Panchakarma: An Ayurvedic Cleansing Method

abhyanga snan on first day of diwali special herbal bath with ubtan picture id862309762

What is a Panchakarma?

The panchakarma is the crown jewel in Ayurveda’s treasure house. Ayurveda is a holistic system of medicine, with roots in Hinduism, that emphasizes preventative and healing therapies along with various purification techniques. In Ayurveda, the five basic elements — ether, air, fire, water and earth — are manifested in the body as three different predominant constitutions, or doshas. Each person has one dosha that dominates, except in the extremely rare case that the three doshas — vata, pitta, and kapha — are in equal balance.

The best metaphor for a panchakarma detox is that it’s like getting an oil change — for your body. It’s kondo-ing your diet, pruning it down to only the most nourishing foods — kitcheree and ghee. It’s detox on “steroids,” combining a restrictive diet with specific massage treatments, rest, yoga, meditation, enemas, and herbs. Think total reboot plus system upgrade. 

The idea behind a panchakarma, also called PK, is to bring the body back to its natural order and restore doshic balance. Typically, if one’s predominant dosha is given free reign and its preferences allowed to dominate (in Ayruveda this is known as doshic derangement), it disturbs the harmony of one’s whole being. Consciousness, digestion, and elimination all become impacted, and a mild protest starts to foment in the body, laying the groundwork for chronic disease and ill health.

Slowly, toxins accumulate while digestion weakens, creating a perfect storm for toxin retention — ence the tenacity and thoroughness of the PK protocol. You channel your inner Macbeth to wage war on your deranged doshas and declare “out, damned [toxins].”

Why would people undertake such a project? Because despite the rigors, you feel so good, during and after. Imagine no flatulence. Not a single belch. No indigestion, period. You start to experience your body with relish, as if it’s a well-oiled machine, which it is. You can practically hear your digestion purr.

But lest you be tempted to do some version of a panchakarma at home, most experts recommend doing your PK at a professional center, especially for the first time. Panchakarma is tuned  individually with constitution and specific disorders in mind. It’s a process that requires close observation and supervision.

When is a good time to do a PK? Often designed to correspond with the change of seasons, according to Ayurveda expert John Douillard, “I always feel the best time to detox or do Panchakarma is when you have the time to really rest and retreat yourself.”

PK is a lot more drastic than a mild cleanse that involves a lot of fresh pressed juices and the occasional sauna. For a PK, you will be asked to drink ghee, submit your tummy to daily kneading (abhyanga), take special herbs to induce vomiting and elimination, and unplug from the world at large (renouncing phones, screens, and even books) to the best of your ability. And the mainstay of your diet will be kitcheree, a perfectly balanced blend of rice and pulses, lightly spiced and cooked to a fragrant mush, designed to be the easiest thing to digest.

In sum, it’s not for the faint of heart, nor the physically weak. And even for those robust enough to take it on, because of its extremity, it needs to be eased into with a pre-PK diet (mainly kitcheree, vegetables and ghee), that primes the body for the detox ahead.

Finally, although panchakarma is often thought of as the entire procedure, it really is only one part of a group of therapies belonging to a whole cohort of cleansing procedures. Pancha means five and refers to five favored purification techniques that take place during the cleanse. Here’s a brief version of what you will encounter on your PK journey:

Vamana

Also known as therapeutic vomiting, vamana is a way to get rid of excess mucous (kapha). According to Vasant Lad, a renown Ayurvedic author and doctor, “this also releases repressed emotions that have been held in the kapha areas of the lungs and stomach along with the accumulated dosha.”

The rewards: A lightness in the chest, unobstructed breathing, clear thinking, clear voice, good appetite.

Virechana

Administered towards the end of your PK, after the doshas have had a chance to soften, the toxins loosened by copious amounts of ingested ghee, and prodigious amounts of oil rubbed into every crevice of your body, the final push so to speak, is virechana (therapeutic laxatives) day. No breakfast is eaten that day and a bitter tasting laxative is mixed with juice in an attempt to mask its taste. The laxative, which induces bowel movements cleanses the body of excess pitta accumulation, purifying blood and clearing toxins. The laxative targets the toxins accumulated in the liver and gallbladder, thus completely cleansing the gastrointestinal tract.

The rewards: Virechana is like a weapon of mass destruction for any lingering accumulated toxins. It gets at the motherlode of bile—excess pitta—that makes its home in the small intestine. After virechana, the overall effect is one of lightness, clarity, and strength.

Basti

Therapeutic enemas, made from sesame oil and herbal blends, are administered during a PK, or self-administered afterwards, at home. The idea of basti is that it gets at the root of vata related diseases, such as constipation, distention, chronic fever, cold, sexual disorders, kidney stones, heart pain, backache, sciatica and other pains in the joints. Vata is thought to reside in the bone tissue, therefore the enema delivery system means  that treatment goes into the deeper tissues, like the bones, and corrects vata disorders.

