Monday, June 27, 2016

Pancha Karma - 21 day Ayurvedic Detox for my Soul

Live simply, live healthy, live well and live happy. These are the goals of Vaidyagrama, the ayurvedic healing village in southern India where I received my first pancha karma treatment this spring.

I have always wanted to experience pancha karma, the Indian system for health rejuvenation that is born of Ayurveda, the "science of life."  A system based on lifestyle, diet, deep tissue detoxification and herbs to counteract the detriment of poor choices over time that accumulate "ama" or toxins in the body. Toxic build-up can develop from all levels of unsupportive experiences in our lives, including diet, pollution, stress, and even negative thoughts and relationships.

I have always heard the gold standard for a PK treatment is 21 days. After studying ayurveda, I now understand that to restore all seven tissues of the body a minimum of 35 days is necessary but 21 days is considered to be a thorough and foundational cleanse.  The goal of this three week cleanse is to identify symptoms and personal health concerns and then to bring the system back into balance and through proper nourishment, support and cleansing of the processes of assimilation and elimination to encourage a clean, well tuned body of life. In ayurvedic language we would say that pancha karma "eliminates excess dosha and helps to kindle the dhatu agni."

The treatment is highly individualized according to the concerns of the patient. From the first day you are assigned a personal physician who assesses your constitution according to diagnostic questions, pulse and tongue readings.

The first thing I noticed about Vaidyagrama is the calm, stable, earthiness of the place. I was struck by the palpable spiritual essence- for me true spiritual essence is a quality of deep peace, balance and connection. The layout of this secluded healing village was designed according to Vastu principles which is the Indian feng shui. A system so intricate and thought out as to determine even the proper width of the pathways and the distance of the pathways from the ground. The tiles that covered the roofs were all crafted from the very soil the place was built on.

There is an absence of distraction here, there is little to no decor and the color palette is of the earth. It is truly the optimal environment for someone of my constitution, which is quite the opposite! The simplicity and naturalness exudes a stabilizing vibration, some might perceive it as oppressively boring but I was grateful for the opportunity to simplify. Chemicals and plastics are not used here at all and even with the sweltering heat there is no air conditioning. Electricity is all solar charged and the place is completely self-sustaining. Healing is the focus here.

Everyday became a punctual and  ritualized schedule for herbal medicines, meals, treatments and morning and evening prayers and puja. I was in bed by 9 and up by 5. Personal meditation for 40 minutes upon rising, a morning kashayam (a bitter herbal concoction), a little writing and then off to prayers for an hour or so. A delicious ayurvedic tea was served at 7:15am. Breakfast came at 8am and an herbal "wine" was to be taken 15 minutes after the meal. At first the "rishtam" tasted like cough syrup to me but eventually I heard it being referred to as wine and my whole paradigm shifted. I began to savor it like an after meal port and with the simplicity in my meals it became a favorite. There was always a thermos of warm drinking water as one never drinks cold water in ayurveda. This is because cold water dampens the agni or fire of the body so vitally important in all levels of digestion and assimilation. I was served a nice broth at 11am to sustain me until lunch. This light liquid snack does not diminish the power of agni and allows for the process of digestion between breakfast and lunch to be thorough. We would receive a glass of fresh coconut water and a fruit snack in it's peak of tastiness, really the best fruit ever at 4 pm to hold us over until dinner. This was never more than three pieces of papaya, half a cooked banana or a steamed amla fruit. Amla fruit, otherwise known as the gooseberry, is very bitter and is an important part of ayurvedic medicines. "This humble fruit is known to be a rich source of Vitamin C. So much so, that one small amla has as much Vitamin C as two medium oranges. Packed with compounds like polyphenols, minerals like iron and zinc and vitamins like carotenes and vitamin B complex, amla can definitely keep a number of diseases at bay."3  I didn't love the amla but when you realize it's values, you make amends.
Meals were served in a tiffin. This is a tall portable metal pot which is filled with 3-5 individual meal pots. All the meals were very simple but contained the six tastes which according to ayurveda certifies a complete meal nutritionally and wholly satisfies. These tastes are sweet, astringent, sour, salty, pungent and bitter. I loved the fresh herbs that were always included in the dishes. Tulasi leaves (holy basil), curry leaves and fenugreek leaves were  included in many of the dishes. Fresh leaves! I most definitely miss these ingredients now that I'm home. Most of the food was pleasing to my palette and I truly enjoyed the simplicity of the fare. There was  often a buttermilk soup included with the meal that was good for digestion, best saved for last. There were rotis and dosas (indian style breads), as well as 1-3 steamed vegetables with herbs and coconut shavings. Plenty of soft juicy cooked vegetables to make digestion easy.  There were a few bizarre vegetables that were unlike anything I have ever seen and honestly not particularly enjoyable. A gelatinous, sticky, gooey okra that prickled my mouth and another stalky vegetable that had to be sucked off of a rigid stalk which I discovered the hard way. The meals didn't come with instructions!  There was an extremely bitter and warty-skinned green vegetable that I could only enjoy when mixed with the boiled beets which were sweet. This vegetable required a softening and opening of the channels to receive it's medicine, otherwise you would probably opt out. The bitter taste itself is associated with detoxification. I discovered that I deplored the idli- a classic south indian cake made of fermented lentils and rice. Very sour and for some reason made me want to gag. Overall it was an adventure and the purity of the food magnified the taste experiences. The meals became the entertainment of the day.

