CONFESSIONS OF A PANCHAKARMA PATIENT
Panchakarma ('PK') is a series of ancient Ayurvedic therapies that cleanse and detoxify the body to initiate optimal healing.
The process of preparing begins a month before the actual cleansing, with a very heating herbal formula that is meant to begin internally scraping away toxic buildup called ama. Two weeks into that, we begin reducing the diet, cutting back and ultimately cutting out triggering food items like gluten, dairy, sugar, alcohol and caffeine. With about one week remaining until the official PK, we adopt a procedure of internal oleation. This essentially involves ingesting increasing doses of medicated ghee each day.
As you can tell , the preparation process alone is quite full on. While I’m sharing with you the outline of my experience, please also note that panchakarma is the real deal. It is not something to experiment with on an unsupervised whim. If you are inspired and motivated to seek panchakarma therapy, please find an Ayurvedic practitioner to design a specific plan to suit your needs and support you through the process. I literally texted my sweet and patient PK practitioner every day leading up to and during the process. Her guidance has been invaluable; with it, I felt very prepared to safely take on my treatments from home.
While some Ayurvedic practitioners in the States offer services for home panchakarma, there is always the alternative of traveling to India... Because India is the home of Ayurveda, there are many panchakarma retreat centers that will host you, feed you and administer ALL of your therapies for weeks at a time. While this is a great option for those who have the time and a couple thousand dollars to spend, I have happily chosen to undergo PK from the comfort of my own home. Maybe next time, India!
Panchakarma takes us all the way inside the physical body, cleansing and even creating space for a phase of emotional detoxification. Over time, physical shifts cause emotional shifts, creating high potential for personal growth, reflection, and alchemy (positive transformation).
In preparing to embark on this journey, I honored the potential for maximum release, physically and emotionally. Although it will be different for everyone, I invite you into a small fraction of my experience.
DAY 1 : The Sweetest & Saltiest Morning Beverages
It’s sort of like drinking two separate margaritas for breakfast, one taking on ALL the sweet flavor, and the other all the salt… But instead of being on Spring Break in Mexico, the sun has not yet risen and I’m sitting on the floor of my tiny dark bathroom. Rather than being “on the rocks,” my beverages are wavering just above lukewarm. The first beverage is actually a concentrated licorice tea with honey; I woke up at 5am just to make it. The second is a lovely combination of water and salt. I begin to drink the prescribed quantities as quickly as possible, not just to expedite the experience of this less than ideal flavor combination, but to prevent my body from beginning the process of absorbing the liquid. The beverages are like the cleanup crew that wipes the floor down during timeouts at a basketball game, quick and effective.
This therapy is called vamen and it is a way to cleanse kapha dosha, whose home is in the stomach, lungs and upper respiratory tract. Kapha is responsible for the lubrication and structure of the body, but when out of balance can cause excess mucus or toxic buildup (ama). When a person is experiencing elevated levels of kapha, he/she is prone to develop what we call mandagni. Mandangi translates to “slow/low fire,” referring to weak digestion characterized by lack of hunger and slow metabolism.
Upon witnessing my own vamen therapy, I came in direct contact with the unpleasant result of mandagni. Kapha, a combination of earth and water elements, is my dominant dosha. This portion of the cleanse is particularly beneficial to the imbalances I am prone to. After gracefully & horrendously ridding myself of the beverages, I saw in my own vomit and bile particles of the food that I had eaten 12 hours ago – green chard to be exact. The fact that this food was still in my stomach is a huge indicator that my kapha has been building up and, in some way, slowing my ability to digest effectively. As I wiped the perspiration from my brow, and the tears from my eyes, I made myself a cup of soothing herbal tea and remembered that I was about to do it all again tomorrow; this was only the beginning of the least glamorous, and potentially most transformative, spring break experience I could asked for.
DAY 2 : The Skin I’m In
When I met with my Ayurvedic practitioner for panchakarma orientation, she explained to me that each day I would be doing a therapy called sneha swedana, oiling and sweating. This is a practice of applying oil (often infused with medicinal herbs) to the entire body, followed by soaking in a hot bath. Now, I’ve done this process before – quite thoroughly, I thought. In my own daily routine, generally I spend about FOUR of my precious morning minutes oiling my body before showering. My practioner gently explained to me that during PK, I would need to give my body a full 30 minute oil massage. Wow, this woman was asking me to spend 30 minutes alone with my own naked body. Of all the deep therapies and intense concoctions, how is the self-massage portion bringing up the most tension for me?
