Panchakarma: An Ayurvedic Cleansing Method

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:

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.



What's your Ayurvedic dosha? Take this quiz and find out

What’s your Ayurvedic dosha? Take this quiz and find out

The balance of your Ayurvedic doshas, also known as prakruti, is a key part of understanding your holistic health.

Doshas are the three energies found in nature, and also in the human body. They are broken down into three types: vata, pitta and kapha. The doshas are responsible over our bodies, minds, emotions, and thoughts. From birth, we are each individually made with a very specific blend of the five basic elements: ether, air, fire, water, and earth. That unique blend is your prakruti, or what uniquely constitutes your individual body, and can be broken down by a combination of the three doshas: vata (ether + air), pitta (fire + water), and kapha (water + earth).

The three doshas are the building blocks to understanding our prakruti, and once you understand which is your dominant dosha, you can know what your balanced state looks like. This is vital, as through this lens you can spot exactly when your body goes out of balance, and how to bring it back into balance. Humans are being of nature, constructed from the same five elements, and thus can use the opposing elements as needed to bring us back into balance.

It all hinges on knowing your doshas, however. You can get a general sense of where your dosha balance lies, and go from there to correct the problems. You can even seek out the help of an Ayurvedic practitioner, who can take a look at your insights and prescribe anything from food and herbs to a new lifestyle. Thanks, Ayurveda!

Tally up the number of v’s, p’s, and k’s you receive (standing for vata, pitta, and kapha), whichever you have the most of is your dominant dosha:

1. Physique

  • v) I am a slender person and I hardly gain weight
  • p) I am medium build
  • k) I am well built and I gain weight no matter what I do

2. Skin

  • v) My skin is dry, thin, and itches often
  • p) My skin looks flushed; I have lots of moles and freckles on my body
  • k) My skin is smooth and soft, it looks pale sometimes

3. Hair

  • v) My hair is dry, thin and brittle
  • p) My hair is neither dry nor oily (for men: I have a receding hairline)
  • k) My hair is thick, full, lustrous, and slightly oily

4. Face

  • v) My face is oval
  • p) My face is triangular (pointed chin, prominent jaw line)
  • k) My face is round

5. Eyes

  • v) My eyes are small; they feel dry often and have a bit of dullness (usually brown)
  • p) My eyes are medium in shape; sharp & penetrating (usually blue)
  • k) My eyes are big and round in shape, full eyelashes

6. Hands

  • v) My hands are generally dry, rough; slender fingers; dry nails
  • p) My hands are generally moist, pink; medium fingers; soft nails
  • k) My hands are generally firm, thick; thick fingers; strong & smooth nails

7. Joints

  • v) My joints are small, prominent bones, and often crack
  • p) My joints are medium and loose
  • k) My joints are large, sturdy, with lots of muscle surrounding

8. Activities

  • v) I am a very active person (always on the go, mind constantly thinking)
  • p) I like to think before I do anything
  • k) I am steady and graceful (I don’t like to rush)

9. Actions

  • v) I walk fast and talk fast
  • p) My actions are very thoughtful and precise
  • k) I like a slower pace and I take my time to accomplish things

10. Sleep

  • v) I do not sleep soundly at night. I tend to toss and turn. I wake up early in the morning
  • p) I am a light sleeper but if something wakes me up, I can go back to sleep easily
  • k) I am a heavy sleeper

11. Appetite

  • v) Varies, sometimes I feel hungry, sometimes not, I feel anxious if I don’t eat
  • p) I always feel hungry. If I don’t eat I get irritable and angry
  • k) I don’t feel very hungry. I can go without food easily for a day

12. Bowel Movement

  • v) I tend to have constipation and can go a day or two without a bowel movement
  • p) I am regular and sometimes stools are loose (tend to get diarrhea)
  • k) I have no problem. I wake up to go to the bathroom.

13.Voice

  • v) My voice tends to be weak or hoarse
  • p) I have a strong voice, I may get loud sometimes
  • k) My voice is deep, has good tone

14. Emotions

  • v) I am a born worrier, I often feel anxious and nervous
  • p) If things don’t happen my way, I feel irritable and angry
  • k) I am a happy person, very caring and loving

15. Weather Preference

  • v) I love warm and humid weather
  • p) I enjoy cool weather, I dislike a warm climate
  • k) I like warm but dry weather

16. Sweating

  • v) I sweat little but not much
  • p) I sweat profusely and it might have an unpleasant odor
  • k) I never sweat, unless working very hard

17. Memory

  • v) I remember quickly and forget quickly
  • p) I remember what I want to remember and never forget
  • k) It takes me a while to remember, but once I do I never forget

18. Actions

  • v) I tend to be spontaneous
  • p) I am a list maker. Unless I plan, I don’t do anything
  • k) I don’t like to plan, I prefer to follow others

19. Stamina

  • v) I like to do things in spurts and I get tired very easily
  • p) I have medium stamina
  • k) I can work long hours and maintain good stamina

20. Mind

  • v) My mind gets restless and racing easily
  • p) I get impatient easily
  • k) It takes a lot to make me mad. I usually feel very calm

21. Decision Making

  • v) I change my mind more often and will take time to make a decision
  • p) I can make a decision easily and stick with it
  • k) I want others to make the decisions

22. Personality

  • v) “Is it too late to change my mind”?
  • p) “It’s my way or the highway”
  • k) “Don’t worry, be happy!”

23. Sports

  • v) I like action
  • p) I like to win
  • k) I like to have fun

24. Health Problems

  • v) My symptoms are mainly pain, constipation, anxiety and depression
  • p) I often get skin infections, fevers, heart burn, and hypertension
  • k) I tend to get allergies, congestion, weight gain and digestive problems

25. Hobbies

  • v) I like art (drawing, painting, dance) and travel
  • p) I like sports, politics, and things that get my adrenaline pumping
  • k) I like nature, gardening, reading, and knitting
Read Article

More In Lifestyle

Our unique blend of yoga, meditation, personal transformation, and alternative healing content is designed for those seeking to not just enhance their physical, spiritual, and intellectual capabilities, but to fuse them in the knowledge that the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts.


Use the same account and membership for TV, desktop, and all mobile devices. Plus you can download videos to your device to watch offline later.

Desktop, laptop, tablet, phone devices with Gaia content on screens

Discover what Gaia has to offer.

Testing message will be here