The rewards: Basti can be used for a variety of reasons, including bowel regularity, joint support, excess vata causing gas, nervous system support, and healthy sleep patterns. Basti promotes overall vitality, which begins with a healthy and supple colon that in turn sets the foundation for well-being, a graceful aging process, luster and a healthy glow.

Nasya

Not applicable for everyone, nasya is a nasal therapy (massaging the inner walls of the nose with ghee) that is indicated for prana disorders, sinus congestion, migraine headaches, convulsions and certain eye and ear problems.

The rewards:A clear respiratory tract, plus a major side benefit: It is believed in Ayurveda that the nose is the pathway to the brain. Nasya is thought to improve intelligence and memory.

Rakta Moksha

Therapeutic bloodletting is not allowed in U.S. PK clinics due to obvious liabilities. But in India such treatments do exist, with the purpose of curing many blood-borne disorders.

The rewards: It is good for patients suffering from chronic skin conditions such as psoriasis, vitiligo and eczema, non-healing ulcers, and varicose veins.

ayurveda oil treatment

 

In general, think of PK as more than the sum of its karmas. It has an impressive synergistic effect, bestowing a born-again sense of embodied wellness. Your body will feel new, as tender as a baby’s, with a new  urge to protect your health. It’s hard to not come out of a PK feeling transformed on a cellular level, as if each atom of your body had been loved.

Indeed oil, which is used for most PK massage treatments, also means “love” in Sanskrit. PK’s thoroughness, while at times draining, is equal parts invigorating: Imagine feeling like Dante, who ends his Purgatorio with this beautiful stanza: “I came back, from the most sacred waves, remade, as fresh plants are, refreshed, with fresh leaves: pure, and ready to climb to the stars.



Dinacharya: Your Daily Yogic Routine

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Translating to “knowledge of life” in Sanskrit, Ayurveda is the 5,000 year old sister science of yoga that assists practitioners in leading their lives by way of intuitive rituals. In adhering to one’s specific needs, those utilizing the practice of Ayurveda fall into rhythm with the seasons of self, emulating Mother Nature’s transitions and revelations in spring, summer, fall, and winter.

The Ayurveda practice of dinacharya, or “law of nature,” consists of daily self-care routines, which provide structure for instilling balance and establishing cohesiveness in the physical, mental, and emotional bodies.

The Doshas

Dinacharya is based on the philosophy that human beings run on a biological clock dictated by the patterns of the sun and the moon; different times of day adhere to different types of energy. These energies, known as doshas, connect the body and the mind in functionality. Three doshas exist: vata, kapha, and pitta; each dosha is associated with elements found in nature.

Vata

The first and early waking hours of the day 2am to 6am, and their afternoon inverse 2pm to 6pm, are identified as vata, which is associated with the elements of air and ether, or a sense of lightness. Movement is incredibly important at these times, as they are both transitional periods. In the early hours of the morning, it is believed that sleep and dreams are most active and that we are most receptive to thought; in the afternoon, many experience the need to mobilize to reenergize, sparking creativity.

Kapha

From 6am to 10am and 6pm to 10pm, it is said our kapha energy governs the manner in which we show up in the world. Kapha works in relation with earth and water, countering vata’s airiness with a sense of grounding.

Pitta

Pitta energy runs its course through our systems during the hours of 10am to 2pm, and 10pm to 2am. Related to fire and water, waking pitta hours are correlated with high productivity. During the wee hours of the evening, typically the mind is resting, but the internal organs are vigorously cleansing the body, preparing us for the next day to come.

A Path to Balance

When the body and mind are in balance with these cycles, we experience a sense of contentment in all areas of our lives. As represented by the changes in even a matter of hours, the human condition is not static. It is not uncommon for one of the doshas to dominate at different points in time, regardless of where the dosha cycles suggest we should be landing on the energetic spectrum. We do not remain in a place of equanimity without putting forth awareness and effort, but it is possible to achieve balance through establishing a dinacharya routine.

Dinacharya practices help to establish congruence in our vata, kapha, and pitta energies.

When instability encroaches into our energetic cyclicality, we may feel noticeably “off” and over time, unbalanced physical, mental, and emotional bodies breed disease and dis-ease. Benefits of dinacharya can be experienced almost immediately, and can serve vitality for decades when adhered to properly.

Components of dinacharya can be incorporated into virtually any time of day, and can be quite extensive; according to Aryuvedic Physician Vasant Lad, there are nineteen steps composing a proper morning awakening of the physical and mental bodies alone. Many traditional dinacharya practices applicable to specific hours of the day can be adapted and become inputs to forming a consistent self-ritual.

