Last month I did an Ayurvedic panchakarma cleanse. A panchakarma cleanse is a 9-day gentle protocol that relies on simple-to-digest foods, naturally detoxifying herbal teas, and some lovely (and less-than-lovely) self-care practices. It’s meant to detoxify the body and mind in a gentle yet effective way.
In this article I will share some details about the cleanse, why one would want to do a cleanse like this, and what I learned and experienced during this cleanse. My sweet Ayurvedic practitioner gave us detailed documents before the cleanse, and provided us with nourishing, delicious food for the first six days of the cleanse, and she provided all the oils, herbs, and teas we needed to proceed. This type of cleanse can easily be done at home with store-bought ingredients. We did this during the Spring equinox, as it’s a natural time for purging (literal and metaphysical).
Overall, my panchakarma clease was an AWESOME experience. I did have some misgivings and fears (see more below), yet I went into the process with an open heart and open mind. She encouraged us to create an intention for the cleanse, and to revisit it each day as a reminder. My intention was to be open: interested in examining my daily habits, and curious about what might emerge.
What did emerge was pretty interesting:
- I gave up my decades-long habit of green tea first thing in the morning;
- I learned that alcohol no longer serves me;
- I became much more attuned to the ebb and flow of my digestion; and
- (less importantly) I found my new favorite detox herb tea
These might seem like really small changes, and in the big picture, they are. Yet it’s these small changes and habits that make up our daily lives, therefore I think it’s important to be curious about them, and to revisit habits that may or may not serve us any longer. We all have the opportunity to change with each moment, and this served as a reminder to do so.
What is Ayurveda?
But first – what is Ayurveda? Ayurveda is the healing tradition of Indian origin – the ‘sister science’ to yoga. Ayurveda is a practice focused on the senses, the elements, and how these work together: “Ayurveda groups [air, earth, fire, water, ether] into three basic types of energy and functional principles that are present in everybody and everything: [we] use the Sanskrit words Vata, Pitta, and Kapha to describe their combinations.” For a very detailed explanation, read more here about the deeper practices of Ayurveda.
Knowing your dosha, or constitution (as it would be called in Chinese medicine) is helpful as it can guide you towards better food, exercise, and lifestyle habits. Take a dosha quiz here: I’m vata dominant with pitta, so I tend toward high energy and movement, and when out of balance, it manifests as anxiety. Being high vata also means I’m often cold, I dislike having wind or fans blowing on me, I prefer cooked foods, like leafy greens, root veggies and high-carb veggies like sweet potatoes and pumpkin, and need higher protein foods like lentils, tofu, and beans for grounding.
What is Panchakarma?
As my practitioner explained, the focus of the cleanse is to pull excess dosha from the body (hiding in muscles), and move it to the digestive tract to be eliminated, so that we can be better balanced and in a more ‘natural state.’ The benefits of the cleanse can include the following, from Vasant Lad’s Ayurvedic Institute:
- Eliminate toxins and toxic conditions from your body and mind.
- Restore your constitutional balance improving health and wellness.
- Strengthen your immune system and become more resistant to illness.
- Reverse the negative effects of stress on your body and mind thereby slowing the aging process.
- Enhance your self-reliance, strength, energy, vitality and mental clarity.
- Bring about deep relaxation and sense of well-being.
Our cleanse was divided into three phases: Purvakarma (days 1-3), Panchakarma (days 4-6), and Rasayana (days 7-9), each with slightly different practices; some of the practices were done the whole time, while others were only for parts of the cleanse.
- Abhyanga: Oil massage to hydrate the tissues from the outside in. A base of sesame oil and olive oil was used daily for days 1-6 for a deep-tissue self massage to stimulate the skin and lymphatic system. The goal is to rub yourself down with a lot of oil, wait for 20-40 minutes to let the oil hydrate, then take a warm bath or shower to soften the tissues.
- Nasaya: Oils in the nose! Sounds weirder than it actually is. A few drops of oil in the nose can help lubricate the nasal cavity and cleanse the channels of nose and brain.
- Basti: An herbalized enema to remove excess vata, which can be stored in the colon. Not as weird or as difficult as it sounds.
- Internal Oleation: Consuming flax oil or ghee on an empty stomach to lubricate yourself from the inside out.
- Detox Teas: Cumin, coriander and fennel (CCF) sipped all day, and roasted dandelion and nettle for deeper detox. And lots of water!
- Triphala: A tri-doshic (good for all doshas) food powder that’s sipped as a tea. Works as a laxative, and for me, as an intense diuretic.
- Tongue Scraping and Oil Pulling: The tongue gets a lot of buildup of toxins, so each morning it is scraped off with a copper tongue scraper, then oil pulling (swishing with coconut oil) for 20 minutes helps clean the teeth and hydrate gums.
