What is Ayurvedic panchakarma?
I recently visited India and experienced panchakarma at The Ayurveda Centre, part of the Himalayan Institute Hospital Trust in the Himalayan foothills. Panchakarma is a branch of Ayurvedic medicine concerned with cleansing the body of toxins. Traditional guidelines detailed in Charaka Samhita’s four thick volumes, circa 1000 BCE, are still loosely followed: each person undergoes an individualised process guided by their current state.
Daily consultations with Ayurvedic practitioner Dr Pratibha Mamgain ensured treatment attended to my present imbalances. The body’s energies, the moving mediators between tissue, wastes and the environment, are called doshas in Ayurveda. Known as kapha, pitta and vata, the doshas are in a state of flux. One author compared them to fish rising to the surface of a pond that need to be caught as they rise to the surface. Every day, Dr Pratibha would check my pulses, tongue and skin tone and speak with me about my state of being in order to direct my treatment process. She scheduled treatments to be at the time of day when my prominent dosha was more active to achieve significant results.
Traditionally, panchakarma lasted 21–30 days and was taken at the change of seasons. Today, the average person takes a week and only once a year or even once a lifetime. The first few days involve a preparation process. For me, this took three days. It required a down-gearing from my Western mind space. I attended three relaxation classes a day, which focused on abdominal breathing, joint mobilisation and gentle stimulation of the glands. Simple, unspiced food was served, mostly mild dahls and khichdies. Although they were nourishing, I longed for raw foods. I ate clarified butter (ghee) with each meal during the preparatory period to help “open up the channels” of the body and allow the removal of toxins (ama).
Treatments followed a similar ritual. I would sit on a wooden stool in the sunlight. Before each treatment my therapists chanted a prayer to Dhanwantari, the four-armed Hindi god of healing, for supportive healing energy to work within. I was presented with some oil-dabbed earbuds to clean my ears. Then warm, herb-infused oil was rubbed into my scalp and through my hair, creating the feeling that my brain was being ironed out. This was followed by a neck and shoulder massage. Then, lying on an oil-stained wooden massage table, the four-hand massage would begin.
Starting on the front shoulders, they synchronistically rubbed warmed medicated sesame oil into my front, right, back, left and front side again. After an hour of the dance, they gingerly led me to a seat inside a wooden sweatbox. This encased the whole body excluding the head, which poked out the top. Profuse sweating followed. When I’d had enough, the sweat was wiped off with dry towels and I was wrapped in my robe and lay back down on the table, freshly dressed with blankets and crisp, white sheets.
Shirodhara, or “third eye massage”, is the process of pouring warm medicated oil between the eyebrows to induce a profoundly relaxing state. With the aid of Sanskrit chanting from an antiquated tape player, I would disappear into a blissful space. For three days, this treatment helped move toxins (ama) from the tissues into the digestive tract for elimination.
Panchakarma literally means “five actions”. It refers to the five methods of removing toxins, traditionally purgation, nasal cleansing, enemas, vomiting and bloodletting. The modern version I experienced forwent the bloodletting. There was suggestion of blood tests, which on entering the orthodox hospital, I decided against.
Over the following days, the panchakarmas unfolded. First was nasal cleansing. Medicated oils were injected into the nostrils and massaged through the sinuses. A steam inhalation of herb-encrusted water followed.
Vomiting therapy involved drinking two litres of licorice tea, with honey or salt mixed in alternatively. Watched intently by Dr Pratibha, I bent over and spontaneously spewed into a customised sink and was instructed to stimulate more vomiting until empty. It reminded me of drinking games of decades past, with a similar end result. In panchakarma, the vomiting therapy clears stagnant kapha (sticky, wet, cold, heavy) energies from lungs, throat and sinuses and is good for the stomach and brain. I felt surprisingly wonderful, light and clear post-treatment.
Next was the purgation treatment, which involved drinking a combination of triphala and panchakola, colon-cleansing brews comprising three fruits and five digestive spices. It was a difficult medicine to swallow, bitter and thick. I felt woozy after consuming it. A few hours later, whoosh: five visits to the toilet within 20 minutes. Purgation therapy relieves the pitta (oily, penetrating, hot, inflammatory) energies of the body.
The last two processes were enemas. A water enema with a small amount of medicated sesame oil, then two days later a herb-infused oil enema. Enemas, known as basti, relieve and clear vata (agitated, airy, dry, rough) energies. Both of these gave me tummy aches and numerous, uninspiring toilet moments.
The final consultation with Dr Pratibah consisted of advising me on lifestyle and dietary habits to maintain a harmonious balance of energies in my body.
After my 10 days, I didn’t feel revitalised or bounding with energy, as I’ve experienced with other detoxification processes, but the deep, gradual benefits of panchakarma began to show themselves a few weeks later: vital, clear skin, balanced appetite and digestion, grounded and sustained energy levels and a more harmonious sense of being myself. Panchakarma processes have a strong biological effect with long-term benefits. No wonder they’ve been used for more than 3000 years.
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