine grow tremendously."

Ayurvedic medicine puts a lot of emphasis on the mind-body connection through specific techniques such as transcendental mediation, she says. "I see that this medical approach is going to continue to gain popularity and eventually be used as the primary approach to any chronic condition and prevention," she says. "Modern medicine will be reserved for car accidents and life-threatening emergency situations," she predicts. In fact, its popularity in the U.S. has grown so much there is now an actual city -- Vedic City, Iowa -- built according to Vedic principles. The city uses nontoxic construction materials and all buildings face east and are built on flat land. "We have a population 150 and growing," Lonsdorf says. Vedic City also includes a few hotels and a Maharishi University. And transcendental meditation, a facet of Ayurvedic medicine, is now offered in schools, hospitals, law firms, government, corporate offices, and prisons.

Yoga. If you are not one of the millions of Americans who tote a yoga mat with them, chances are you have seen a few of them en route to yoga class. "Yoga started in India a few thousand years ago as a science that would help us communicate at a higher level and get in touch with our spiritual side," says Bruce Van Horn, a yoga instructor and yoga therapist in Chestnut Ridge, N.Y., and author of several books on yoga including Daily Yoga Class: A workout for the Body, Mind and Spirit.

"Yoga helps us escape from the pattern of stress response through deep breathing and stretching to bring ourselves back," he says. Interested? Van Horn suggests starting with a simple breathing exercise: "Breathe in for four seconds and exhale for six seconds." He explains. "It actually makes us calmer. From there, consider taking a gentle, yoga class that focuses on breathing exercises, meditation, and gentle stretches; and if you like that, move on to classes.

Sexual healing. While many of us may think of Marvin Gaye's classic tune when we hear the expression "sexual healing," it can also signify something known as tantra. Tantra is a complex marriage of yoga, meditation, ritual, and intercourse that originated in India in 3,000 B.C.

A spiritual, sexual science, tantra identifies and stimulates innate sensual spirituality and helps proponents such as musician Sting harness tantric energy for sexual pleasure and awareness. In fact, tantra is becoming so mainstream that it's popping up in such movies as American Pie 2, where the character Finch is studying tantra throughout the movie.

Tantra is basically the total surrender of all mental, emotional, and cultural conditioning, so that universal life energy may flow through you. Considered the highest possible synthesis between love and meditation, it includes yoga-like breathing, vocalizations, and muscle techniques that can lead to orgasm as well as channeling below-the-belt energy up into their hearts and brains where it may increase creativity and improve relationships.

Clothes that cure? And another Indian tradition may be coming soon to a clothing store near you. London-based designer Diana Irani, MPhil, a research student in fashion and textiles at the Royal College of Art, and others are developing clothing that slowly releases medicine throughout the day. Such clothing may one day relieve the itchy, sensitive skin of eczema, the joint pain and stiffness of arthritis, depression, and other ailments. While new to us in the U.S., this technology has been used in India for decades. There, certain herbs are sometimes woven into the fabric of saris and headdresses worn by Indian women. It's called microencapsulation and involves implanting tiny balls designed to hold the designed chemicals and "bond" them within the fibers of fabric. As the wearer's body heats the fabric, the substances are released on the skin. The medicine in the clothing absorbs directly into the bloodstream through the skin. The medicine lasts for many months and clothes can be hand-washed repeatedly without losing their healing properties, inventors and proponents say.

Published Aug. 16, 2004.


SOURCES: Leah Tejpal, skin care specialist, Paul Labreque East salon/spa, New York City. Bruce Van horn, yoga instructor and yoga therapist, Chestnut Ridge, N.Y.; and author of several books on yoga including Daily Yoga Class: A workout for the Body, Mind and Spirit. Nancy Lonsdorf, MD, medical director, Raj, Maharishi Ayurveda.

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