Panchakarma – returning to source

I recently completed an Ayurvedic cleanse with my teacher. The name of this very specific process is ‘Panchakarma’, meaning five actions. Originally, in the ancient texts, the five actions were:

  1. Vamana – Therapeutic vomiting, this shifts excess kapha dosha.
  2. Virechena – Purging, clears excess pitta dosha
  3. Basti – herbal enema, cleanses the colon and clears away excess vata dosha
  4. Nasaya – Oil in the nose, then gateway to the consciousness (and a direct link to the brain)
  5. Rakta Moksha – Blood cleansing, traditionally done with leeches, to remove toxins from the body.

In the UK where I did this the vamana therapy is not permitted by law. I’m not sure why, especially when all other stages are totally ok. I did vomit in any case! I’ll explain more in the description below. I also didn’t have leech therapy, these are not often used in the west.

Prior to the cleanse I did a ten day ama-pachana. This is a process which begins to remove toxins from the body in preparation for the deeper cleansing process to follow. It includes a sattvic (not depleting or overly stimulating) diet of porridge, kitchari and vegetable soup every day, plus triphala (a specific ayurvedic herb mixture to regulate digestion) every night. This can be done as a stand alone detox. As I went through this process I kept to a strict ayurvedic daily routine (dinacharya) and omitted all sugar, dairy, caffeine, eggs. If you eat meat and fish you also stop these at this stage.

9 days of panchakarma
Below is a summary of what I experienced each day. It was not what I expected. Yes I understood the process because I had read extensively about it in advance, but it was quite beautiful. A truly radical act of self care for the whole of my body, mind and soul. By cleansing the body, not only physically but energetically you remove the root causes of dis-ease and peel away any layers so that you can reach your full potential. Ayurveda is incredibly beautiful.

On the first morning we set our intentions, teacher and student, with a beautiful prayer. Steve then checked my pulse and tongue. All the indications were that my vata was high, which is common for a lot of people.

Days 1 -3. Each day I would go to the clinic without breakfast. I drank ghee, not loads just a couple of shot glasses full, on an empty stomach. This was followed by a full body traditional oil massage (called abyangha, which means love with oil) and a steam cabinet session, kind of like a steam room but your head sticks out the top. I had lunch of kitchari or rice and daal with green vegetables (greens are lighter and easier to digest). After a short break the massage and steam process was repeated again in the afternoon. The days ended with green soup. Throughout the whole day I drank copious amounts of lemon ginger tea. I felt ok. My sleep was disturbed but it usually was in any case so nothing new.

Day 4. Bit of an epic day this one! All the body oiling and ghee ingesting of the last 3 days was to draw the toxins from the fat cells into the gut. Once in the digestive tract the gut is cleansed, from top to bottom, to remove the toxins from the body. These are not just superficial toxins, they are lifelong. It is said that this process removes emotional as well as physical and energetic stagnation and therefore peels away the layers so you can reach your full spiritual potential with nothing karmically standing in your way. It’s big……

Castor oil, I drank a lot of it that day. And even more lemon ginger tea, so much of it, gallons, and with every tea more triphala herb mix. It started with a shot of castor oil followed by the tea and triphala this continued roughly every 30-45 minutes in this way thereafter. Eventually after about 3 or 4 hours I went to the loo, a lot.This is the idea. The excess pitta dosha resides in the small intestine and this shifts any excess from there, cleansing it completely (traditionally this is preceded by vomiting to alleviate excess kapha, see above this is not permitted in the UK). This day was exhausting, depleting yet strangely satisfying. Maybe a bit too in depth but initially the feces I passed was ‘hot’. weird to describe, but Steve was not surprised and said this was my pitta dosha, which is the fire and water elements.

The lemon ginger tea drinking continued late into the afternoon. The purging stopped. I vomited. It wasn’t the plan but my body did it anyway! This was faintly amusing as in my somewhat mis-spent youth I was quite the expert at drinking shots and then vomiting fairly effortlessly, now all these skills seem to be taking on a very different but also very useful emphasis! The irony was tangible. Anyway following all of this, in spite of Steve cooking me beetroot which I’d been dreaming about for days, I wasn’t very hungry (which is normal at this point) and went for a very very long lie down and a restless sleep.

