Ayurveda, India’s ancient healing system, teaches that our body has an “inner intelligence” that predisposes us to be healthy. In our deepest core, ayurveda says, we instinctively act in accordance with nature’s cycles and rhythms, keeping our bodies perfectly balanced and free of disease.
To understand how nature affects us as individuals, we need to understand that three fundamental, basic principles, called doshas, govern everything in the universe. Vata, the dosha associated with space and air, controls everything related to movement and flow in the body—circulation, movement of food, and the nervous system. Pitta, associated with fire and water, governs digestion and metabolism. Kapha, seen in water and earth, takes care of structure and lubrication in the body.
The doshas govern nature much as they do bodily functions. For instance, a particular dosha dominates each season—kapha governs spring, pitta summer, and vata fall and winter. Since our physiologies are so connected with nature, we tend to accumulate the dosha of the season. With a perfectly functioning physiology we would just eliminate the excess dosha as we move from season to season. But most of us are a less than perfect for any number of reasons—poor diet, too much stress, exposure to toxins—and we end up with dosha buildup. When our doshas become out of balance, our body’s ability to purify itself weakens and we experience an accumulation of toxins, referred to in ayurveda as ama.
That’s why many ayurvedic doctors, including Nancy Lonsdorf, MD, former medical director at The Raj, an ayurvedic medical spa at the Maharishi’s Vedic University in Iowa, recommend undergoing an ayurvedic cleanse, called panchakarma, seasonally to help the body purify itself and restore balance. In September, as summer turns to fall, we tend to have an excess of pitta in the body. “After the summer, the hot weather has certain effects,” Lonsdorf says. “Things that promote inflammation tend to accumulate in the summer: skin irritation, rashes, irritable temper, pitta, and so forth. There’s a buildup of that dosha in the body, and to really prevent that from accumulating over the years, one does this purification and pacification to rebalance the body.”
Panchakarma (PK for short) bears little resemblance to what most of us think of when we think seasonal cleanse. “What’s really different is that cleansing in other systems is simply cleansing and can be harsh,” Lonsdorf says. “It’s austere and is not balancing the doshas at the same time. The oils used in PK prevent the body from drying out, whereas if you do coffee enemas or fiber to cleanse the bowel, it can be very vata aggravating. After PK, people are not just cleansed, they’re more balanced.”
Another important difference between PK and other cleanses is PK’s highly individualized approach. You can’t buy a book on PK and do it at home—you need to visit an ayurvedic physician, who will design a program specifically based on your body type, health status, and dosha balance. The program entails a modified diet of easily digestible foods, a schedule that honors nature’s daily cycles, and treatments performed by highly trained therapists. PK can last anywhere from a few days to more than a month. Some facilities offer outpatient services, but many people choose to stay at the treatment center so they can focus without distraction on the intense purification they’re undergoing.
Last fall, I decided to pay a visit to the Raj and try PK for myself. Though I wasn’t experiencing any major outward signs of excess ama, I could tell that I was experiencing some doshic imbalance—my skin was breaking out, my back ached constantly, I was very anxious, and I was having difficulty concentrating. At the same time, I was going through some major transitions both professionally and personally, and I was having a hard time finding the mental clarity to make important decisions without becoming overwhelmed by emotion.
Although these issues seemed all-consuming for me, many of the people who undergo PK do so because of much more serious conditions. Often they’ve tried everything Western medicine—and even holistic modalities—have to offer, but still they can’t find relief. For instance, Lonsdorf notes, people with multiple sclerosis (MS) often find PK to be tremendously healing. “There’s not much out there that’s effective, and people with MS see great results with PK,” she says. “Whatever their problem—if they have weakness, numbness, pain, balance problems—we see a wide range of benefits directly on the symptoms.” While the research remains unclear on why PK helps with all these symptoms, Lonsdorf believes that, from an allopathic medical perspective, the PK treatments do something to help with nerve conduction and the regeneration of myelin (the insulation of the nerves that deteriorates as a result of MS). From an ayurvedic point of view, Lonsdorf explains that the oils from the treatments work to balance vata, the dosha most overactive in people with MS.