Why do we think we don’t deserve to care for ourselves? Why has touch become such a luxury that allowing time for self-massage is almost difficult to fathom? We live in a culture so caught up in short term results and quick fixes that we literally need to be given permission to care for ourselves. Even as a person who quite adamantly engages in self-care, this request challenged my existing view and invited me into deeper exploration.
Let me tell you, to allow myself to be with myself under no time constraints, without any rush was… profound. I understood that, in that moment, being with myself was exactly where I needed to be. It was an incredibly grounding experience. It was a reacquainting with my body, navigating the spaces between my toes, feeling the length of my bones, circling my joints and absorbing my own warmth.
What an honor to be covered in skin… why do we not honor our skin? Skin is the largest organ of the body and the container for all that makes us human – literally holding each and every one of us together. We must be open to loving the skin, as it is open to us. Kind touch is so powerful, so necessary, to remind us that we live in this body – that we are protected and nurtured by this body. How beautiful, the shapes we make; hips and soles, joints and bones. The seven layers of skin provide edges to these shapes; corners and creases. It is a breathing boundary, letting nourishment in and keeping harm out. Many lessons can be learned from the skin.
DAY 3 : Learning & Relearning to Love My Body
Let me be honest, part of the reason I was hesitant about the 30 minutes of external oiling (also called abhyanga) was because I wasn’t sure if I could sustain honoring my body for THAT length of time. I know that sounds a little ridiculous. The truth is, I needed this opportunity to re-evaluate my relationship to self. I needed a reminder to reconnect with every facet of my flesh. And if this fiercely feminist-indentifying woman (ME) needs it, I am probably not alone. We spend all day and night with our bodies, but how much of that time are we consciously noticing, listening to, and honoring our physical being? This is not about cultivating an obsession or even looking in the mirror, it is about deepening appreciation and the embracing the feeling of living in our skin.
Ironically enough, I have spent the bulk of my time in between cleansing therapies fully immersed in feminist literature. I have been pouring over the negative implications of body shaming, the importance of self worth and patriarchical perpetuation of placing value on a woman’s body over her mind and spirit. While reading these texts, I was wholeheartedly connecting to my feminist values, and simultaneously failing to fully internalizing them for myself, thinking, “Yeah, I love my body, but I will love it more when…” And suddenly remembering: that’s just not how it works. Real love is full and deep. It is not conditional, but unconditional – learning to love our flaws and to feel the true nature of our own beauty, far beyond what is seen as most acceptable or ideal. Part of feminist theory is actually valuing the individual’s experience. As I return to greater self-reflexivity, I try not to judge my own judgment. Rather than being hard on myself for knowing better than to fall into a pattern of societally instigated insecurities, I acknowledge that I am both a feminist, and a human.
Engaging in this intentional act of self-love has challenged me to witness the flood of judgment and let it pass, realizing that this body is still here, fully functioning on behalf of MY SELF, despite the shadow of my sharp critiques. It is helping me realize that my body is far stronger and more stable than the fleeting negativity of my lower self.
DAY 4 : Doing & Not Doing – Rediscovering TIME
After more than three full days of surrendering to this PK cleanse, I have begun to reflect on my own relationship with time. Initially, I was amazed at how many hours are actually in a day… I was surprised at noon, when I’d completed my therapies, made all my teas and finished some anticipated computer work. See, normally, I go to school all day and when I’m not in school, I’m working one of five jobs. Most days during the week, I finish school and go to work. I joke that my ‘day’ off is Friday after 5pm (that is, until I go to work the next morning). I generally use these precious hours to complete personal work and writing, as well as to catch up on a little self-care. What I am getting at here is that I barely have an afternoon off, let alone an entire week! Hence, even a full day of openness feels incredibly spacious and exciting.
In addition to enjoying what feels like an unfathomable amount of time to care for myself, I have also noticed a habit of finding ways to fill and even over fill my days. You see, after the first day, when I became reacquainted with the power and potential of a full 24 hours, I started making myself extensive lists of projects and activities to complete. Now, this is all fine and good… until I fail to complete all my newly assigned tasks. As I deepen the understanding of the legitimate pressure I put on myself to be busy and productive, I am reluctantly reminding myself that high productivity is not a sustainable state of being (unless you’re a robot). As a society, we value business and drive in our careers, so much so that we often lose sight of the components that bring balance. We are so used to doing that we have forgotten that it is OK to not do.
