THE pan­cha karma PRE­SCRIP­TION

Pan­cha-huh? If you’ve never heard of this an­cient detox method, be fore­warned: It’s no joke. One yogi takes us along on her trans­for­ma­tive jour­ney through the ul­ti­mate 21-day Ayurvedic cleanse.

Yoga Journal - - Live Well - By El­iz­a­beth Mar­glin

I’M PERCHED ON A TOI­LET, hold­ing my right ear with my right hand and mov­ing my up­per body in cir­cles. I’m at the Shankara Ayurveda Spa at the Art of Liv­ing Re­treat Cen­ter in Boone, North Carolina, and in­stead of re­lax­ing in the sauna, I’m pray­ing for poop. It’s day six of my eight-day stay at the Cen­ter, where I’m do­ing a tra­di­tional pan­chakarma cleanse. To­day is all about virechana— a.k.a. ex­treme bowel evac­u­a­tion.

Sure, pan­chakarma in­volves many lush body treat­ments, and I’ve had my fair share over the past week―with prac­ti­tion­ers mas­sag­ing me with warm oil, pound­ing ev­ery ounce of ten­sion out of my mus­cles with sa­chets of heal­ing herbs, and drip­ping warm oil onto my third eye―all to re­set my ner­vous sys­tem and rid my body of what it doesn’t need. Yet this in­tense cleanse also in­volves eat­ing a Spar­tan diet and de­vot­ing an en­tire day to try­ing to, well, elim­i­nate. “Virechana isn’t just about cleans­ing the body, it’s also about cleans­ing the men­tal and emo­tional self,” says Medha Garud, direc­tor of Ayurveda pro­grams. “The process helps you re­lease many of the impressions and habits, called sam­skaras, that you are car­ry­ing in your sys­tem.”

Eas­ier said than done, I think to my­self as my in­sides churn. It’s hum­bling to re­al­ize that I may be one of those peo­ple who yoga teacher and Ayurvedic health con­sul­tant Kim­berly Rossi, direc­tor of spa and busi­ness devel­op­ment, says “re­ally wants to hold onto their crap.” Even­tu­ally, I plead with Vaidya Lokesh, the Cen­ter’s Ayurvedic doc­tor, for some re­lief, which is how I found my­self do­ing these strange ablu­tions in the bath­room.

In that mo­ment, I was in the tough­est stretch of the pan­chakarma, a cleanse that called into ques­tion ev­ery as­pect of my life­style and boiled it down to one cen­tral ques­tion: How do my choices aug­ment or in­ter­fere with my well-be­ing? While the an­swer was still un­clear, one thing was cer­tain: I was on a 21-day mis­sion to find out.

Prep­ping for the big re­lease

My re­cal­ci­trant bow­els may be proof of my habit of re­sis­tance, but when the op­por­tu­nity to travel to the Art of Liv­ing Re­treat Cen­ter for this in­tense detox first pre­sented it­self, I didn’t hes­i­tate to say yes. I knew pan­chakarma wouldn’t be easy— I lived in In­dia for most of my 20s and had seen many peo­ple go through it—yet I was aware of the phys­i­cal and men­tal ben­e­fits most peo­ple ex­pe­ri­ence af­ter com­plet­ing it. The prom­ise of the up­sides out­weighed the pos­si­ble down­sides. As it turns out, it was a good thing I started pan­chakarma with such an ea­ger at­ti­tude.

“Pan­chakarma is not for the faint,” says Eric Grasser, MD, an in­te­gra­tive doc­tor in Santa Fe, New Mex­ico, who com­bines func­tional medicine with Ayurveda. Even the an­cient texts cau­tion that

pan­chakarma needs to be un­der­taken by those in fairly good health. “For the very frail or de­bil­i­tated, pan­chakarma is sim­ply too in­tense,” says Garud.

Part of pan­chakarma’s in­ten­sity can be at­trib­uted to the cu­mu­la­tive de­sign: It’s a three-stage detox­i­fi­ca­tion process that tra­di­tion­ally lasts for three weeks. The first stage in­volves diet and life­style changes that prep you for the sec­ond, most in­tense stage of the cleanse; the third stage is all about tran­si­tion­ing out of that sec­ond stage and into a life­style that’s sus­tain­able for the long haul. And ev­ery Ayurvedic doc­tor I spoke with says each stage is cru­cial, help­ing to max­i­mize pan­chakarma’s ef­fec­tive­ness, min­i­mize po­ten­tial com­pli­ca­tions, and pro­vide a pro­tec­tive con­tainer for the pro­found in­ner re­lease the cleanse is in­tended to bring. For­tu­nately, I’m healthy and was con­fi­dent I could phys­i­cally with­stand the ex­treme over­haul.

