Think back to the times when you have felt happy. You will probably realize those were also the times when your body and mind were light, healthy, and clear, and your prana or life force high. Being healthy is our natural state of being. A wound heals itself. The white blood cells as part of a sophisticated immune system, fight off pathogens and infection-causing bacteria that enter our body. All that we need to do is get out of our own way, which is where a plethora of cleanses and detox therapies offered in Ayurveda can help you in a big way.
How do we get in the way of our own health and happiness? Our body is known to have its own bio intelligence for healing itself, a self-repair mechanism. But over time, as we aged and our lifestyles underwent changes, we seem to have moved away from a way of living that facilitates the working of this bio intelligence. The result is we have no knowledge or alignment with our natural rhythms, we have accumulated toxins due to various reasons and environmental factors, chronic stress has become a part of our life and we have become over-dependent on antibiotics for the tiniest of problems—weakening and burdening the body’s ability to heal itself. A weak immune system opens the gate to a host of chronic and degenerative disorders into the body.
The goal of Ayurveda is to bring our body and mind back to the state of balance by bringing our doshas in balance. The matter is made of the the five great elements according to Ayurveda: fire, water, ether, earth, and space. These elements combine to form three main bio-dynamic forces, called doshas, that regulate various structures and functions in our body-mind complex. In their nature-state, these doshas would be found in perfect balance. But then right from the day, we are born, we are exposed to various stimuli, right from the food to the seasons to the habits and lifestyle, which influence this flux of elements one way or the other. Sometimes, due to natural factors like change in seasons and times of the year and other times due to lifestyle reasons including an unfavorable diet or sleep cycle, exposure to stress and pollution, lack of rest, and other dosha-aggravating practices, this delicate balance of the tridoshas gets disturbed.
While a little bit of imbalance in doshas is natural, when these doshas stay aggravated over long periods of time outside the seasonal cycle, this imbalance can potentially take root as illness. Imbalance in doshas over time can also lead to the accumulation of toxins called ama in the body that can drastically affect our state of health, our energy levels and slow down metabolism. Only when these toxins have been removed from our system, and doshas are brought back into balance can we achieve good mental and physical health.
Ayurvedic detoxes may seem old school, but they are timeless, effective, deeply healing, and rejuvenating. These detoxes help restore our bio intelligence and by doing so, our immunity. The detoxes remove the toxins from the body, help realign our lifestyle with what works best for our body type, correct the unfavorable practices in terms of diet and living, and bring the tridoshas in balance.
A cornerstone of Ayurvedic detox is the Panchakarma—a set of cleanses and rejuvenating processes unique to each individual’s dosha makeup and current state of imbalances. Panchakarma therapy includes treatments, cleanses, and nourishing massages using herbal medicated oils/masks/wraps; prescribed diet; recommended changes in lifestyle practices; mind-body practices; and consultations with Ayurveda experts who help to create a panchakarma treatment to treat your unique imbalances.
Why is detoxifying ama so important?
An important understanding in Ayurveda is that diseases of the mind and body arise from long-standing ama deposits that are a result of sluggish agni, or digestive fire. Ayurvedic detoxes help reinvigorate agni, which helps improve absorption and assimilation of food and reduces ama formation.
There are three types of toxins: water soluble, fat-soluble, and volatile toxins. Volatile toxins can be passed out through breath; water-soluble ones are released through urine, sweat and other physical waste. Fat-soluble toxins attend to stick around in the body, and when they have accumulated in large amounts in the body, they can start affecting the metabolism in the body, functioning of key body organs, and forms a slimy substance called ama.
Accumulation of ama begins whenever our lifestyle and activities are not aligned with our nature, or Prakriti (vata, pitta, kapha). It is the presence of ama in the body that makes you feel heavy, fatigued, low, depressed without any real trigger, and it is at the root of many chronic lifestyle diseases today. Panchakarma focuses on eliminating these toxins from the body.
The Three Stages of Panchakarma
The very first step is a detailed diagnosis of your prakruti, state of doshas, predispositions and imbalances with the help of pulse diagnosis or Nadi Pariksha, which is usually undertaken by a senior Ayurveda physician. The diagnosis will also include an assessment of the tongue, eyes, general appearance, metabolic health, digestion and lifestyle in general. This assessment will be the basis of how long should your panchakarma treatment be and your personalized line of treatment.
There are thousands of cleanses and medicated herbs mentioned in the ancient Ayurvedic texts, so it befalls your physician to design the treatment and include cleanses that work best for you individually.
Panchakarma happens in three stages:
- Poorvakarma, the preparatory phase
- Pradhankarma, the main treatment stage
- Pashchatkarma, the stage where your body is gradually readied for returning to a normal diet and lifestyle, after having a highly specialized diet and regimen for the period of the panchakarma treatment.
Let us look at the various treatments that come under the three stages.
