Panchakarma is an ancient ritual of detoxification and rejuvenation. As an essential part of Ayurveda’s mandala of healing practices, it invites deep renewal, activates cellular intelligence, and optimizes metabolic functions.
Ayurveda understands the microcosm of the physical body/mind to function in the same way as the great macrocosm of nature. Because of that it considers the natural elements, and their interplay – Earth, Water, Fire, Air and Space – as the basis of life. Their interweaving within the body-mind, and the environment, generates three main patterns of energy transformation called doshas: vata – expressing the predominance of air and space, pitta – fire and water, and kapha – earth and water.
Each dosha has a primary site in the body: kapha, in the stomach; pitta, in the small intestines; and vata, in the colon/large intestine. Whenever doshic imbalance occurs, their excess tends to accumulate in these corresponding organs, causing specific symptoms or discomfort, leading to disease. Imbalances often result from undigested food, emotions or mental activities, stressful lifestyle, injuries, external factors, and/or genetic weakness.
Also the accumulation of toxins, or ama (the Ayurvedic term) in the body, is a cause of disease symptoms. This ama can come from external sources such as the pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers we ingest through our foods; to airborne pollutants like industrial waste, car exhaust and smoke; from exotoxins, secreted by bacteria; and from prescription medications. But the human body can create its own ama as well, by not properly digesting the food that is consumed, and the ensuing improper break-down of internal metabolic waste products. The way we know that we have an accumulation of ama in our bodies is from having a thick, white or colored, coating on the tongue, from having unpleasant body odor, from a feeling of sluggishness and fatigue, fogginess in the brain, headaches and many disease symptoms. Combined with an accumulation of certain doshas, this ama can lead to all kinds of disease symptoms, often determined by genetic weakness.
Ideally the human body will digest all it ingests perfectly, and detoxify itself through the liver and gallbladder, kidneys, and large intestine. But the increasing amount of toxins in our environment, the stress we deal with combined with our diet and lifestyle, often overwhelm the individual's digestion and detoxification ability.
Panchakarma is a way to remove ama and bring the doshas back into balance, and since stress is such a large contributor to imbalance, this all happens in the context of deep relaxation. Panchakarma is applied while receiving hot oil massage and other treatments, followed by a steam application. This has the multiple function of liquefying ama, improving blood and lymphatic circulation so that toxins/ama are mobilized from the deeper tissues into the digestive system from where they will be eliminated, while at the same time bringing the body and mind into a deep state of rest and letting go.
Most of the external toxins that enter our body are fat (lipid)-soluble, and if the liver is unable (because of above mentioned factors) to break them down, they deposit in tissues all over the body. The preparation process of panchakarma consists of "internal oleation", the process of ingesting ghee or a vegetable oil in increasing amounts for a series of days. Then a non-fat diet consisting of only natural, easy to digest, foods will be taken. This moves toxins to your lymphatic system and will bring your body into fat metabolism mode. You start burning fat cells, which is where most of the toxins hide out. So fat-soluble toxins/ama are liquefied (as mentioned above) and then removed from the body through the process of panchakarma.
Panchakarma literally means “five actions” and involves five eliminatory treatments to remove toxins from the body and restore energy flow throughout the organ systems and tissues:
Since these eliminatory treatments will leave the body with some "empty spaces" from where the toxins used to be, it is important of fill up these "spaces" with good, strengthening foods and herbs, so that you come out of the whole process of panchakarma strong and with a healthy immunity. So after elimination there is a rejuvenation phase in which activity level, food intake, digestive strength, are all slowly built back up again, and during which strengthening foods and herbs are ingested.
During the panchakarma process it is highly recommended to refrain from external stimuli, such as socializing, television watching, computer, movies, books. Journaling and expressing through drawing or simple art projects are wonderful ways to support this process of elimination of toxins, since it brings an opportunity to let go of mental-emotional toxins as well.
Panchakarma leaves you feeling clear and energized, deeply rested and rejuvenated. It is a beautiful component of a healthy and natural lifestyle.
Please respond to this blog with any comments of your own panchakarma experience.
This dark time of year tends to make us more reflective, and I recently found myself reflecting on time passing and the energies of the different seasons. I was remembering a radio interview I heard years ago, where a scientist of some kind was talking about his teacher and mentor who at 96 had still been fully productive. He had asked his mentor how it was possible that at his age he was still so full of life and engaged. The man had answered that throughout his life he had never related to chronological time, but only to cyclical time. That really resonated with me and I remembered that when I had two little children and was very engaged with them, I used to forget my age. When people asked me, I always had to count back to my birthday. Cyclical time for me also is much more meaningful than chronological time. The phases of the moon, the passing of the seasons and the ripening of seasonal fruits and vegetables, and the time of life. Now that I live close to the water, there is the reality of the tidal cycles as well, and how that is connected to the lunar cycle.
