Panchakarma: The Ayurvedic Cleanse
Modern lifestyles and eating habits can wreak havoc on the human body. So too can exposure to environmental and chemical pollution, preservatives, fertilizers, coloring agents and other additives in food leave subtle and not so subtle effects upon our being. Feelings of lethargy, metabolic issues and frequent spells of ill health can be obvious signs that our bodies are yielding to these constant, negative daily exposures.
It’s no secret that proper lifestyle choices contribute to good health and longevity. No matter how well we take care of ourselves, however, there still remains a need to cleanse. There are various levels of cleansing promoted in Ayurveda, from simple daily practices that can be easily performed by everyone, to more vigorous techniques, known as the panchakarma (five cleansing actions), which require the supervision of a qualified ayurvedic medical practitioner.
Panchakarma treatment envisages the expulsion of amavisha (toxins) and stress from the body. This helps in toning and revitalizing the muscles, nervous system, skin, digestion and sexual functions, and also promotes a more vibrant immune system. During Pancha Karma therapy, toxins are dislodged (released) from the deep tissues of the body into the bloodstream, then into the GI tract for ultimate removal. These intense ayurvedic treatments can be carried out both as a preventive measure and as a part of the curative process.
Benefits of Panchakarma
The concept of free radicals and antioxidants in modern medicine is a recent one. However, Ayurveda has been aware of the ill effects of these free radicals and other toxins (amavisha, or ‘ama’ in Ayurveda) for ages. The accumulation of such harmful elements inside the body brings about an imbalance in the vata, pita and kapha humors, resulting in a loss of vitality and a subsequent diseased state. Panchakarma cleansing involves dislodging the ama from the body and expelling it from the nearest orifice. This purifies the tissues at a very deep level, something that cannot be accomplished with simple modern dietary detox programs.
Some benefits are:
• Expulsion of amavisha or toxins
• Opening up of the blocked channels in the body.
• Invigorating the metabolic processes
• Rejuvenation of the body
• Strengthening the digestive process resulting in proper digestion, assimilation and elimination
• Reduction of weight in obese individuals
• Boosting of the immune system to ward off diseases
• Relief of stress and relaxing the mind, which in turn helps promote proper sleep and enhance mental clarity
• Inducing a sense of overall well-being
• Slowing down the aging process
Preparations for Panchakarma
Before embarking on the intense practices of pancha karma, the patient first undergoes a serious of preliminary treatments, known as ‘poorva karmas.’
The first of those therapies is process known as ‘oleation,’ which involves massaging various herbal and mineral oil preparations over the whole or part of the body. The medicinal ingredients are carried though the oil base deeper into the tissues of the body, providing a preliminary ‘loosening’ or releasing of toxins within the cells.
Abhyanga is one type of Ayurvedic massage that is performed by applying copious amounts of herbal oil with long, broad strokes to the entire or specific areas of the body. Shirodhara is another oleation therapy whereby a stream of warm oil is poured over the forehead at a slow, steady rate. Another massage technique, known as pizhichil, involves the application of lukewarm medicated oil to the whole body in a soft and rhythmic massage, performed by two practitioners at once.
After oleation, a process known as ‘fomentation’ follows. Fomentation induces the body to sweat, releasing toxins from the tissues to be later ‘flushed out’ via the panchakarma practices.
The main fomentation practice is called swedana. This involves a herbal steam bath, usually performed in a specifically designed steam cabinet where the head and the heart can be kept cool, while at the same time allowing the steam to induce a full-body sweat that aids in the removal or dislodging of toxins from deep within the tissues.
The 5 Cleansing Practices
The five steps or the panchakarma are:
- Vamana (emesis)
- Virechana (laxation or purgation)
- Basti (enema)
- Nasya (administration of drugs through the nose)
- Rakta mokshana (bloodletting)
The first step in this ayurvedic cleansing regimen is vamana, which is controlled therapeutic emesis, a panchakarma procedure designed to flush out the toxins along with excess mucus in the respiratory and gastrointestinal tracts. The excess of mucus in these parts result in a vitiated (aggravated) kapha.
