Panchakarma: An Ayurvedic Cleansing Method
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
An Ayurvedic Elixir for Total Rejuvenation
The Vedic sutras and ayurvedic texts, describe a sacred drink called soma rasa, said to beget eternal life. Soma rasa, also called amrita, is a Sanskrit word meaning “nectar of immortality.’’ Like the legendary “Fountain of Youth,” there are many speculations regarding the origin and location of soma rasa. The mythic stories of soma rasa describe its literal power in the human body. Soma is created internally within natural physiological processes, and harvested externally from plants and herbs. The correct utilization of soma rasa via meditation, diet, ritual, and yoga results in total rejuvenation of the human form.
The tantric systems in India, teach that soma rasa is made from moon’s waters. The moon is sometimes referred to as a cup the gods drink soma from to maintain their immortality. Every evening all the gods dip a finger into the moon-cup and drink the soma until the moon is empty.[i] Rituals described in the Vedic texts, still practiced in Tamil Nadu and Kerala, make soma from a plant harvested in the Himalayas. Some researchers theorize this is not the soma plant referred to in the Vedic texts, and believe soma is an unidentified, hallucinogenic plant, that grows in northern India and Nepal.[ii] The 9th Mandela in the Rg Veda, called the Soma Mandela, devotes 114 hymns to the purification of Soma, which is said to bring those who drink it to ecstasy. Other scholars hypothesize that soma is a bhasma, a type of ayurvedic medicine made according to rasashastra.[iii] Rasashastra is a type of alchemy medicine native to India, and involves the purification of metals and gems through a process of alternate heating, cooling, oxidizing and crushing, until a fine pure ash of consumable medicine is left, called a bhasma. Mercury, one of the primary metals used in rasashastra preparations, is thought to make the body perfect. Rasashastra is still practiced today, and takes years of specialized study under a master alchemist. Taking rasashastra preparations from untrained or unknown sources can be dangerous, and possibly life threatening.
The Hatha Yoga Pradipika teaches that meditation, specifically a practice called the kechari mudra, where a devotee inverts his tongue to touch the far recesses of his throat, and holds the posture for a period of time, will clear a membrane, and allow the secretion of soma to consistently drip from the sahasrara chakra.[iv] Meditation is taught to perfect the body so the practitioner can focus on gathering his internal winds, and bring the soma from the base of his spine up to the crown of his head, where the sahasrara chakra secretes soma rasa.[v] When soma rasa is secreted, the practitioner will experience bliss and immortality.
In the Sushruta Samhita, a classic Ayurvedic text, soma is described as having several plant origins, extracted in an elaborate ritual, that require building a house made of three chambers, where the center chamber is dedicated for the soma practice. The devotee begins with a series of specific mantras, pricking the bulb of the plant with a golden needle, and collecting its milky substance in a silver vessel, and drinks it. He then experiences soma’s effects over a period of four months, marked by distinct physical changes and practices, that include moving to different chambers for set days, applying and ingesting specific herbs, taking baths, and receiving specific massages. By the end of the fourth month, he is renewed physically, attains mastery over cosmological knowledge, never meets a failure in life, and is infused with divine spirit.[vi]
Soma has both, a metaphysical and physical means of transference. The substance of soma is pure love, and gives waves of bliss through our consciousness when it is ingested or produced. Exposure to the full moon, far away from city lights increases internal soma. It can also be cultivated in healthy lifestyle habits, extracted from plants, and produced in meditation. It requires a level of systemic function to be fully utilized, and therefore, cannot be accessed by sheer whim. Intentional support, facilitated by rejuvenation practices that restore digestive strength and detoxification, enable the extraction and proper assimilation of soma rasa.
Physically, soma is secreted by the glandular system. It is a finite manifestation of our immune system, and life force. The ancient Vedic texts indicate the place of soma secretion is the pineal gland, and some theorize that soma may actually be the powerful antioxidant called melatonin.[vii] As it is consumed, the body’s tissues become more elastic, and regain strength. The heart beats with a youthful vigor, and the mind sharpens. The shared teaching of the soma legend says, that immortality is not living forever, as we understand it, it is having enough physical strength and health, that the body is not an impediment to self-realization. The Vedic texts teach the desire to live forever is only worthy in order to completely actualize one’s full potential. The yogic and ayurvedic practices rejuvenate the body and restore vitality, so that we can ultimately transcend our physical body and reach enlightenment.
Moon’s Soma Drink
This is a drink that enhances soma production within the body and mind. It is best enjoyed after an evening meditation practice while basking under the light of the full moon.
- ½ C Macadamia Nuts
- ½ C Brazil Nuts
- 4 C Purified Water
- 4 Thai Coconuts
- 1 T Turmeric Powder
- 1 tsp Pink Pepper
- ½ tsp Himalayan Salt
- 1 Vanilla Bean Pod
- ½ T Shatavari Root Powder
Soak macadamia nuts and Brazil nuts in a bowl with 4 cups of purified water. Strain and discard water.
Put nuts in a high speed blender with 4 more cups of purified water. Blend at a high speed. Strain through a nut milk bag and set aside.
Crack open coconuts and pour coconut water into blender. Scrape out meat and add to blender. Blend at high speed until liquefied.
Add macadamia and Brazil nut milk back into blender with coconut milk.
Slice vanilla bean pod and scrape seeds into a small bowl. Blend into nut milk with the remaining ingredients. Pour into glasses and serve at room temperature.
[i] Cashford, J. (2003). The Moon: myth and image. New York: Four Walls Eight Windows.
[ii] Jay, Mike. (1999). Blue Tide: The Search for Soma. New York: Autonomedia,
[iii] Mishra, L. C. (2004). Scientific basis for Ayurvedic therapies. Boca Raton: CRC Press.
[iv] Aiyangar, M. (1949). Haṭha-yoga-pradīpikā of Svātmārāma Svāmin ((3d ed.). Madras, India: Theosophical Pub. House.
[v] Fenner, Edward. 1(979). Rasyana Sidhhi: Medicine and Alchemy in the Buddhist Tantras. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin.
[vi] Dash, S., Padhy., & Sachidananda. The soma drinker of ancient India: an ethnobotanical retrospection. Journal of Human Ecology, 19-26.
[vii] Bhatnagar, S. S., & Isaacs, D. (2009). Microchakras: innerTuning for psychological well-being. Rochester, Vt.: Inner Traditions.