Many of you know that I facilitated and participated personally in a trip to India this January 2015 to a residential Panchakarma healing center. I have been posting pictures on my Facebook page over the past week sharing some of my experiences – but couldn’t post all the lengthy details there!
My experience at Vaidyagram – where I enjoyed the cleansing rejuvenative therapies which are considered Ayurveda’s most powerful healing tools – was fabulous! And I’m excited to share about my process of nourishment and healing that continues even now that I’m home.
First, a little about the healing process itself. The goal of Panchakarma is to clear the body of toxins and excess, to reset the digestive system, and to ultimately balance the body, mind and spirit. There are several aspects at Vaidyagram that support this goal:
Diet: a simple vegetarian diet allows for the digestive system to rest and focus more of its energy on healing and cleansing. The food is mildly spiced by Indian standards but I found it to be quite tasty. Staples included congee (a watery rice porridge), green gram dal (mung beans), a variety of vegetables including beets, green beans, carrots, greens, white pumpkin and various squashes; chutneys and sauces that often went with dosa pancakes or idli cakes (both made from fermented rice and legumes). There was also fruit in the afternoon – pomegranate seeds, papaya or cooked Kerala bananas that are similar to plantains – and a spice tea several times a day to keep the digestive fire stoked. One of my favorite parts of a residential setting was being brought yummy food three times a day! One of the benefits of this reduced diet was that I was able to appreciate the simple tastes and it was so easy to listen to when I had physically had enough, as there was no strong tongue pull to keep eating more! It also gave me the opportunity to see how much my mind and tongue dominate my food choices and eating normally, and to see how little food my body really needs to sustain itself.
Herbal medicines: each person is assessed and given a variety of herbal medicines – with meals, first thing in the morning, and before bed. These medicines support the cleansing and rejuvenation process. We weren’t given details as to the ingredients or purposes. Some tasted better than others but all felt effective. Additional treatments would be added in as needed. For instance, a couple times I got a headache which was treated with an herbal paste applied to my forehead. It was cooling, soothing and very effective in quickly removing the problem! These paste treatments are called Lepas and can used to target symptoms in specific body areas and are something that I offer clients through my practice at Ayurveda Wellness.
Body therapies: based on each individual’s needs, different therapies are used to prepare the body in releasing toxins by lubricating the tissues, opening the channels, bringing toxins to the surface through sweat therapies and into the digestive system for release through either purgation (clearing from the small intestines through the elimination channels), therapeutic vomiting (to clear toxins from the stomach; this is not done often), or therapeutic enemas (to clear toxins from the colon). The therapies I personally received were as follows:
- The morning we arrived at Vaidyagram I had my initial consultation with my lead doctor who read my pulse, looked at my tongue, my eyes, my nails; took my weight and my blood pressure and asked lots of questions to ascertain my goals and my state of my doshas in order to plan my course of treatment. Later in the afternoon, I then received my first treatment which was an abhyanga or warm oil massage,something I continued to receive daily along with the other therapies. I love abhyangas. There is something so nurturing about being massaged by significant quantities of warm oil. I could feel the stress fading away and the muscles and mind relaxing.
- The next four days, in addition to a short abhyanga, I received a technique called kshaya dhara. Kshaya is a decoction made from herbs – like a warm herbal tea – and this is then poured over the body in several different positions by two therapists and rubbed over the body while a third therapist warms the recycled decoction. My kshaya included an herbal compound called dashmoola, meaning ten roots, which helps to pacify and clear the vata dosha. The purpose was to help open the channels of the body to move out the toxins. It was incredibly relaxing and soothing.
- I had a pause of a day during an unexpected, shortened menses. Menstruation in Ayurveda is seen as a special monthly cleansing that women receive and it is very important not to interfere with the natural process so no medicines are given or therapies received during the main flow. I ended up only missing one full day and by the next afternoon I was able to receive an abhyanga.
- The following day I started 3 days of a treatment called Pizhichil. In this treatment a cloth dipped in lukewarm medicated oil is squeezed over the body uniformly and then the oil rubbed smoothly over the body by two technicians. This acted both to lubricate the body and melt the toxins and to bring the toxins out through a mild sweat therapy (swedana). It also enhances muscular tone and re-tunes the entire nervous system.
- Next came the main cleansing treatment – everything before was to prepare the body for clearing the toxins. For my needs, I received 2 days of the Basti or medicinal cleansing enema in the colon. The colon is the seat of vata and that was the main dosha being cleared from my body. I first received the abhyanga then warmth was applied to my hips, belly and back before the enema was inserted. With cleansing enemas, the liquid is meant to come out soon after application and is deeply cleansing and clearing to the entire colon. Resting for the remainder of the morning follows.
- The final treatment in any Panchakarma is call dinacharya which means daily practices. In this case, these are daily practices are aimed at the sense organs. In addition to a full abhyanga, each of the senses of the eyes, ears, nose, mouth and throat are cleansed and cleared through various herbalized oils or smoke. These practices are then encouraged to be continued at home, for when we cleanse on a daily basis, along with a healthy lifestyle, we don’t build and hold as many toxins.
Minimal activity: the ideal is to go into a space of zero activity so that the body and mind can focus all the energy and attention on healing. What does zero activity mean? Ideally it means withdrawing the senses and the attachments that we often have through them and slowing down activity that engages the metabolic processes.
The environment at Vaidyagram is comfortable but simple – not monastic but definitely minimalistic. Not being in a luxury setting with the typical T.V.s in the room allows one to step outside of our outer environment and focus inwardly. This is furthered by the recommendations to stay off electronics, reduce reading (and if one does to focus on spiritual reading), and even minimize talking or take a few days to the whole time in silence. One is encouraged to rest and reflect without actually sleeping during the day, which increases heaviness in the body and mind. Listening to spiritual or uplifting music or podcasts is a good activity. To support this inward, quiet focus, meals are taken in one’s room except for a once a week community dinner.