On the night prior to the procedure, the patient is asked to consume kapha aggravating foods such as the yoghurts, sweets, basmati rice, etc. This results in an excess of mucus inside the body. The treatment itself begins early next morning on an empty stomach, the time and body condition where kapha is most intense. Slight heat is applied to the chest region and to the back, an action that helps to loosen the kapha and dislodges the toxins. A medicated drink containing a decoction of Madanaphala ((Randia dumetorum lam.) is administered along with honey, rock salt and licorice. This induces vomiting in the patient (tickling the throat is resorted to if the drink itself fails to induce emesis) and results in the expulsion of the toxins and excess mucus. The procedure ends when pitta (yellow sticky material or the bile) expulsion begins, an indication that the expulsion of kapha is complete.
Once this panchakarma cleanse treatment is complete, the hands, legs, chest and face of the patient in washed with warm water. The patient is to take complete rest and should not indulge in any strenuous activity. Food is restricted and only a warm, thin gruel made of rice is fed to the patient for the next 3-4 meals.
This panchkarma procedure is especially beneficial for patients suffering from respiratory tract diseases, skin diseases, urinary tract disorders, depression, obesity, anaemia, lethargy, fatigue, sleep disorders, foul smell emanating from the body, impotency, allergies, diabetes, and kapha disorders of the ear, nose, throat and eye.
The second of the panchakarma treatment procedures, virechana is controlled purgation and is designed to clean the excess pitta accumulation and the toxins situated in the liver and the gall bladder. An excess of pitta results in diseases like liver disorders, skin disorders, gastritis, piles, gout, ascites, etc. As pitta is concentrated in and around the lower abdomen, expulsion through the anal route is the preferred one.
Three days after the completion of vamana karma, the patient is ready for virechana. They are already on a restricted diet and so the procedure can begin. Depending on the patient, the doctor chooses a purgative which can either be:
- Castor oil, or castor oil mixed with Haritaki (Terminalia chebula) – this process is known as Snigdha virechana
- Trivit (Operculina turpethum) paste – this process is known as Rooksha virechana.
If bowel movements are not seen relatively soon after ingesting the purgative, the patient is asked to drink hot water and the abdomen is massaged with warm palms. If adequate purgation is not observed near the end of the treatment day, the patient is allowed to have some food, and the procedure is repeated again the next day. About 10-12 bouts of purgation would complete this panchakarma procedure.
Once the procedure is complete, the hands, legs, chest and face of the patient are washed with warm water. As the intensity of this experience can be quite severe, complete rest should follow and strenuous activity of any kind avoided. Food is restricted as well and only a warm, thin gruel made of rice should be eaten for the next 3-4 meals. Oily food should also be removed from the menu. A regular diet can be resumed 4-7 days after this panchakarma cleansing procedure.
Virechana is of immense benefit to those suffering from jaundice and other liver disorders, high cholesterol, diseases of the urinogenital system, peptic ulcer, constipation, skin diseases, piles, etc.
Basti is an ayurvedic panchakarma cleanse procedure that involves the use of enemas. These differ from the typical saline enemas prescribed in Western cleansing, which are used primarily to provide relief from constipation and to cleanse the lower colon of residue and toxic buildup. In this panchkarma procedure, either of two types of enemas is used:
- Basti with medicated oil (Anuvasan Basti)
- Basti with a medicated decoction containing herbs, honey or other ingredients (Niruha Basti)
The ancient sages in India were aware that the active ingredients of certain herbs would either be destroyed in the acidic medium of the stomach or become metabolized in the liver, thus rendering them ineffective. To overcome such hurdles, they came up with the concept of basti which introduced herbs with their active ingredients directly into the body through the anal canal, bypassing the liver and the stomach altogether. The selection of the herbs used depends upon the disease that is being treated. For example, if a patient is found to have parasites, an herb like vidanga (Embelia Ribes) known for its anthelmintic activity is used.
Basti is an ayurvedic cleanse procedure that is employed for vata disorders and has both preventive and curative functions. Some of the diseases that are treated with this ayurvedic cleanse method are arthritis, rheumatism, constipation, distension, joint pains, gout, etc.
Nasya is a panchakarma cleanse procedure employed to treat conditions related to the head region as it facilitates elimination of the vitiated doshas from this region. The most common treatments are for migraine, neurological disorders, sinusitis, chronic rhinitis, hair fall, premature graying of hair, beard, etc. In this procedure, herbal powders or herbal liquids or medicated oil is instilled through the nose. The medicaments reach the ‘Sringataka marma’ which is located in the head region and consists of nerve cells and fibers which are responsible for the four senses – smell, vision, taste and hearing. This pancha karma procedure not only expels the vitiated doshas present in this region but also nourishes this important center, leading to a smoother and more efficient cerebral, sensory and motor functioning of the body.
