Ellen Rennard is an English teacher at Groton School, 35 miles northwest of Boston. The school's campus stretches across 480 acres in a setting so scenic that Architectural Digest named it the most beautiful independent school in the state. It faces mountain vistas suggesting infinite possibility.
A nature lover, Ellen used to be an amateur photographer and her pictures of horses bring to mind the romance of horse riding. She says that long ago, when horse racing was the most popular spectator sport in America, she rode a horse around the exercise track at Arlington Park and “entertained a fleeting dream of becoming a jockey.”
Ellen Rennard's photographs
From her photographs one can ken, that Ellen has an eye for detail. So we ask her what would she have captured during her stay in India. “I don't take photos anymore and don't know how to answer that question, but my eye is drawn to the natural world, and if humans are in it, they are a small part, plus, I'm drawn to colour now. Even before, what drew me was what might be called energy. Sometimes I'd walk up and down the shed rows, and I'd wind up photographing a horse that would win a race that day or the next. I could sense the horse's energetic field. I'm not sure if this answers your question.”
Today, she tells her high achieving students who sometimes get anxious, about keeping regular hours. “I tell them not to nap during the day or if they do, 20 minute or 90 minute naps, which keeps from interrupting sleep cycles. That has become important with on-line instruction in an international school where I have kids on the West coast coming to class at 6 a.m. in their time zone. I also tell them not to consume too much caffeine or sugar, especially if they're having trouble sleeping. That's the extent. Because under normal circumstances we are a boarding school, kids eat the food that is served, which is quite good but not Ayurvedic.” She does admit that she has not been able to keep up with her Ayurvedic diet either.
Ellen’s encounter with Ayurveda began due to the failure of modern medicine. “That is a long long story but I'll try to give you a short version. When I was 40 I had a vaginal hysterectomy for a rapidly growing fibroid tumour. That went fine but through a misdiagnosed pathology slide, doctors thought I might have mild endometrial stromal sarcoma. There really is no ‘mild’ case of this kind of cancer, which is almost impossible to treat; most people die within two years. I had a second exploratory surgery to see if there was cancer. They removed my healthy ovaries and a healthy lymph node; they didn't find cancer. Then after that, and because of the surgery, I had adhesions that blocked my intestine, so I had to have a third surgery to fix the blockage.”
While she was in hospital, a nurse told her about a “seemingly miraculous cure that healed her son. She had tried all Western approaches to no avail, so she saw Dr Vasant Lad, who was accessible in those days. (I was living in Albuquerque.) Long story short, after all that surgery, I had digestive issues. I went to a Western doctor but by then I did not trust Western medicine, and I did not like his suggestions. I tried acupuncture (I was already going to an acupuncturist), then a naturopath. I tried adjusting my diet in various ways. Nothing was working. Then I found an Ayurvedic practitioner who had studied with Dr Lad. I went to him for about a year or two. He mainly treated me with herbs but my digestive issues went away completely. That's what made me a believer, my own experience.”
Years went by and Ellen decided she wanted to see Dr Lad, himself, just for a check-up. “The only way you could see him by then was by doing a panchakarma at the Ayurvedic Institute in New Mexico, so I did that. It was a ‘one size fits all’ approach, and while I did not feel the panchakarma was all that great, it was probably better than nothing!”
She did see Dr Lad once. “He was amazing. He asked me if I had a red wall in my house. I did! (I was living in faculty housing, and one wall had been painted red by the person who had lived there before me.). It was aggravating pitta, so when I got back to school, I had them repaint my wall for health reasons, and they were very nice about it, and I really did feel much better without that red wall! At that same time I also saw one of Dr Lad's assistants, and I said that for what I had paid, it didn't seem like it was really worth it (I still think that), and did he have any suggestions. He said there was a place in India he had heard good things about. That planted the seed.”
Not too long after, Ellen asked an Ayurveda Facebook group if anyone knew of a place in India (she had been to India and wanted to return) where she could do panchakarma “plus be in a place that wasn't a spa, but that had a spiritual component. I didn't want to go to an ashram or a resort, in other words.”
A couple of people recommended Vaidyagrama, and it sounded exactly like what she was looking for. “I was not ill, but I was very tired, and I knew I needed some time to restore my health after having lived abroad in Jordan for two years. I had been more unwell than usual during the school year, with bronchitis, and I just knew I was out of balance,” says Ellen.
She says she has returned to Vaidyagrama twice since that first summer, and every time, she finds she is healthier in every way, and that the good results last longer. “I am not very good about maintaining an Ayurvedic lifestyle, although I do stick to it for three months after my treatment (well, I did the first and third times and wish I had the second!), and I don't eat really bad junk food, processed food, that kind of thing, although that was not something I did even before.”
Her doctor at Vaidyagrama once told her that if she followed a better diet, she would not have to go back so often! “And that is probably true. I'm 65, and I teach in a top boarding school, with long hours. I love my work and want to be able to keep doing it for as long as possible. So that's my reason for going to Vaidyagrama -- it helps me stay healthy. Not only has it helped my physical health, but especially my mental and emotional wellbeing. And my spiritual practices are also stronger for it. Ayurveda has improved every aspect of my life, even with my haphazard approach to continuing the practices.”
Ellen with her grandchildren
So what would a ‘better’ diet entail? Ellen says she does not follow a strict diet and lifestyle. “It really isn't possible during the school year, but I probably wouldn't anyway. I like a glass of wine and sweets too much for that. I do eat a reasonable amount of vegetables, limit consumption of chicken and fish, eat very little red meat, I don't consume ‘bad fats’ like hydrogenated oils, I no longer drink coffee except once in a blue moon but prefer chai now, I usually don't eat fruit with other foods, and I don't go out to eat very often. I'm not overweight, I walk a lot, sometimes ride my bicycle. I meditate and do yoga occasionally, as has been the case for about 40 years now.”
She says she uses Dr Lad’s cookbook and sometimes makes Indian food from other cookbooks. “I like the spices. I really wish I could make chapatis!”
Clearly, her visit to India has made a big impression on her. “At Vaidyagrama, my doctor sees me almost every day, and he's fantastic. The best part is that the approach is holistic. So if I am angry, my doctor understands that it is related to my physical health, imbalances, etc., or even to the healing process itself. This is extremely helpful. He is extraordinarily compassionate, kind, and understanding. He treats me with utmost respect. The people are so kind. I can't say enough good things about my doctor at Vaidyagrama, and the staff goes out of their way to make you comfortable. And, the results are just amazing. I am very grateful for Vaidyagrama in so many ways.”
As an afterthought, she adds that after her surgeries at the age of 40, more than one doctor said s/he thought she had been misdiagnosed because gynecological pathology slides are very difficult to read. “I am sure I was (misdiagnosed). Endometrial stromal sarcoma usually affects women who are overweight, and/or diabetic, and/or postmenopausal. I was none of those, was healthy as a horse except for the fibroid. Anyway, it all had a happy ending.”
(Vaidyagrama...Ayurveda healing village: Www.vaidyagrama.com)