The road to balance
The Raj’s PK program began a few weeks before I boarded the plane for Iowa. My first step was to submit a detailed medical questionnaire, which allowed Mark Toomey, PhD, director of health sciences at the Raj, to design a home preparation regimen based on my personal constitution and imbalances. The specific approach depends on the individual—for me it included digestive herbs instead of a daily shot of ghee—a stroke of very good luck. For everyone, though, the home prep prescribes scaling back on or eliminating alcohol, caffeine, and stress, in addition to decreasing fat and calorie intake (except in the form of the aforementioned ghee, which is thought to help get those impurities moving). The home preparation begins the process of lubricating and eliminating impurities all the way down to a cellular level so that the treatments at the Raj can have the greatest possible effect.
After three weeks of home prep, I headed to Iowa seven pounds lighter and feeling I was on the road to balance, both physically and mentally. My normally overactive brain had begun to quiet a bit, and I felt myself moving with more ease and grace. After a comfortable night’s sleep in one of the Raj’s well-appointed guest rooms, I awoke and met with a Raj representative who explained the schedule for the week: meal times, my treatment plan, daily yoga classes, evening lectures. The week would be highly structured, but it would also allow for down time during which I could meditate, take a walk, or simply rest.
The word panchakarma, meaning “five actions,” traditionally describes five cleansing mechanisms. The first—swedhan, or heat—loosens impurities and gets them moving. In practice, this starts with either of the stimulation treatments listed in “Panchakarma Translation Kit” below, followed by one of the heating treatments. All are performed in blissful silence. For me, daily treatments began with the two-person synchronized toasted sesame oil massage called abhyanga. Some days that was followed by pizzichilli, similar to a warm-oil sponge bath. Other days I had shirodara, in which the therapist pours a constant stream of warm oil onto the forehead to disperse stress and bring balance.
Two of the traditional actions of PK, therapeutic vomiting and bloodletting, are not offered at the Raj because westerners don’t feel very comfortable with them, says Toomey. Besides, he adds, “there are other less invasive ways of going about creating balance.” PK’s final coup de grâce comes as the basti, or enema. On alternating days (for most people), treatment finishes with either the shamana basti, a gentle, lubricating oil enema, or the shodhana basti, nicknamed “big basti,” which is a brew of herbal decoctions designed to loosen and eliminate impurities from the colon. The therapist administers the basti and leaves me to rest for 20 minutes in silence. I found this part of the treatment to be uncomfortable both physically and emotionally—I felt very vulnerable, sometimes lying in the bed and crying for 20 minutes and other times feeling so agitated that the brief rest seemed like hours. I learned that this is not uncommon: Bastis can cause intense emotional reactions in some people as toxins and dosha buildup exit the body.
Lonsdorf recalls the story of one patient who had suffered with depression since a divorce many years back. She described having built a wall in her heart around all the grief she felt from losing the man she loved. She went on with her life, remarrying and having children, but she always had an underlying depression, which she eventually treated with medication. After undergoing PK, the woman told Lonsdorf about an experience she had while resting after her basti. “She was lying there, and first she felt as though a wind came through her body and then there was water. She said it felt like that building around her heart was being broken down by a hurricane,” Lonsdorf says. “She went back to her room and cried for a long time, and the grief just left her. I realized those were the doshas—the wind was vata, the water was kapha—and they broke that structure down and the grief just blew out.”
Moving forward in balance
Each day I was at the Raj, another layer of mental and physical toxins melted away. My back pain dissipated, my skin cleared, and I moved more freely and fluidly. Conversations with other guests during meals and after the evening lecture skipped past the superficial and immediately got to the heart of the matter—resulting in meaningful self-discoveries, as well as a feeling of pure affection and friendship with these people sharing my journey. I left the Raj after a week of PK feeling better than I’ve felt in my life. I shed my mental clutter and anxiety, leaving a clear view of my truest self. With that clarity, I could finally make the decisions that eluded me before. Freed from endless second-guessing, I can now trust the wisdom that comes from my squeaky clean inner intelligence, shining a steady light on the path to come.