Based on the requirement, different types of medicaments are used. These may include dry powders (that are blown into the nose with a tube), ghee (clarified butter), ghritams (medicated ghee), medicated milk, herbal decoctions, medicated oils, a combination of decoctions and oils, etc. After administration of nasya, the soles, shoulders, neck, ears and the palms are gently massaged.
Toxins in the blood stream may be the cause of repeated infections in the body. Fevers, skin ailments, hypertension and circulatory problems may all be associated with the presence of these toxins. Though therapeutic bloodletting may be relegated to the dark ages in the minds of modern medical practitioners, it remains a part of pancha karma for the purification of the blood.
This bloodletting, or Rakta moksha as it is called, is used to eliminate toxins from the bloodstream. There are two means of rakta moksha, one which involves metal instruments (shastra visravana) and the second which used other means (anushastra visravana). In the second type, the most commonly used methodology is to use leeches to extract blood (hirudotherapy). Abscess, eczema, gout, herpes and jaundice are some conditions wherein this panchakarma cleansing procedure is employed. The procedure should not, however, be carried out in patients with edema, weakness, anemia, in young children, in pregnant ladies and during menstruation.
Restoring the Natural Balance of the Body
As a civilization, we may be more conscious of our health now, but whether or not we can we claim to be leading a healthier life than our ancestors is definitely debatable. They reveled in natural organic products and a pollution free world, the kind of living environment the modern world is now desperate to recreate. The ingestion of chemicals into the body is common place today. We are inundated with environmental and chemical pollution wherever we go. Clean air and fresh water are now a luxury, rather than an abundant gift of nature. We must remain ever-vigilant to avoid all the chemicals in our food, such as preservatives, pesticides, fertilizers, and additives like colors and flavoring agents. All of these challenges, coupled with poor lifestyle choices contribute to a buildup of stress and toxins inside our body. While we may not be (noticeably) suffering from ill health, the vibrant spontaneity that adds sparkle to our life seems to be dwindling. Like your mobile phone, which performs sluggishly and is slow to respond when it has become overloaded with junk, so too our body’s energy drains more quickly and our ability to perform is reduced when we are clogged and contaminated with toxic buildup. We need to clear the junk, rebuild, refresh and reboot.
Based on scientific principles and a tradition that dates back thousands of years, panchakarma can help eliminate toxic buildup and reverse or slow down the degenerative (aging) process. This ancient cleansing therapy not only treats acute and chronic diseases, but it has also stood the test of time as a proven formula designed to strengthen and rejuvenate our bodies and to ward off the forces destructive to our overall health and well-being.
This page is not intended, nor should it be used as an instruction guide for the practice of any of the techniques described herein. Panchakarma practices can, if not practiced properly, cause severe bodily distress and/or lead to medical emergencies. The practices and techniques described on this page should be undertaken ONLY at the advice and under the direct supervision of a qualified and licenced ayurvedic health professional.
Life (ayu) is the combination (samyoga) of body, senses, mind, and reincarnating soul. Ayurveda is the most sacred science of life, beneficial to humans both in this world and the world beyond.
Latest from the Jiva Blog
Jiva Botanicals understands that everybody's ayurvedic experience is different, because we understand ayurveda. Our Jiva Blog is a place where our community can share experiences, stories and news so that we can educate one another, and hopefully inspire each other to practice ayurveda in our everyday lives.
I’m going to begin this story the way a good friend of mine always begins his, with a voice and a phrase that tickles my spirit and invites it to dance. But first, This story is a classic demo of how fiesty pitta (our fire energy) can make us impulsive, determined,...
Did you know that Ayurvedic cancer treatment dates back to seventh century BC? Atreya (one of the great Indian sages) and Dhanwanthari (the God of Ayurveda) used herbal medicines as cancer treatments (1). Studies show these herbs are still used today for rejuvenating...
A dual dosha constitution doesn’t have to result in a duel of energies. Managing a pitta-kapha dosha predominance is easier than you might believe. Understanding how the elemental qualities and attributes of each dosha interact to form this powerful constitution is a...