Preparatory Stage: Poorvakarma
Panchakarma treatments require you to be in a certain state of health to be able to fully benefit from the treatment. So under poorvakarma, we prepare our bodies for the main treatment. For most of us, our interaction with Ayurveda is quite recent and it is likely that the ama has been sitting in our system for a very long time. So this ama needs to be softened first in order to eliminate it. Oleation and sweat therapies are part of this stage in the treatment.
- Snehana, or oleation therapy, is where the body is lubricated well using healthy fats like clarified butter. It also includes the use of different massage techniques with medicated oils to achieve the softening of hardened toxins. The medicated oils used are formulated based on the person’s prakriti, vikruti, and current health condition. This therapy pacifies Vata, improves digestion and regularizes bowels.
- Shirovasti—shiro means ‘head’ and vasti symbolizes a container—is an intense treatment where medicated oil is poured and stored on the head with the help of a cap fitted on the top of the head. You sit upright, preferably on a wooden stool, as the medicated oil is applied to the head. The warm, medicated oil is also poured into the cap where the oil is allowed to sit for 45 minutes or so. This technique nourishes the brain, lubricates the roots and hair follicles, helps reduce anxiety and stress, and is helpful in treating diseases of the eye, headaches, vata- and kapha–related conditions.
- Shirodhara is another relaxing and rejuvenating oleation technique where a constant stream of warm medicated herbal oil is poured on the head, as you lie on the massage table. This is also helpful in dealing with anxiety issues, insomnia, hair fall and stress.
- Swedana (sweat therapy) is where one is made to sweat using sauna. Swedana comes from the word ‘Swid’ which means ‘sweat’ in Sanskrit. Different oils and techniques are part of Swedana;, such as Shashtika Shali Pinda Sweda, which involves massaging with a bolus containing a special kind of cooked rice and dipped in an ayurvedic oil at a fixed temperature. There is also Pizhichil, where warm oil is gently poured in a way that induces sweat. Swedana therapy is helpful in reducing body aches, muscle stiffness, heaviness, cold, dryness and vata aggravation.
Main treatments: Pradhankarma
This includes five steps:
- Vamana, or therapeutic emesis, is the process of controlled vomiting. This removes imbalances in the kapha dosha from the gastrointestinal tracts and helps you deal with kapha-related diseases including cold, respiratory problems, indigestion, allergies, sinusitis, and diabetes, among others.
- Virechana, or therapeutic purgation, is where you remove the toxins through the anal route. This is to address the toxins in the stomach, intestines, and abdominal area. This therapy can also help skin diseases like eczema, dermatitis, and jaundice, chronic fever, asthma and anemia.
- Anuvasana is an enema technique where 100 to 250 ml of medicated oil is administered through the anal route. This regulates vata imbalance and is helpful for those with diabetes, anemia, obesity, and other vata-related disorders like arthritis, backache, constipation, IBS, and reproductive problems.
- Asthapana is another enema technique where a medicated decoction made from specific ingredients like honey, ghee, rock salt, or dill seed is heated gently and then administered slowly through the anal route. This also helps in dealing with vata-related problems, IBS, colitis and other digestive disorders.
- Nasya is a time-tested and effective therapy where herbal medicine is administered through the nasal passage. It also uses specific massage techniques for the upper parts of the body, to help eliminate the toxins accumulated in the chest, nose, head, and upper respiratory tracts, followed by inhaling medicated steam. Nasya is effective for conditions like migraine, cervical spondylitis, and other ENT problems.
You will also be recommended a very targeted diet regime to support the body through these elimination exercises. It is important to stick to this regime since the body tends to be very sensitive during detoxification stages. Along with diet, you may be introduced to meditation and light yoga postures to enable healing.
Normalization Stage: PashchatKarma
This stage is like flying an airplane. The landing is as important as the part where you take off. Post-pradhankarma, you will see that you are already feeling light, fresh, and rejuvenated—as if tons of weight were lifted from your body and mind. Here, it is important to switch back to a more regular diet and lifestyle in a very gradual manner, under the guidance of your Ayurveda physician.
At this time, the digestive fire is usually weak and sensitive. So in the intermediate period, you may be put on a specific diet and regimen. Here, you are first put on a liquid diet right after the pradhankarma, gradually moving to semi-solid, and then solid foods. During this time, you may also be asked to drink only lukewarm water, and rest your body and mind as much as possible. Sudden overindulgence, exposure to sun, talking a lot or exposure to stressful situations after these detoxes can be jarring for your body and mind.
How do Ayurvedic detoxes benefit you?
- Body’s self-repair mechanism is strengthened.
- It improves the functioning of the circulatory, digestive and nervous system-all three are rejuvenated.
- Improved immune system.
- Better metabolism can help you manage weight.
- Higher prana or life force at the end of panchakarma that puts you in a positive emotional state.
- Enhanced mental clarity.
- Effective for numerous ailments and diseases caused by dosha aggravation.
- Strengthens all the sense organs and sensory functions.
- Slows aging, better skin and hair.
Mental peace and a lightness of being, are just a few of the many blessings of Panchakarma.