Day 5. A rest day! Well timed. A fruit smoothie for breakfast! No more ghee or castor oil. After two solid weeks of rice, daal , kitchari, porridge, soup, this was nectar! An oil massage and steam followed by beetroot with rice and daal for lunch. I was hungry now, with a much improved appetite compared to before. I was quite tired, I guess not surprising given the days events yesterday, so I had a gentle walk at lunchtime and then rested before a beautiful gentle foot and hand massage in the afternoon. I was super relaxed. Green soup for tea and a slightly improved quality to my sleep.

Day 6 – 9. Now came the time to fully address the vata. The vata dosha resides in the colon, so in order to deal with this herbal enemas are used. I had tried this myself at home a couple of times and had colonic hydrotherapy in the past, so I was not particularly concerned about anyone seeing and doing stuff with my bum! But rest assured that it is all very dignified and you are tactfully covered up with nothing on show, just the necessary peephole is available with strategically placed towels to cover you.

Each of these last 4 days started with the by now very routine but always blissful oil massage and steam treatment. This continues to further ‘loosen’ the excess doshas and take them into the digestive tract for excretion. Following a shower I had a daily herbal enema for 4 days. The idea is to hold this in the body for as long as is possible. Interesting, I cannot hold the enema in. I know it is possible because I have administered this to clients who can hold it, but I absolutely cannot do this yet. Steve said that my vata dosha is very strong and the downward energy (apana) really wants to move, which doesn’t help with the holding in thing. It’s still a work in progress to this day!

In the afternoons on the last 4 days I had some specific therapeutic treatments for my particular bodymind condition. These were very much tailor made according to what i needed. They included, shirodhara (blissful warm oil pouring onto the forehead every day), foot massages, eye treatment with ghee (netra basti), a warm oil treatment for my heart (hridaya basti) and a full body herbal scrub (detoxing through the skin instead of leeches). The food continue to change a little throughout the last few days, with a chapati here and there, and more of a range of vegetables plus some different (not green) soups.

The afterparty
Following a complete cleanse of the whole system, physical, energetic and psychological, it is time to fully rejuvenate and restore. Not to how it was before because we have cleared all the toxins away, so we need to be careful and stay as balanced and sattvic as possible throughout this stage and for the remainder of our lifetime. The initial stage of this is known as rasayana chikitsa, rejuvenation therapy. It is the time when we being to reintegrate with our life and with the world once again.

Slowly a more diverse diet is introduced. This is very much adapted to your individual constitutional state. I was give a whole lot of herbs to take to allow the body to continue to re-balance itself. I also did a practice called ‘karma basti’, where I continued the herbal enemas and alternated these with nourishing oil enemas, every day for 28 days. I had a further kind of after cleanse thing happen at around 4 weeks where I woke at 4am one morning and vomited and went to the loo a lot. Steve said this is normal and to now stop the herbs completely for a bit and rest. This was the body further shifting deeply held toxins from the system. I had some plain rice porridge for a day or two and then I was totally fine.

Now, having finished the 9 day intensive part of the cleanse around 6 weeks ago, how do I feel and what does life look like?

Life goes on, but perhaps not as it was before.
I feel that something has fundamentally shifted for me. It’s hard to describe, Physically I feel a lot healthier for sure. There is also a lot more mental clarity, less anxiety. In terms of life direction and focus I have let go of a lot of crap (literally and metaphorically!) Since returning to everyday life (which I am blessed is full of ayurveda and yoga in any case) a lot, and I mean a lot more than usual, of spiritual and like minded opportunities seem to be coming my way. We know that if we shift our energy internally then the reactions oft those around us will change because of this, they kind of sense it. So in shifting my energy, focus, bodymind, intention, have I shifted my destiny, have I changed my life direction? Or have I just clarified and cleared the way so that I can live out whatever was intended for me all along, now that I’ve peeled all the layers away. Of course life goes on and stuff will continue to happen to me and also to impact upon me, that’s why it’s essential to continue the practice, the journey, to stay focused and clear. By the way, my sleep now is the best it has been in many years, just incredible.

As he dropped me off at the airport Steves’ parting words to me were ‘That was the biggest and best act of self love you will ever gift yourself.’ I absolutely agree and, for once, I have nothing more to add.