I realized that this is the way Ayurveda relates to life as well, and that it continuously reminds us to live according to these cycles. Since it considers the macrocosm and the microcosm to be the same, only in a different manifestation, it is clear that nature's cycles also are found in how our bodies function. Ofcourse Ayurveda relates to this in the language of vata, pitta and kapha, and we see these energies cycling through the day, the seasons and life in general.
For example the window of time between 10 and 2 is considered pitta time. Since pitta mostly represents the element of fire, this window of time during the day is a good time to eat. The fire in the belly is strong at this time. At night this is the time when people get their second wind when they stay up late. Suddenly there is a lot of focus, and energy to get things done, again a way that fire manifests itself - in the mind this time. The recommendation is to go to bed before this time, so that you don't get caught in a second wind. What really needs to happen during these nightly hours is for the liver to go through its cycle of detoxing the blood. Staying up late and putting in mental and physical energy, takes away from this important physiological task. So here we go again, nature's cycles... we should go to bed when nature goes to bed. A little later in the summer, a little earlier in winter. And it's okay to sleep a little more in winter, it's dark out!
Winter, at least the beginning of this season, is vata season. Vata represents the element of air, or wind, which is always moving, is cold, and dries things out. This is the time of year when we feel cold and easily dehydrated. We deal with emotions like fear and anxiety. So the best thing to do is to take real good care of yourself through eating a very nourishing diet, by getting enough sleep, by oiling your skin, by slowing down in general. Each season has its own characteristics, and dosha, and because of that a different way in which to treat ourselves.
The doshas also show up in the time of life. For example childhood, up until puberty, is kapha time of life. Kapha has the energies of earth and water. And when we bring these two together there is growth. Seeds sprouting into plants and blooming into beautiful flowers. This is children's job, growing up and flowering into beautiful mature people. They need lots of water and earth, in the form of nourishing food and loving care, to do this.
To go back to where I started... Ayurveda reminds us to live in cyclical time, not chronological time. We move through vata, pitta and kapha cycles all the time. Reminding ourselves of this reality, makes us take care of ourselves differently. Honoring the cycles of life and death and life again, keeps us young and healthy and always rejuvenating our body and mind.
Ayurveda, the “science” (from ayur) of “living” (veda), is a system of medicine that was developed in ancient India. It recognizes that all of the physiological and psychological functioning of the individual, is the same as the workings of the larger environment, or nature. This makes it holistic, connecting humans to the greater rhythms of nature, understanding that all in nature are subject to the same forces and fluctuations. It offers a clear, simple, and elegant theoretical framework from which to explore life, health, disease, balance and imbalance.
The language that Ayurveda uses to work with this understanding is that of the five great elements – panchamahabhutas in Sanskrit, the language of ancient India. These five great elements are Earth, Water, Fire, Air, and Space (or Ether). Everything in the natural world is made up of these five elements. During the formation of the theory of Ayurveda they were combined into the three basic energies of life, the doshas. Often they are considered bodily humors, showing the relationship with ancient Greek medicine, the direct ancestor of our modern medicine. These three doshas are Vata, Pitta, and Kapha. Vata combines the elements of air and ether, Pitta of fire and a little bit of water, and Kapha combines water and earth. Since the meaning of the Sanskrit word “dosha” is “defect, blemish, weak point, damage, fault”, the doshas, as the energies they are, need to be managed and kept in balance, since when out of balance they are the cause of disorder and disease. The combination of the three doshas in different proportions is what the entirety of creation is made up of, both the psychophysiology of humanity, as well as the natural world, so anything can be classified in terms of Vata, Pitta, and Kapha.
Ayurveda is slowly making its way into the Western world. Originally India-based spiritual groups such as the Transcendental Meditation movement, headed by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the Beatles’ guru, made the introduction. Now there are schools all over the US and Europe, offering an education in Ayurveda and producing generations of Ayurvedic practitioners, who offer help in staying and getting healthy, or as is more Ayurvedically appropriate, “live a balanced life”.
There are many ways in which Ayurveda can contribute, and already contributes to healthcare and life in general.
Learning about your Ayurvedic constitution, level of imbalance, and how to treat these, is a very valuable addition to anyone’s life, relationship and possibly to a society at large.