Though this is the ideal, the doctors also recognize that for the average westerner to come from the over-the-top busyness of our modern lives and go into zero activity is not always possible immediately. Just like it is challenging to go straight into silent meditation without first preparing the body and mind with yoga, breath exercising and chanting, so too Vaidyagram offers relaxing and spiritually-oriented activities to start one off. These activities include daily morning and evening chanting/prayer and breath exercises, mid-afternoon yoga nidra, late afternoon talks with the doctors about Ayurveda and Vedic philosophy as well as weekly events which include cooking classes, garden walks, and classes on how to make the take-home herbs.
This time around I chose a path of moderation between inward reflection and outer activity by doing the following:
- read some but less than I normally would have and focused on books with a positive focus
- checked my emails only a couple times to make sure I was connected to my family
- went to most of the morning prayers but few of the evening ones and did my own morning meditation as well
- participated in most of the doctor talks
- skipped the yoga nidra and hung out by myself on the outdoor porch of our suite
- wrote in my journal to process what was showing up
- did two days of silence
- minimized socializing
- enjoyed the process of simply being
Next time around, which will be in 2017, I plan on reducing the outer activities even less, doing a week of silence, and trying to do longer periods of daily meditation.
So what did I achieve and come back with from Panchakarma?
As I sit here reflecting on the trip and my transition back home I am grateful for so many aspects of the trip. In a nutshell, I feel deeply refreshed and revitalized!
First off, I had some wonderful changes physically through the process that have continued at home. The diet and body therapies were nourishing and nurturing, giving my body had a general feeling of lightness (at the end this translated to a weight loss of 8 pounds), higher energy, deeper sleep, fewer muscle aches and less cracking in my joints.
The quiet and low activity along with the therapies gave me great inner benefits. My brain and mental functioning became sharper, my heart calmer and more open, my emotions balanced, my responses to life smoother and less reactive, and I feel a deep sense of peace.
Though I am quite busy and active at home and was a little worried about all the open time and inactivity, I actually loved it. It was helpful to have some nourishing activities but really I was quite content with the slow schedule and not having anything to do!
I also really loved all that I didn’t have to pay attention to:
- Cooking and cleaning: such a nice break to be fully taken care of since as a working mother, I often tend to be the caretaker
- Hair and clothes: to minimize our luggage, many of us brought very few clothes and literally wore the same 2-3 outfits the entire 2 weeks at Vaidyagram. Though we washed the clothes so they were clean, our attire was based on comfort and coolness and not fashion or variety. Likewise, every day we received body therapies which inevitably included oil in the hair. After the therapies, we were “washed” with a green gram paste that took out the excess oil and dirt, but there was plenty of oil left in the hair, which is actually seen as beneficial. Shampooing the hair is discouraged due to the chemicals in almost all shampoos and soaps. For me, I actually found it incredibly freeing to pay absolutely no attention to outer things like hair or clothes. It was a shedding of this ego game I feel we are required to play in our world where there is greater emphasis on how we are seen from the outside.
- A schedule or timeline: so often in our lives we are governed by work and home schedules. This is a reality of the pitta stage of life where we are working and raising our families that lessens when we retire. Being able to have a break from this busy stage of life is so vital in preventing burnout, breakdown, and unhappiness. While I take vacations every year, they are often busy in their own ways – visiting family, playing tourist. This inner retreat really allowed me to let go and rejuvenate in a way that vacations and other forms of fun relaxation do not.
The longer I am home and the more “normal” foods and busy activities come back into my life, the more I can feel some of the toxic signs of heaviness, aches, and mental dullness creeping back in – but they are mild. I am still maintaining much of what I received from Panchakarma but I am also highly aware that if I allow my lifestyle to go back to where it was, I will slide backwards into building toxins and the symptoms that come with them.
So from this process also comes greater awareness. I felt pretty healthy overall going into the process. Feeling the difference in my body and mind after Panchakarma, I realize that I had more toxins accumulated than I was aware of, which is often the case! We become accustomed to where we are and that includes our imbalances and symptoms. It is often not until we do a cleanse and step away from our “normal” life that we realize how certain foods or habits affect us and what symptoms they create in our bodies and minds.
My goal at this point is to explore how I can further refine my life habits to maintain more of what I gained and have less of the toxins and imbalance. It is easy to go away into an environment where the structure creates balance for you. It is more challenging to hold one’s own structure of balance, especially against the forces of modern life, food and each other’s rhythms. Each time I do a cleanse, and this was by far the most extensive one I have done, I try to deepen a couple of my healthy habits. This time around here’s what I’m taking away to expand:
- Going to bed earlier. The ideal in Ayurveda is to be asleep by 10ish. This is because the body starts its daily inner rejuvenation and processing at this time. Though I’ve never been a night owl, I was often going to bed closer to 10:30. To support my internal cleansing and be able to hold a consistent earlier morning wake up, I’ve been able to consistently go to bed between 9-9:30 pm since returning. Though there will naturally be those social occasions that will push this later, having this schedule as a regular habit feels supportive.
- Slowing down. This is something I’ve been working with for awhile but its importance became clearer after this trip. I talk about this in the monthly post about Ayurveda Habits to Support your New Year’s Intentions.
So there you have it. I admire those of you who have made it all the way through this lengthy posting. I hope it inspires you in some way on your journey of health and growth. If you want to know more about the theory of Panchakarma in general, check out this post.
©2015, Jamie Durner, Certified Ayurvedic Practitioner & Wellness Educator at Ayurveda Wellness in Brookfield, WI