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.”
Seeking deep healing? The Ayurvedic Abhyanga is the self-massage for you
An “Abhyanga” is a massage using oil, according to the Ayurvedic tradition. Ayurveda, in case you’ve missed it, is a 5000 year old traditional Hindu healing system that takes into account the constitution, or “dosha” of each individual. It balances the body accordingly, using diet, herbal and mineral remedies, yoga and yogic breathing, massage and other detox rituals. Essentially, it’s one of the oldest, most respected holistic healing systems.
The Abhyanga practice is a special wellness ritual that you can do daily. According to the Chopra Center website, it’s extremely valuable to practice on yourself regularly, “When stimulated through therapeutic touch or massage, the skin releases a pharmacy of healing chemicals that have health-promoting effects on the physiology. In addition to feeling good, regular massage and loving touch detoxifies the body’s tissues, increases circulation, calms the mind, and enhances immune function.
“The body of one who uses oil massage regularly does not become affected much even if subjected to accidental injuries, or strenuous work. By using oil massage daily, a person is endowed with pleasant touch, trimmed body parts and becomes strong, charming and least affected by old age.”
Charaka Samhita Vol. 1, V: 88-89, “Giving yourself a daily self-abhy with aromatherapy massage oils is a deeply healing and deeply enjoyable ayurvedic practice that activates the body’s inner pharmacy and slows the aging process. Depending upon your unique mind-body type (dosha), your massage technique can be gentle or more vigorous.”
So, what are the benefits, exactly? Doing an Abhyanga can:
- Increase the softness and healthy glow of the skin
- Flush toxins from the lymphatic system
- Decreases Vata (autoimmune illnesses such as Rheumatoid Arthritis and Polymositis are considered Vata imbalances and self massage is extremely beneficial for calming symptoms)
- Strengthens the Dhatus (the body’s tissues in accordance to the Ayurvedic texts) and helps tone muscles
- Increases strength and stamina
- Improves vision
- Promotes healthy sleep
- Reduces anxiety and depression
- Promotes flexibility
- Release healthy endorphins which, in turn, help balance hormones, an especially important practice for women
Best Dosha Practices
Before you go diving in, there is one essential key to examine first. You must know your dosha; as Ayurveda is a holistic, individual-based system, “one size fits all” is definitely not the practice. You can take a quick dosha quiz here, and then figure out the best Abhyanga practice based on your body type.
Vata types require a warming oil like sesame or almond. For your body type, it’s best to do an Abhyanga 2-3 times a week. Vata is a cold and dry Dosha, so warm oil is very nourishing in balancing your systems. It helps lubricate the dry skin and protect the joints as well. Mahanarayan oil and Dhanvantaram are two classical oils used in Ayurveda to help alleviate the inflammation and stiffness of joints. A light to medium pressure should be used.
A hotter Dosha than Vata, Pitta types need a cooling type oil in order to balance, so coconut and olive oils are an excellent choice. Medium pressure should be used when massaging. Many Pitta types have inflammatory skin issues. Ayurveda has some specific oils for use on specific ailments.
Kapha is another Dosha that requires a warming oil. Use mustard and sunflower; both are excellent choices. Sesame is also a very good choice, particularly if you live in a cooler climate. Medium to heavy pressure is recommended and best for Kapha types, which will let the oil deeply penetrate as it should.
Now you’re ready to go! Here are the steps you will need to take for your Abhyanga:
- Begin by running some hot water over the bottle to gently warm the oil; warm oil is best to work with on your body.
- You can use a loofah or body brush to dry brush the entire body.
- Pour a tablespoon of warm oil onto your scalp and vigorously work in the oil.
- Using your fingertips, vigorously massage your head and scalp with small circular strokes, as if you are shampooing.
- Move to your face and ears, massaging more gently.
- Using an open hand to create friction, massage both the front and back of the neck.
- Vigorously massage your arms, using a circular motion at the shoulders and elbows, and back-and-forth motions on the upper arms and forearms. Massage in the direction of the hair follicles, allowing the oil to cover the body evenly.
- When performing Abhyanga on the joints, use a circular motion.
- When massaging your chest and stomach, use a gentle circular motion and a straight up-and-down motion over the breastbone.
- After applying a bit of oil to both hands, gently reach around to the back and spine and massage them as well as you can without straining. Start at the base of the spine and work upwards in a long, continuous stroke. You can also have a partner help you with this part.
- Vigorously massage your legs as you did your arms, using circular motions at the ankles and knees, back-and-forth motions on the long parts.
- After massaging your legs, spend extra time on your feet. The feet contain many important Marmas (pressure points in accordance to the principles of Ayurveda). Using the open part of your hand, massage vigorously back and forth over the soles of the feet. When massaging the feet, be sure to apply the oil to the entire foot, taking care to get in between the toes.
- After the application of oil, sit quietly for 5-15 minutes to allow the oil to be properly absorbed by your skin. During this time you may choose to meditate, as it’s a good time set apart for relaxed spiritual practice. Keeping a thin, almost imperceptible film of oil on the body is considered very beneficial for toning the skin and warming the muscles throughout the day. Or, you can take a shower once the oils have absorbed.