Ex­actly one week be­fore my stay at the Art of Liv­ing Re­treat Cen­ter, I was told to elim­i­nate dairy, meat, sugar, caf­feine, al­co­hol, and pro­cessed foods from my diet—all con­sid­ered a bur­den for di­ges­tion. Even veg­eta­bles are a no-no, be­cause their fiber un­duly taxes detox­i­fi­ca­tion, says Garud. I was also in­structed to drink only hot wa­ter be­tween meals in or­der to strengthen my di­ges­tive power and flush out tox­ins.

Kitchari, a lightly spiced, one-pot meal of bas­mati rice and mung dal, cooked with heaps of ghee, be­came my new culi­nary best friend; I con­sumed it for break­fast, lunch, and din­ner. Why so much ghee? It loosens the body’s im­pu­ri­ties—a process called oleation, says Grasser. “Most tox­ins are fat soluble, and the liver makes them wa­ter soluble so they can be elim­i­nated,” he says. “Oleation works like a de­ter­gent, bind­ing to the tox­ins and coax­ing them out of the body.”

Within a week of tak­ing the sugar and caf­feine out of my diet and eat­ing bowl af­ter bowl of gruel, I felt my ir­ri­ta­tion lev­els flatlin­ing. As a 45-year-old mother of two, my cur­rent phase of life can be dis­tin­guished by a line from a movie based on Nikos Kazantza­kis’s novel Zorba the Greek, in which mar­riage, house, and kids are re­ferred to as “the full catas­tro­phe.” By catas­tro­phe, I don’t mean disas­ter— rather the poignant enor­mity of one’s life ex­pe­ri­ence.

In my case, the ex­alted spir­i­tual quest of my 20s in In­dia had given way to a more ad­vanced test­ing ground: do­mes­tic life. I’d for­got­ten how to be in right re­la­tion­ship with my body, never mind ev­ery­thing else. I’d spent so much of my time gaug­ing whether my life mea­sured up to some ex­ter­nal ideal of suc­cess—with my ca­reer, fam­ily, and most of all my­self— I didn’t know what a headspace un­ob­structed by neg­a­tiv­ity felt like. I sweated the small stuff (house­hold di­vi­sion of la­bor, pet peeves too nu­mer­ous to count) and squan­dered the big stuff (the fact that I was healthy and blessed with a fam­ily). The sweet re­lief of know­ing I had enough eluded me. I never stopped com­par­ing, and I al­ways came up short. But af­ter a week of mind­ful eat­ing and self-in­quiry, I was start­ing to sense that pan­chakarma could give me the clar­ity I craved. I wanted to know what my part was in my own stuck­ness, and how to cop to it.

I’m no stranger to putting my­self in the hot seat; self-in­quiry had prac­ti­cally been my day job dur­ing my eight-year stint in In­dia, study­ing with a teacher whose cen­tral ques­tion was, Who am I? But such provoca­tive in­quiry had been put on the back burner, de­spite a three-decade-long yoga prac­tice. At the be­gin­ning of the cleanse I didn’t grasp the dras­tic mea­sures nec­es­sary to get me back on track, but I felt like I was off to a promis­ing start.

Show­ing up for the ex­pe­ri­ence

When I ar­rived at the Art of Liv­ing for the more in­tense, sec­ond phase of pan­chakarma, I was in­tro­duced to Lokesh, the Ayurvedic doc­tor, who took my pulse and de­ter­mined my main dosha ( pitta) and the one that’s most out of whack ( vata), or “de­ranged” as Ayurvedic prac­ti­tion­ers say. (For more in­for­ma­tion on the three doshas and how they af­fect health, see “Un­der­stand­ing the Doshas” on page 34.) Based on his as­sess­ment, Lokesh as­signed me a ros­ter of spe­cific oil-based treat­ments, such as

ab­hyanga (oil mas­sage), shi­rod­hara (liq­uid fore­head treat­ment), and marma (Ayurvedic acu­pres­sure), all de­signed to help lu­bri­cate me from the out­side in. The pam­per­ing is func­tional, yet un­de­ni­ably lux­u­ri­ous. Dosha-spe­cific oils pre­pared with herbs sat­u­rated my skin and hair. The firm, vig­or­ous strokes of ab­hyanga ten­der­ized my skin and soothed sore mus­cles. Dur­ing shi­rod­hara, a cop­per ves­sel, os­cil­lat­ing back and forth like an an­cient pen­du­lum, driz­zled a steady stream of warm oil onto my fore­head. And af­ter each oil treat­ment, I was ush­ered to the steam room to fur­ther open the sro­tas (chan­nels of cir­cu­la­tion). Oleation, both in­ter­nal and ex­ter­nal, func­tioned as the an­ti­dote to my vata gone rogue.