Wake Before the Sun

This vata time of day is believed to be one of quiet connection. Once the sun is in the sky, the clock of Ayurveda ticks to kapha, signaling it is time to move and be productive. Waking earlier than you usually may begin the day offers a chance to connect energetically with self, rather than your inbox first thing.

Meditation

Because the morning boasts fresh energy and serenity, this segment of the day has the potential to serve as an undistracted platform for meditation. Perhaps your sit consists of a few quiet moments, or maybe lasts a bit longer. Returning to a mindfulness practice at the end of the day allows for you to come full circle with your day’s experience, and is effective in supporting more restful sleep.

Movement

Finding time to be active throughout the day is important for maintaining balance and focus, as well as setting the stage for fulfilling the day’s requirements with ample energy.

In the morning, support the waking of your body in a way you enjoy, whether it be taking a brisk walk around your neighborhood, working with kriya, hitting the mat for Pilates, or devoting time to your yoga practice to energize or unfold slowly.

The afternoon is a prime time to get the blood flowing. After your largest meal of the day is consumed at lunchtime, give yourself at least 10-15 minutes for a walk or afternoon stretch to promote blood flow, ensuring the body and mind stay fired and inspired. Evening calls for gentler movement, such as a yin yoga practice, so that sleep may be gracefully eased in to.

Oil Pulling

This practice has been an aspect of dinacharya for thousands of years, and involves swooshing oil, such as sunflower or sesame, around your gums and teeth for 15-20 minutes each day, typically in the morning. Oil pulling is effective in removing toxins and parasites, which reside in the nooks and crannies between teeth, around the tongue, and in the gums.

These organisms not only affect the outer appearance of our pearly whites, but are often the root of inflammation and infection occurring throughout the body.

To reap the benefits of a brighter smile, clearer sinuses and skin, and healthier immune system, simply drink a glass of water upon waking, melt 1-3 tablespoons of an oil of your choice either on the stove or in your mouth, gargle for 20 minutes (this can be done while preparing breakfast or lunch, reading emails, etc.), spit, and rinse with water.

Self-Massage

Known as Abhyanga in Ayurveda, self-massaging is often practiced as a component of dinacharya in either or both the morning and the evening. According to Sandhiya Ramaswamy, regarded Ayurvedic chef and educator, abhyanga, when performed daily, enhances balance in the energy bodies and overall longevity, calms the nervous system, softens skin, and tones muscle, amongst other benefits. Using warm oil, start at your scalp and work your way down the body using your fingertips and palms. Once applied, allow for the oil to marinate into your skin for five to ten minutes, and follow with a warm bath or shower.

Skin Brushing

This Ayurvedic technique requires a very small time investment, but pays greatly in its dividends. Using silk gloves or a dry skin brush, start at the feet and work your way up to the crown of your head. According to Dr. John Doulliard, director of LifeSpa.com, a leading resource in Ayurvedic wellness, brushing toward the direction of your heart drains the lymphatic system, and can help the body move waste more quickly and stimulate the burning of fat. This technique can be practiced preceding self-massage for added benefit.

Nourish Properly

Morning and evening meals should be light in comparison to your lunchtime consumption. Afternoon is the time of day most appropriate for intake of your heaviest meal, for several reasons. The digestive system has fully awakened, and the body has ample time to break down what has been consumed without interrupting your awakening or your sleep cycle. Agni, or digestive energy, is in full force; in order to keep the fire roaring, it is necessary to fuel adequately.

According to Monica Bloom, author of “In Your Elements: A Blooming Ayurvedic Guide to Creating Your Best Life,” a warm, vegetable-filled plate should be consumed at this time. Acknowledging this may not be ideal for meals eaten at work in terms of preparation, Monica suggests preparing a large batch of healthful dishes at night, eating a small portion for dinner, and bringing the majority on the go with you the next day to save both time and hunger pangs.

Head to Bed Early

It is recommended to begin your evening ritual around 8:30pm to ensure a restful transition into your evening rest. Unwinding with a book or a bath serves as a palate cleanser between the busyness of the day and the tranquility of bedtime. Establishing an early bedtime initiative for your self can also prevent late-night, metabolism-hindering snacking; around 10pm, pitta energy kicks back in which, when awake can spark hunger, when resting allows for full-body restoration.

The above are only a select few options on the full menu of dinacharya offerings. Taste one, taste all offerings; Director of Ayurveda Programs at Shankara Ayurveda Spa Medha Garud notes that the adoption of two dinacharya-inspired changes can make a difference when enveloped into your day-to-day routine. The implementation of a personal dinacharya ritual can serve as powerful and effective insurance for physical, mental, and emotional congruence and observance.

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