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.”
9 Ayurvedic Rituals for Youthful Vitality
I love the buzzword “longevity”. Saying it almost makes me feel five years younger. Try it.
Don’t we wish it were that easy? We have tried the “low carb” diet and the “eat right for your blood type” diet. We heard about the power of goji and acai berries and so on, and we believed that the magic anti-aging pills would actually work. We believed these multi-million dollar industries that avowed that their products would indeed remove ten years from our being.
The truth of the matter is that it takes serious effort and a massively strong will for changes to occur.
The good news is that if we make the optimal “choice” of changing our lifestyle habits, we can attain that beloved state of being which radiates “youthfulness” even late into our eighties. By beginning to take seriously the task of obtaining balance over your own health and wellbeing, and committing fully and wholeheartedly to a set of healthful daily habits, the universe will be at your service.
The 5,000 year old science of Ayurveda holds all the secrets to living, maintaining and preserving a sweet long life, in all respects to our constant dance of life.
Attaining a human life, according to the Vedas, Buddhism and old Ayurvedic scriptures (such as Cakara Samhita) is by far the greatest gift nature endowed on us humans. This gift makes it so that we can conquer the most profound of goals possible: nirvana/moksha or liberation.
It is indeed our birthright to realize our true selves.
Such lucky humans are we.
According to Ayurveda (Dr. Arindham Chatterjee of Global Ayu Care in New Delhi, India), by following 70% of the techniques and tools suggested by the ancient knowledge of Ayurveda, one can truly attain well-rounded health of mind and body. Viva! This is in fact an attainable goal.
9 Regimens for Youth and Vitality
It might be impossible to introduce all of the following rituals at once. Take your time and try two at a time. It won’t take long to get a taste of success.
- Immediately upon rising (hopefully slightly before sunrise) brush your teeth, scrape your tongue and drink a cup of warm water with lemon. Toxins accumulate on the tongue while we sleep and we don’t want to introduce them back into our system. Tongue scraping acts to stimulate and massage the internal organs. The water with lemon kick starts the liver for a brand new day of work.
- Splash open eyes with clean water. This practice strengthens the eyes, improves eyesight, clears the mind and recharges mental energy.
- Self-massage with appropriate oils a minimum of three times per week. Don’t forget to include the ears. Self-massage ignites your internal pharmacy, according to Deepak Chopra, and stimulates all the systems of your body.
- Exercise daily. This includes either a daily yoga practice or a daily practice of the 5 Tibetans (fountain of youth).
- Eat only when hungry. Aim to eat Sattvic foods (pure foods). Ayurvedically speaking, eating only when you’re hunger rises means that you are responding to the urges of the body appropriately. Learn how to differentiate hunger, from eating for the sake of eating.
- Utilize turmeric in your cooking. Turmeric is considered the most medicinal Indian herb. Its powerful healing benefits help to clear infections, fight inflammation and support joint function. It also works to promote healthy skin and aids in digestion.
- Fast at least once per month. The term fasting does no have to mean avoiding food completely. One can fast on solids or grains for twenty-four hours in order to simply give your digestive system a break.
- Triphala before bedtime. If you had to choose one herb out of the thousands of herbs used in Ayurvedic Medicine, Triphala would be the one. Triphala translates to “three fruits” and is comprised of Amalaki, Bibhataki and Haritaki, which are three of the most important herbs in Ayurvedic medicine. Triphala is known as a rasayana, which means that it rejuvenates and strengthens the tissues–specifically as it cleanses and tonifies the gastro-intestinal tract.
- Meditate every day. A regular meditation practice will calm the mind. Learning to observe the movements of the mind is paramount to helping us to make conscious choices, live in the moment and face the daily battles of life from a much more detached place of acceptance.
Unlock your inner healing powers; you are your own healer.
For another perspective on increasing your longevity, watch the documentary The Immortalists.
Learn How to Meditate
Whether you’re looking to cultivate more authenticity, increase happiness, improve relationships, or reduce stress, all of these things are accessible to you through the practice of meditation. Learn how Gaia can help you transform your life in our Beginner’s Guide to Meditation.