Panchakarma is one of the most popular Ayurvedic therapies and there’s a good chance that you’ve heard of it several times before. Despite its popularity, most people have a poor understanding of panchakarma and regard it as nothing more than a therapeutic massage or abhyanga. In truth, panchakarma is a little more complicated, involving 5 different therapies. Hence the name ‘panchakarma’, which literally translated means 5 actions. The confusion is easy to understand however, as many commercial spas claim to offer panchakarma, but simply use it do describe abhyanga. In fact, abhyanga is not even one of the 5 therapies of panchakarma, but is part of the preparatory process called purvakarma.
Ayurveda is the world’s oldest surviving medical system, which offers one of the most effective natural methods of detoxification and cleansing the body. This Ayurvedic detox treatment is described as panchakarma. It resets the body’s natural balance of doshas and eliminates toxins from the body to improve immunity and normalize metabolic and other bodily functions. The effects are therefore more than purifying – it also increases disease protection and helps fight lifestyle diseases.
The five elements or therapies of panchakarma include the following:
- Vamana (vomiting) – Regarded as therapeutic for Kaphaj disorders, this technique helps expel kapha buildup from the body.
- Virechana (purgation) – This is another purgative technique that includes snehana (oleation) and svedana (sweating) to eliminate excess pitta.
- Basti (enema) – Administered in stages and using precise herbs and oils, this helps in the elimination of vata blockage and buildup.
- Nasya (nasal therapy) – Described as nasal irrigation in conventional medicine, nasya can be administered using different methods to eliminate vitiated doshas and improve the flow of prana.
- Rakta Moksha (bloodletting) – One of the most complex of the panchakarma procedures, it helps in blood purification and the treatment of various disorders.
Ayurveda recognizes the uniqueness of the individual and the role of dosha imbalances in disease formation. As panchakarma addresses these imbalances, there is no ‘one size fits all’ treatment. The therapies of panchakarma are customized for each patient, depending on their natural balance of doshas or prakriti, their health status, age, gender, appetite, and strength, as well as the environment and season. Most importantly, every patient must undergo a preparatory phase to ready the body for panchakarma.
Everything You Need to Know Before Panchakarma
Before you do panchkarma, you need to prepare for it. Ayurveda provides us with a very precise method of preparation called purvakarma, which in itself helps to eliminate excess dosha, and ama or toxins. These dosha aggravations and buildup of toxicity result from the waste product of undigested foods and from emotions. They are therefore aggravated and more problematic when we have faulty diets and emotional stress or clutter. As our modern lifestyle has increased the intake of junk foods and raised stress levels, dosha imbalances, buildup of ama, and improper elimination of wastes has become more widespread. This has given rise to the trend of lifestyle diseases.
Purvakarma is important as it allows the body to efficiently expel toxins and excess dosha during panchakarma. The main techniques used in purvakarma are snehana and svedana, which are processes of internal and external oleation.
Snehana: This is a therapeutic oil massage, in which specific Ayurvedic herbal oils are applied topically over the entire body. This softens both the superficial and deeper tissues, not only relieving stress and nourishing the body, but also loosening ama and any dosha buildup from the tissues and shrotas or channels. This will allow easier elimination of wastes during the panchakarma therapies. Snehana is typically administered daily for at least a week prior to panchakarma.
Svedana: This is another pre-panchakarma practice that prepares the body for the breakdown and release of toxins. It is a perspiration or sweating technique that must be practiced immediately after snehana. Heat is applied therapeutically, through steam baths that include the use of medicinal herbs. This helps to further loosen toxins and blockages, encouraging their movement towards the gastrointestinal tract for easy elimination.
Dietary Preparation: Because of the central role of the gastrointestinal system in the elimination of waste, purification of the body, and nourishment, dietary modifications are vital during purvakarma and panchakarma. The main aim is to reduce stress on the digestive system. Although panchakarma is cleansing and also gives agni or the digestive fire a rest, it stimulates the movement of toxins back into the digestive tract – this further slows digestion. Accordingly, your diet should focus on light and easily digestible foods to minimize the burden.
To begin with, solid foods are restricted, while soups, broths or watery rice and barley may be consumed. Kitchari or khichadi may then be added to the diet along with ghee, but should be prepared as per Ayurvedic recommendations. The intake of other foods can only resume on completion of panchakarma. It is also important to avoid cold foods and beverages, sugar, dairy products, and caffeinated or alcoholic products during purvakarma and panchakarma.
Other Pre-Panchakarma Recommendations
In addition to dietary changes, it is also advisable to slow down your pace of life to ensure adequate rest and relaxation. Avoid any strenuous activities, including high intensity exercise and limit exposure to highly stimulating activities, such as listening to loud music or watching television. While panchakarma can be practice at home, it is best administered under the guidance of a skilled Ayurvedic physician. Besides, panchakarma must be personalized to be truly effective and only a qualified Ayurvedic doctor would be able to make informed decision on the panchakarma treatment plan. Most importantly, make sure to inform your doctor about any pre-existing conditions, as panchakarma may not be advisable in some situations.