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Ayurveda teaches that good health depends upon our body’s ability to metabolize all aspects of life, assimilating that which nurtures us, and eliminating the rest. When we can’t completely digest our food, experiences, and emotions, toxic residue gets stored in our bodily tissue, creating imbalance and – ultimately – disease.
Thousands of years ago, the ancient ayurvedic physicians developed panchakarma, an elegant cleansing process that releases physical and emotional toxins at the cellular level, restoring the body’s innate healing ability. This powerful treatment takes place over the course of several days or longer, giving the body adequate time to rest and experience the complete healing benefits.
Each day of panchakarma includes Ayurvedic massage treatments and natural detoxification therapies. Every treatment is customized for an individual’s unique mind-body constitution (dosha), using specific oils and herbs to purify and nurture the mind-body physiology at the cellular level.
How Does Panchakarma Work?
Panchakarma is a Sanskrit term that means “the five actions,” (pancha = five, and karma = action), referring to the five different cleansing and rejuvenating procedures described in the classic Ayurvedic textbooks.
As panchakarma has been adapted for use in the West, the therapies have evolved and modernized, the number of procedures included is not always five but varies according to an individual’s mind-body type and health concerns. At the Chopra Center’s 10-day Perfect Health program, panchakarma follows these steps:
Step One: Preparatory Procedures
Panchakarma begins with oleation, a process of applying and ingesting pure essential oils in order to loosen and mobilize accumulated toxins. This step includes supplementation with organic seeds, as well as soothing Ayurvedic massage treatments using herbalized oils. You can perform a modified version of this step at home by performing a daily “self-abhy” massage (instructions for a self-massage are available at www.chopra.com/abhy).
In addition to oleating the body from the outside, we can use internal oleation to help the body begin to detoxify itself during the preparation phase. There are specific foods that enhance this process, including sesame seeds and herbalized ghee (clarified butter). These are the main ingredients in the Chopra Center’s recipe for delicious Sesame Bliss Balls, which Perfect Health guests take each morning at the beginning of the program.
The main ingredients in this recipe are sesame and ghee – sattvic or pure foods that enhance digestion and help the body release accumulated toxins.
Place all ingredients in a food processor and mix together until well incorporated. Roll into 1-inch balls and store in an airtight container.
Step Two: Releasing Accumulated Toxins
Once the body's toxins have been mobilized, gentle therapies are used to release them from the body. The treatment includes a sequence of daily Ayurvedic massage treatments, tailored for an individual’s specific mind-body type, known as one’s dosha. For instance, a typical Vata type tends to be dry and cold, so the prescribed massage for Vatas would emphasize nourishing, warming oils and herbs. In contrast, those with a predominantly Pitta type tend to get overheated and irritable, and thus more cooling, calming oils, herbs, and massage techniques are used.
Each day’s massage treatment is followed by bastis – a therapeutic process in which medicated oils and herbal preparations are used to flush toxins from the intestinal tract. Bastis are often referred to as enemas but actually offer many more healing benefits than a simple colon cleanse. During a basti, the herbalized oils enter the deeper tissues and eliminate fat-soluble toxins that can't be dislodged with standard enemas.
Other Detoxifying Therapies
The elimination phase of panchakarma also includes nasya, an Ayurvedic treatment that gently cleanses the upper respiratory tract and sinuses. This soothing process uses pure herbalized oils to improve the flow of life energy and help you breathe freely and easily.
Depending on your mind-body type, panchakarma may also includeswedana or sweat treatments. Swedana is a Sanskrit word meaning “that which produces heat in the system.” Specific steam and warm oil therapies are used to heat the body. This process helps open the body’s circulation channels (srotas) and allows toxins to flow more easily from the tissues to the GI tract for elimination. Swedana also relaxes the body, releasing tension and allowing impurities to be eliminated through the sweat glands.
Step Three: Rejuvenation
The final stage of panchakarma is rasayana, a term that means “that which is nourishing.” According to Ayurveda, once toxins have been cleansed, it is a critical time to begin replenishing the body with natural foods and herbs, revitalizing massage treatments, and healing practices such as meditation and yoga.
When and How Often Should I Do Panchakarma?
In India today, seasonal panchakarma is the province of the well-to-do and of those few who have adhered faithfully to Ayurvedic tradition. However, the classic texts clearly state that everyone needs panchakarma. It is recommended three times a year – ideally at the turn of spring, fall, and winter – as well as when an individual feels out of balance or is experiencing a particular illness.
The panchakarma process allows your body to release the physical and emotional toxins stored deep in the cells, tissues, and organs, leaving you feeling renewed and revitalized.
When our digestive energies, known as agni (fire), are robust, our body creates healthy tissues, eliminates waste products efficiently, and produces a subtle essence called ojas. Ojas, which may be envisioned as the innermost sap of your psychophysiology, is the basis for clarity of perception, physical strength, and immunity. On the other hand, if your agni is weakened, digestion is incomplete and creates toxins that get stored in the body. This toxic residue is known as ama.
When ama accumulates in the body, it blocks the flow of energy, information, and nourishment throughout the system. Ayurveda considers this build-up of toxins the underlying cause of all disease. A common example of this is the accumulation of saturated fat and cholesterol that is beyond the body’s capacity to metabolize. Over time, this leads to the blockage of the blood vessels and arteries and, ultimately, to heart attacks.
While it’s easy to understand agni and ama in terms of food, it’s important to remember that your mind and heart are continually digesting energy and information as well. Right now your mental digestive powers are working to break the ideas in this article down into components that your intellect can assimilate. Similarly, your emotional agni is responsible for processing your experiences and feelings, including the smile of a loved one, unexpected criticism at work, or the excitement of a new relationship.
When your emotional agni is strong, you are able to extract whatever is nourishing and eliminate the rest. The inability to metabolize emotions, however, produces just as much toxic residue as undigested food. In fact, pent-up anger, long-held sadness, and lingering guilt are more debilitating for most people than problems with physical digestion. In order to experience optimal health, it is crucial to maintain a strong digestive fire and eliminate toxins from the body. For this reason, panchakarma cleansing and a daily balancing routine are highly beneficial.
To learn more about the Chopra Center’s Perfect Health program, visit www.chopra.com/perfecthealth or call (888) 736-6895.
This recipe was taken from The Chopra Center Cookbook, which is based on the ancient healing wisdom of Ayurveda. All Ayurvedic recipes focus on creating balance and supporting the body's natural state of health. To learn more about Ayurveda and achieving optimal mind-body health, explore our Perfect Health and Journey into Healing workshops.