THIS is why we get so uncomfortable in our attempts to meditate – we are ingrained to think that we should always be doing something to achieve tangible productivity. This view, however, does not take into account quality of accomplishments, but emphasizes quantity instead. The more we allow ourselves to balance doing and achieving with stillness and relaxation, the more we enhance the quality of all that we do. My tendency, and probably a tendency many of us share, is to over-do and over commit, often resulting in feelings of depletion and under appreciation, which is ultimately less productive on a personal level.
This introspective time has provided a subtle opportunity for me to reconnect with my meditation through simple actions like taking walks in my neighborhood and lying in the grass. Not doing does not have to be seen as laziness, but an opportunity to recharge so that personal productivity maintains its level of efficiency when we transition into that space. Also, doing doesn’t have to be so overwhelming; tasks can be accomplished, without being drawn into an all-encompassing, unrealistic, never ending to-do list. All that being said, I’m still getting work done (I’m writing this blog right now) – but I am also allowing time for less doing. I am creating space for more meditation, more quiet time and less stimulation. There is an equilibrium between hard work and downtime, as soon as we remember that both are important actually supportive of one another.
DAY 5 : DETOXIFICATION IS EXHAUSTING
Since beginning this panchakarma journey, I have stayed home most days, gone to bed before 9:30pm, limited my exercise to afternoon strolls around the neighborhood and eaten three nourishing meals a day. And STILL -- I find myself feeling absolutely exhausted. This, my friends, is the process of detoxification. I have finally created the time and the space for my body to invite healing on a deeper level, and it’s happening. The energy that would’ve usually gone toward studying, hiking and problem solving has been almost entirely freed up for genuine healing. I can feel my digestion getting back on track, as my body processes food more efficiently, allowing for the experience of real hunger before each meal. I can feel my skin softening and clearing, absorbing the oils and embracing the daily self-massage. I can feel my nostrils clearing, my breath deepening and my sense of smell heightening after neti and other kapha cleansing procedures. I can feel my hair strengthening and my quality of sleep increasing.
I feel fully hydrated and healthy, but so, so exhausted. It’s amazing to reflect on how hard our bodies work to support us… all the intricate processes that a body undergoes in response to just one human choice. When we choose to eat food that we know is not ultimately supportive to our systems, we are still demanding that our bodies use their precious time and energy to break that item down, without receiving much nutritional benefit in return. As I contemplate coming out of this cleanse and returning back to my regular diet, I hope to carry these lessons with me – to remember this week of exhaustion, of intense cleansing and detoxification. I hope to use this experience as a reminder of how hard the body works and how easy it is to throw off those natural, efficient processes by treating it poorly. One small act of thoughtlessness toward the body or mind can quickly spiral into the opposite of healing, manifesting the early stages of disease. True healing involves serious patience, nurturing and commitment. We must be gentle with our bodies; we must honor them for their efforts to keep us not only surviving, but thriving. These bodies allow us to stand tall and to stay active, but they can’t do it alone (at least not forever). They need our intentional support and awareness to live fully in health and happiness. Let us make conscious choices for our bodies and love all that they do for us!
DAY 6 : MY FIRST ENEMA
So far, I’ve puked and purged, but somehow, I was least comfortable with the idea of using an enema. People tell me it can be quite relaxing, but upon initial description of the practice, it was difficult for me to embrace that notion with ease. Somehow, I was going to have to work it out, because I had been prescribed three bastis (the ayurvedic word for enema) in the final three days of my panchakarma.
This treatment is aimed to soothe vata dosha, which resides primarily in the colon. Vata, comprised of the air and ether elements, is associated with dry, rough, cold and active qualities (much like the wind). When one of these qualities becomes excessive, vata is likely to go out of balance. As this occurs, we may notice shifts toward dry skin/joints, an overactive mind or poor sleep (to name a few), but the imbalance will likely be most evident in the colon. We will see this affecting the quality of elimination and likely leading to gas and constipation. Due to the fragile nature of vata, most people experience this at some point, while others will find this to be a regular occurrence.