Through­out my stay, my diet looked ex­actly as it had dur­ing my prep phase, with kitchari served up three times a day. How­ever, the amount of ghee

I was pre­scribed in­creased each day by one or two ta­ble­spoons per meal. I downed more ghee than I imag­ined was hu­manly pos­si­ble. I watched as the moat of ghee around my mound of kitchari widened to an alarm­ing de­gree, yet I quickly learned to love its over-the-top rich­ness. My body took to it—never has my di­ges­tion been so seam­less—and all of the other 10 pan­chakarma par­tic­i­pants who trav­eled to the Art of Liv­ing for this detox said the same.

Be­tween the yummy kitchari, the hours spent un­spool­ing on the treat­ment ta­ble, the daily yoga and med­i­ta­tion, and a wel­come break from tech­nol­ogy (I was urged to put away my cell phone and lap­top the mo­ment I checked in), I felt a sense of sattva (pu­rity) as a lived ex­pe­ri­ence: my thoughts breached out from, and re­turned to, an un­per­turbable si­lence; the anointed con­tours of my body were made sa­cred; my breath as­sumed gen­er­ous vol­ume; my heart spread wide within me. Ev­ery­thing felt softer. The brit­tle shell of my cof­fee-slug­ging, hard-charg­ing, strung-out self felt like it had been cracked in ways I hoped would never be put to­gether again.

I ap­pre­ci­ate how pan­chakarma func­tions as a highly chore­ographed in­ter­ven­tion, al­beit an an­cient one. The kind that ta­pers gen­tly but has a ruth­less per­sis­tence. The rules made sense, yet could chafe all the same. In my group, many had good days that al­ter­nated with a heal­ing cri­sis of some sort or an­other: di­ar­rhea, headaches, sore throats, tired­ness, spon­ta­neous grief. Again, ex­perts say this is to be ex­pected: “Any­time you move some­thing that may be stuck, it’s a flush. You’re bring­ing the doshas out from

deeper tis­sues and you’re bring­ing emo­tions out from deeper places where they’re not flow­ing. Then all of a sud­den ev­ery­thing starts to flow,” says Grasser. What­ever we had on lock­down was com­ing up for air—and there was no safer place for it to hap­pen.

Two weeks of kitchari, sev­eral pints of ghee, five mar­mas, four aby­hangas, two shi­rod­ha­ras, and a hand­ful of other sooth­ing treat­ments later, virechana day dawned. Virechana is the crux of the pan­chakarma, which en­tails five gnarly sound­ing pro­ce­dures typ­i­cally listed in a top-down or­der: nasya (med­i­cated oils ap­plied through the nose), va­mana (con­trolled vom­it­ing), virechana (ther­a­peu­tic pur­ga­tion), basti (en­ema), and rakta mok­shana (blood­let­ting). Be­cause of li­a­bil­ity con­cerns and cul­tural mores, in­duced vom­it­ing and blood­let­ting are rarely prac­ticed in this coun­try. At the Art of Liv­ing, virechana was the pre­ferred method of elim­i­na­tion. Basti was as­signed as home­work for the week fol­low­ing my re­turn home.

“Virechana is im­por­tant be­cause over the past two weeks, the in­ter­nal ghee and ex­ter­nal oil have moved all the tox­ins out from your in­testi­nal wall into your gut and deep into your lym­phatic sys­tem, but they still need to be flushed out through the bow­els,” says Garud. “The Ayurvedic texts say af­ter virechana, the ab­sorp­tion ca­pa­bil­ity of the stom­ach and in­testi­nal wall is in­creased by 90 per­cent.”

Let me tell you first­hand: If pan­chakarma were a nar­ra­tive, virechana would func­tion as the big re­veal. Al­though ac­tual re­sults were pri­vate, of course, bowel-move­ment talk in the lounge was an open dis­cus­sion. I tracked my com­padres’ fre­quent ex­cur­sions to the bath­room, won­der­ing when my turn would come. How could I soften into the un­ex­pected difficulty of this mo­ment, in­stead of try­ing to re­sist it? If I was due for an­other bout of in­tense self-in­quiry, here it was. Astride the toi­let with noth­ing to show for it, I was hav­ing an epiphany on why the strug­gle felt not only so real, but so re­lent­less.

Ear­lier that day, af­ter a lunch of thin rice por­ridge, I laid down in my room and an un­ex­plain­able sad­ness pressed down on me as my stom­ach churned. It was fa­mil­iar: my big­gest sam­skara is a ten­dency to hold on—to re­sent­ments, to be­ing right, to be­ing the vic­tim—when let­ting go would bet­ter serve me. Still, to re­al­ize how this un­yield­ing qual­ity in my­self could phys­i­cally af­fect me was a true hum­ble-war­rior mo­ment. It was the un­com­fort­able piece of truth I needed in or­der to see my life more clearly.