The Panchakarma Cleanse – My Expectations
I’m going to be honest – the thing I was most worried about was giving up my daily jasmine green tea habit. It has been my strongly-guarded and nearly-required morning routine for decades, even when camping, traveling, or otherwise. I love my green tea, consider it a minor yet healthy daily vice, and I was really sad about letting it go, even for 9 days. And yet, it was super easy to give up the tea and so much more: no soy, no gluten, no coffee, no chocolate, no sugar. These seem really HUGE when I think about eliminating them, but it felt really easy to move into cleanse mode: a reminder to tell myself, no, I don’t eat those things at the moment.
The other thing I was worried about was the dashmoola basti, the herbalized enema. Having never done an enema (self-administered or otherwise) I was nervous and feeling icked out by the idea of watery poo all over my bedroom floor. Turns out both of these fears were unfounded, and there was never the messiness that I so feared.
The other aspects of the cleanse – eating awesome prepared food for the week (ie: NOT COOKING!), doing self-massage everyday, and drinking herbal teas is pretty close to my regular daily habits. Being more mindful about eating, adding in more reflection time, journaling, light yoga, and more quiet time seemed pretty delightful, too.
The participants were asked to set an intention for the cleanse: mine was to be open to new experiences. That’s it. I’ve been told I’m quite stuck on my habits (see above – two decades of the same tea situation), yet I’ve really been working this year to change and grow in ways both big and small. This cleanse allowed me multiple opportunities to question my general flow: the how’s and why’s of my daily doings, and to be open to alternatives.
For example, in the weeks leading up to the cleanse, I was telling myself and others that ‘I will probably be very tired’ and ‘won’t have much energy.’ When I realized I was setting myself up for this, I changed my personal narrative. Instead, I decided to say, ‘I don’t know how I’m going to feel next week and I’m open to the experience.’
This is important for two reasons. Firstly, what we think/say is what we do/become – our body and our life comes to life via our thoughts, and these are powerful. We have control over the narrative of our life! And secondly, it simply wasn’t true. I had good energy nearly everyday (that is, after the first slumpy, headachey day without caffeine)! Once I started adding more food on the third part, I had seemingly boundless energy.
The Panchakarma Cleanse Experience – Part 1 (Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday)
The day starts with the tongue scraping and oil pulling. Neither are terrible, but neither are really delightful. I usually brush my tongue when I brush my teeth, so there didn’t seem to be much happening there. Scraping is meant to stimulate the tongue (it’s a muscle, after all), so I just moved through it without much issue.
The oil pulling, which is supposed to be so good for the teeth, gums, and overall oral health, was pretty weird. The feel of the coconut oil in the mouth is odd, and I was pretty excited to spit it out each morning.
Next came the internal oleation: eating of ghee or oil. This was not something I was too worried about going into the cleanse, yet it turned out to be the hardest part of the cleanse for me. While I don’t normally eat dairy, I chose to use the ghee as it’s the most traditional option. The practice is to eat three tablespoons of ghee on an empty stomach, and wait at least an hour to eat real food to let the oil penetrate the whole body. The ghee was really, really hard to get down, and it made me almost instantly nauseous. I was really struggling – hoping that I wouldn’t barf on the bus, or at work. The smell and the feeling stayed with me all day, until I finally ate dinner later that evening.
I talked to my practitioner, and requested flaxseed oil for the next 2 days. Using the flaxseed oil was less gross that eating the ghee, but still gag-inducing. Three tablespoons is a lot of oil, and I found it really hard to just drink. I had to stand over the sink, choke it down, and take sips of ginger tea in between (while trying not to gag) – it was intense, and not exactly my idea of intentional eating! The nausea was still there after the flaxseed oil (I had to just lay in bed for half hour – no movement for the belly!), but it subsided more quickly, and I was able to move through my day. Interestingly, my housemate (who’s very pitta) loves taking the oil each morning, and truly enjoys the feeling of the oil moving through his body. My practitioner, who’s very kapha, also gets very nauseous; she says it often makes people feel that way.
Throughout the day, there is dandelion, nettle, and the CCF teas to drink, and of course, lots of water. The food was very simple and light: quinoa with dried fruit for breakfast, lentils and brown basmati for lunch, then mung bean dal and rice for dinner.
At the end of the day (that was the best time for me), I began the self-care practices of abhyanga and nasaya. Using an old yoga blanket, I got naked and rubbed myself with the nourishing oil until I was greased from head to toe; it’s recommended to oil your head too, but since I was working everyday at the office, I thought I should keep it clean! At the time of the massage I also did the nasaya.
The self massage is an awesome practice – and it’s something I want to integrate at least weekly. This practice gave me time to relax, meditate, drink teas, journal, and more. On the second night I brought my partner into the practice, and we self-massaged together and then took a bath together – highly recommended!
One the first day of the cleanse, I felt sick because of the ghee and also headachy, as it was my first day without caffeine for years. It was not terrible, and the headache was gone by day 2. I wasn’t spending time cooking, but was instead spending time doing massage, journaling, and deeply relaxing. My energy remained really relaxed, despite going to work my two jobs on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. I didn’t feel any major changes during this part of the cleanse until Thursday, when my lower back (kidney area) started hurting in a dull, throbbing way, which was the only detox symptom I experienced.
