Despite Ayurveda’s ancient beginnings, it still boasts the world’s most sophisticated system of cleansing. Ayurveda calls this cleansing process panchakarma, and it has the capacity to reset the body’s state of equilibrium for unparalleled healing.
Pancha is a Sanskrit word meaning "five" and karma means "action." The full detoxification entails the following five actions, or methods: vamana (vomiting), virechana (purgation), basti (enema), nasya (nasal therapy) and rakta moksha (bloodletting).
Panchakarma is not just a purge where the GI tract is flushed clean. It’s designed to expel both toxins and excess doshas, which are the three bio-energy centers within the body. While the doshas are vital to all bodily functions, they’re also creators of disease. We experience health when the doshas are in their natural state of equilibrium. When they get out of balance, disease results. Sometimes the doshas are so unbalanced that they need to be flushed from the body through the process of panchakarma.
As with everything else in Ayurveda, panchakarma is a highly individualized process. Treatment is carefully chosen according to a patient’s condition, strength, appetite, age, prakriti (constitution), the season and time of day. It is anything but a one-size-fits-all approach to cleansing.
Preparatory Phase of Purva Karma
Unlike most methods of detoxification, panchakarma involves a preparatory phase called purva karma. The main goal here is to move excess doshas and toxins, which Ayurveda calls aama, to the digestive tract. Aama literally means “uncooked.” It’s the waste product of undigested food and emotions. Sticky and toxic, aama clogs the channels of the body. It blocks the natural flow of the doshas and prevents proper elimination of wastes, wreaking havoc and creating disease. (Learn how turmeric moves aama in Why Do Yogis Love Turmeric?)
Without first moving the doshas and aama to the GI tract, a cleanse is only partially effective. Those toxins that have stagnated outside of the GI tract won’t be expelled. In Ayurveda terms, just as juice can’t be squeezed from an unripe mango, toxins can’t be squeezed from an un-primed body. This is the role of purva karma.
Snehana and Swedana
This preparatory phase also involves snehana and swedana. Snehana is the process of internal and external oleation (administering of fate). The patient ingests a medicated ghee (clarified butter), which is carefully chosen according to their condition over the course of multiple days. The ghee helps to transport aama to the GI tract, remove obstructions in the channels of the body, and lubricate the body tissues. At the same time, the patient is oleated externally through special bodywork treatments such as abhyanga, or oil massage. This loosens aama from the body tissues and channels so that it’s ready to be expelled.
Swedana is the process of fomentation (therapeutic heat) and sudation (sweating). Swedana dilates the body channels so that aama is more easily released. It’s done primarily through steam baths and localized heat treatments.
Snehana and swedana are given over the course of many days for as long as it takes for the body to be primed for the main treatments. Panchakarma, therefore, requires some serious lifestyle adjustments. It’s not a good idea to undergo this cleansing while continuing with one’s normal routine, but to instead devote this time entirely to healing. All of the body’s energies should be fully focused on detoxification. Diet is also adjusted so that digestion isn’t over-burdened. The panchakarma diet emphasizes light, easily digestible foods like kichari, a porridge-like dish made from rice and mung beans. (Learn more about how A Plant-Based Diet Makes Better Yogis.)
Ready for the Next Phase(s)
Once the body is primed through oleation and sudation, it’s ready for the main panchakarma treatments. Aama and excess doshas have been loosened from the body tissues and redirected to the GI tract. The method of their removal depends on the nature of the disease and the vitiated doshas. It may be vomiting, purgation, enema, bloodletting, nasal therapy, or a combination of therapies.
As healing as panchakarma is, it can be intense. Digestion has been adjusted and has to be rebuilt gradually. Patients start out with an extremely light diet of watery rice, then kichari and, ultimately, a return to normal food. Including the preparatory phase of purva karma and the gradual return to a normal diet and lifestyle, the entire process of panchakarma usually takes several weeks.
Regular Panchakarma Cleansing
No other system of cleansing is as thorough and complete as panchakarma. It is so highly individualized that it can be used as a treatment for all kinds of diseases, both physical and mental. Panchakarma is not just for the ill, but recommended for everyone as a seasonal or yearly "reset." (Read more about Ayurveda in The Top 5 Ayurvedic Medicinal Plants.)