To be honest, up until this point, I hadn’t thought that much about my colon. However, as I continue to integrate a greater understanding of the inner workings of my entire being, it seemed like good time to start. And why not begin with a super nourishing, safely recommended enema experience? I’m not going to go into the details, but I will tell you that I set up a cozy nest in the bathroom and everything was absolutely fine. Nothing crazy or scary or challenging happened. It wasn’t even particularly messy. And then it was over. Rather anticlimactic if you ask me. I will say that when trying something new and potentially intimidating, it really helps to be prepared! I warmed my medicated oil in advance and arranged everything I would need before I began. I made my body super comfortable so that my mind could relax and surrender to the process.
Some say that although basti makes up only a fraction of the cleansing therapies prescribed during PK, that is it worth 50% of the long-term results. Vata is, after all, the dosha responsible for movement of all disease! If we calm, support, and strengthen vata from within its own home, we are taking preventative measures for any potential movement of disease. We are gently grounding the imbalanced tendency toward excessive movement, as is so easily aggravated during our busy lives.
DAY 7 : EMBRACING THE MONO-DIET
It is my seventh day of eating kitchari for every meal, and things seem to be going fine. I generally enjoy the taste, the texture is nice and I have probably only thought about cookies twice. I am so in my groove, that in addition to soaking my grains in advance, I even started cooking them the night before in the crock-pot. As much as I am feeling optimistic and prepared to move through my last day of PK with grace, I almost immediately begin experiencing tension in my every attempt to nurture myself. From shattering a glass lid into my entire pot of food for the day to suddenly feeling immensely insecure and fragile, things were feeling pretty rough! I spent most of my day trying to make sense of this perceived lowness. Was the Universe trying to teach me something about my inability to care for myself? Was it a challenge asking me to rise up? Or was it an opportunity to slow down? All of the reflection turned out to be the most draining part of the process. While I moved through most of my panchakarma with relative ease and confidence, I was suddenly experiencing high contrast.
Rather than getting caught up in each little thing that had gone wrong and losing myself in the powerful tendencies of over-analyzing, I started to integrate the experience as a whole. In creating space for a deep understanding, I feel humbled. The journey is not always going to be easy and that is the beauty of impermanence. When things were going exceptionally well in the initial days of my PK, I became attached and preemptively labeled my entire experience as that. This ultimately led to greater suffering on my part, because in addition to dealing with the general discomfort of inconvenience, I was also processing the immense discomfort of letting go of attachment to the story I had created.
While panchakarma can be super dreamy and peaceful, it is also bound to be intense and that is OK too. Rather than resisting and questioning the intensity, why not just witness it? By the time evening came (after receiving support from a few wise friends), I was finally able to let go of my expectations and acknowledge all parts of the experience I was having, not just the super comfortable ones. In case you forget, panchakarma is much more than a physical detox.
...WHAT COMES NEXT?
Just as I began to think I was almost done, that the cleanse was over and things were about to get easier… I soon realized that was not quite the case. We don’t put in the tedious effort to purify our bodies for a week so that we can ruin everything with a piece of cake. That’s not to say there will never be cake again, but that foods like this are really not the priority as we rebuild the gut. The next step after panchakarma is a graduated diet. The purpose of this diet, called samsarjana krama, is to ultimately support the digestive system to become stronger than before. The interesting thing about this strengthening is that it’s actually a very gentle process, more of a coaxing, really. It is an invitation to re-build trust with your gut after what may have been a lifetime of eating with little awareness. This is BIG!
The transition from detoxification to true healing is a really special opportunity to achieve health and balance on a much deeper level. But, we have to be fully conscious and fully committed throughout the process.
There is really no room to mess around, to eat a piece of cake or casually have a beer – not right now! These items are not strengthening and are therefore out of alignment with the ultimate goal. Once we have completed the graduated diet and begin to work more foods and flavors back into the diet, we will ultimately have the strength to eat an occasional sweet treat or have a beverage without being thrown totally out of balance. But first, we have to shower the body with respect and patience for all the healing that it does for us – because now the real healing begins.
Healing is a choice that we make -- an opportunity to realize one’s own vision of well-being.
Panchakarma clears the channels, setting us up to achieve our highest potential of balanced living and to thrive in our own individual bodies. It prepares us to honor our cravings and asks us to listen to our bodies. Panchakarma empowers us to embark on the journey immediately – the real journey, not the one that starts and stops, or the one that we say we’ll do “eventually”. This is it. It is time. Panchakarma sets us up for success, now we must use these proper tools to guide ourselves toward radiant health.
So, now you know: panchakarma is far more than a one-week trendy cleanse, it is a full on journey, into and beyond the deepest tissues of the body.
Thank you for witnessing my experience.