The Panchakarma Cleanse Experience – Part 2 (Friday, Saturday, Sunday)
While this part might be considered the ‘hardest’ part of the cleanse, it’s actually the part I found most delightful! The morning practice of tongue scraping and oil pulling continued, as did the herbal teas and abhyanga and nasya. However, the internal oleation (eating of the oil) is discontinued and replaced with basti, the herbalized enema.
For breakfast, there was a quinoa & fruit pilaf, and for lunch and dinner, there was kitchari– a mix of mung beans and rice. It’s lightly seasoned, soft cooked food that’s easy on the digestion. The only condiments were fresh cilantro and fresh lime. I ate these foods for three days, in decreasing amounts. And no, I was not interested in ‘cheating;’ that impulse went away as I felt I was really ‘cheating’ only myself.
Each day was really different energetically: on Friday I worked from home in order to give myself time for the deeper part of the cleanse. I was very mellow and slow, and gave myself extra time for the massage. My housemate did some bodywork to address the back soreness, which he explained as related to the muscle detoxification. I also went for a walk for some gentle exercise. Friday was also the first day of the basti, the herbalized enema.
There was a mix of herbs to boil in water, then let cool. We were given an enema bottle, and instructions to manage the process. I found the best process was to do the abhyanga followed by the enema, all together about an hour long process. The warm water enema was soothing, though not quite relaxing. It’s about two cups of water/tea that’s inserted in the rectum, and surprisingly, it doesn’t feel like two cups coming out. My practitioner said that if the colon is dehydrated, then the tea will be absorbed, and not much will be expelled.
Saturday my energy bounced back really high: I went to the beach, did some body surfing, and spent the rest of the day exhausted. Even though you’re not ‘doing’ much during the cleanse, there is still a lot going on internally, and as you’re eating less food, you have less energy to do regular activities. So it was a relaxing day, yet it was also the first time I felt really done with the cleansing process: I was actually bored.
I started craving simple things like homemade almond milk, berries, bread, and hummus. This was, I think, partly a result of going to the beach – which felt like a regular routine, and as such, I was craving regular foods; there was also a quick trip to Costco, which is overwhelming under the best of circumstances.
By Sunday morning I was definitely over it: had a lot of stressful things arise, and it really spun me out. Some work issues, some house issues as it’s up for sale, and trying to finalize taxes and investments for the year. I felt overwhelmed with the self-care practices – all felt a bit more like chores. I was bored of the same flavors (cumin, coriander) and the smells of the oils (sesame and olive), and I felt I had had my fill of self-care!
The Panchakarma Cleanse Experience – Part 3 (Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday)
This part of the cleanse was the day to replenish the system with ojas-building foods as our systems are now fully cleared of excess and toxins.
Ojas, considered a positive manifestation of the doshas, along with tejas and prana, can be nourished with calming, soothing, nutritive, and easy-to-digest foods. Some of the ojas-building foods my practitioner shared include baked sweet potatoes, lentils, dates, almonds, sesame, ghee, and coconut. Each night I would use my homemade almond milk warmed with ashwaganda and shatavari for a grounding, warming tonic. We were also taking chyavanaprash, a jam made with ghee, herbs, and honey to replenish and revive the immune system.
The key to finalizing the cleanse is not to start back in regular habits, but slowly add things to see how they feel, and to see which things agree with you still. I made some red lentils and basmati the first night, and continued with gentle foods, like sweet potatoes and greens for a few days, slowly adding more food into my diet. I added tea back on Thursday – I had a very early morning webinar and definitely needed a little boost to get through the day.
During this rebuilding phase, I had unbelievable energy! Waking up early, with no caffeine, combined with the gentle increase in food calories was really stimulating. One of the best things that happened was that in all this abundant energy, I got the idea to create a totally new website focused on vegan food in Hawaii! This was honestly the most exciting thing to come out of the cleanse for me, and I don’t think I would have gotten there without the clarity of vision and energy I experienced during the cleanse.
The Panchakarma Cleanse Experience: What I Learned
Back to what I learned during this cleanse: I now enjoy the roasted dandelion tea first thing in the morning, along with warm water. I don’t drink green (caffeinated) tea until I go to the office, or if it’s the weekend, many hours after I wake up. This allows for a more gentle wakeup flow. Changing this habit was the thing I feared the most about doing the cleanse, and yet it was so easy to change. It shows me that I’m more adaptable and resilient than I thought, and it gave me space to look at some other habits that also might no longer serve me.
One of the biggest changes is that I no longer drink alcohol; I never drank a lot, and yet I found that I no longer really want it. I drank some sake at our new vegan izakaya the Friday after the cleanse: it tasted like rubbing alcohol, and I didn’t get buzzed. A few days later I drank some beer at my cowork space – that made me feel full and icky, and I could feel it intensely the next morning. The social part of it is the weirdest – friends assuming you’ll drink with them in celebration, or while out at dinners, so that is actually the hardest adjustment.
I also really enjoyed the practices, and look forward to doing another cleanse, to dig into deeper layers and continually grow, change, and adapt my habits, my diet, and my flow to be the best version of myself.