As af­ter­noon turned into evening, Lokesh and Garud con­sulted about my predica­ment. They sent Mary Walker, a mem­ber of the re­treat staff, up to my room to give me a marma treat­ment, which in­volved very light touch­ing of sub­tle en­ergy points. They hoped this would stim­u­late some kind of move­ment. Mary placed her hands over my heart, and within sec­onds I felt a wave-like con­trac­tion push up­ward. I ran to the toi­let just in time to vomit. At last, I felt a re­lease, fol­lowed by a eu­phoric light­ness. Mary tracked it all with­out flinch­ing. Her neu­tral­ity may have saved me: She nei­ther praised nor shamed. In that mo­ment, I re­al­ized I needed to learn how to pay that type of kind­ness for­ward—to oth­ers, but most of all to my­self. It re­minded me of some­thing I had heard of­ten dur­ing my days in In­dia: An­other word for peace is al­low.

Main­tain­ing the af­ter­glow

If pan­chakarma is about break­ing down tox­ins, the week af­ter the cleanse is about build­ing up ev­ery­thing from your di­ges­tive pow­ers to your new re­la­tion­ship with your­self, says Garud, adding that this is why it’s cru­cial to rein­te­grate slowly. She told us to keep eat­ing kitchari for a few days, and she sug­gested rein­tro­duc­ing new foods grad­u­ally rather than all at once. The worst thing I could have done, I learned, would have been to eat a ham­burger and fries af­ter I left the re­treat.

Fol­low­ing the cleanse, I com­pared notes with one of my pan­chakarma friends, yoga teacher and Ayurvedic life­style con­sul­tant Beth Sanchez, who has done more than 15 pan­chakarma cleanses in her

I felt a sense of sattva (pu­rity) as a lived ex­pe­ri­ence. My thoughts breached out from, and re­turned to, an un­per­turbable si­lence.

life­time. “What al­ways wows me post-pan­chakarma is how it em­pow­ers me to re­ally choose, rather than be pushed around by habit, crav­ing, ad­dic­tion, or con­ve­nience,” she told me. “You feel sup­ported. You ac­tu­ally crave things that are good for you. This is what we call

pra­jna. In yoga it’s trans­lated as ‘wis­dom,’ but in Ayurveda it means ‘cel­lu­lar in­tel­li­gence.’”

At home, this al­most feral in­tel­li­gence lin­gered for me, de­spite launch­ing back into the whirligig of kid melt­downs, work dead­lines, and ad-hoc meals. Now, al­most two months post-cleanse, I can see where my pra­jna had been kinked. The com­par­isons, the hold­ing on for the wrong rea­sons, the way my sense of OK­ness was wrapped up in other peo­ple, had all cut me off from my in­ner task: the care and feed­ing of my own soul. I had lost sight of what was gen­uine in me. The full catas­tro­phe is what I’m fac­ing, but how can I al­low for it—bless it, even—in­stead of re­sist?

Pan­chakarma helped me see that the gen­er­ous per­spec­tive I yearned for could only come from whole­ness, from a body that’s fluid and bal­anced and a mind that sees the world through the lens of enough­ness rather than de­fi­ciency. It also taught me that for cleans­ing to go deep, it has to be done with benev­o­lence, not self­de­nial. That was the source of what Sanchez had re­ferred to as “sup­port.” “I al­ways thought it was in­ter­est­ing that the word

sneha in San­skrit can mean ‘oil,’ but it can also mean ‘ love,’” Grasser told me. “There’s some­thing ex­tremely nour­ish­ing and lov­ing about oil.” For me, over the course of my pan­chakarma and be­yond, oil has come to rep­re­sent all the ways I want to ab­sorb and be ab­sorbed into some­thing vast and for­giv­ing.

These days, I’m less con­cerned with how I rank in the in­vis­i­ble hi­er­ar­chi­cal sys­tem that lives in my head. I’m not in it to win it, but I am all in—in my at­ten­tion to the right things: how it feels to ex­hale with­out re­stric­tions, how ex­tend­ing my rib cage up and over as I fold for­ward dur­ing my Sun Sa­lu­ta­tions can rip­ple through me like a prayer. It’s soft­en­ing I’m af­ter. All I need to do is start with what’s real: a warm meal made with love, the hard bat­tles that are worth the fight, and the domed spa­cious­ness that wants to oc­cupy my body, if I let it.

Pan­chakarma helped me see that the

per­spec­tive I yearned for could only come from a body that’s fluid and bal­anced.

Mar­glin prac­tices a vari­a­tion of Bharad­va­jasana II (Bharad­vaja’s Twist II).

Kitchari—bas­mati rice and mung dal cooked with spices and ghee—is a pan­chakarma sta­ple.

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