Pancha Karma means "Five Actions". Five different approaches directed toward purifying the seven "dhatus" or tissues that build and support the body. The seven dhatus of the body begin with Rasa- the plasma which is "the juice of life"-proteins, glucose, hormones, electrolytes, clotting factor and CO2, and Rakta which is blood (RBC's and liquid tissue). These are the first two tissues to assimilate the nourishment from the process of digestion. Mamsa (muscle), Meda (fat), Ashti (bones and cartilege), Majja (bone marrow, nerve tissue and connective tissue) and Shukra/Artava (Male and Female Reproductive tissue) are the five tissues that build the body from there.

"The Five Actions of deep cleansing once the body has been properly prepared to receive the appropriate treatment are
Vamana– therapeutic vomiting to remove toxins and excessive Kapha from the stomach.
Vierechana– purgation or laxative therapy to remove ama and excessive Pitta from the small intestines, colon, kidney, stomach, liver, and spleen.
Basti medicated enema to remove excessive Vata from the colon.
Nasya– nasal administration of medication.
Rakta mokshana– purification of the blood is traditionally done in two ways: small amount of blood is withdrawn intravenously (leeches are used) or the blood is cleansed with herbal blood purifiers such as burdock, dandelion, yellow dock, red clover, aloe vera, and manjista."1

Dhanyamla dhara treatment
Diet, ritual, herbs and devotion are part of PK but the other very important component to the process lies in the daily ayurvedic treatment. The treatments are performed by two women at once on a large wooden treatment table with nothing but a loin cloth to cover. As you can imagine, it takes some getting used to. But as time goes on you develop a bond with your personal nurses. Mine were both Indian women, each named Lakshmi.

For the first five days I received a treatment called Dhanyamla Dhara, the pouring of warm herbalized water all over my body out of traditional silver pitchers for a sustained period of 45 minutes. A very soothing process that communicates a deep cellular release but also supplies the physiological effect of quelling inflammation in the body. I received this treatment for three days and then three more in combination with the classical warm oil massage called abhyanga. It was very soothing.

Eventually the treatment shifted to abhyanga in unison with elakizhi, "a massage done with boluses, herbs tied in a linen cloth and heated in sesame oil. The specific herbs have a vata pacifying property are collected freshly. They are chopped and mixed with grated coconut, lemon, turmeric rock salt etc. depending on the condition.The mixture is fried in plain sesame oil or other medicated oil as per the requirement. They are divided into four equal parts and tied in a linen cloth in the form of boluses. These are kept in a vessel containing the oil used to fry the ingredients and the vessel is then heated. An abhyangam (a gentle oil massage) is given for about 10 to 15 minutes.Then the massage is given with warm boluses. The boluses are applied over the body in seven different postures.
  • Improves blood circulation
  • Improves skin complexion
  • Increase  muscle strength
  • Relieves body pain and stiffness
  • It is anti aging and rejuvenating
 This treatment is highly effective in ailments affecting bones, joints and nervous system."2

After each treatment of abhyanga you were sent to the bath were your nurse insisted on bathing you. This was something else to get used to! You submit because the goal of Vaidyagrama is to turn all of your personal energy inward towards the process of healing. You are there to receive completely. Of course no soap was used, all things natural. I was scrubbed down with a natural exfoliant powder- just add water. This was used in the hair as well as all over the body. The hair was never really stripped of all the oil so for three weeks we all had oily hair that just hung down. I learned to love it! It was wonderful for me with long hair to smooth into braids.

It took me a week before I even thought to ask what the scrubbing powder was. It turns out it was green mung beans! In India they are called green gram. Since I have come home I have done some research on the green gram powder and realized it is full of revitalizing vitamins and minerals for the skin and a natural (and cheap) alternative to exfoliate. I now make my own and use it after my personal ritual of abhyanga.

My treatments were geared toward the imbalance of vata (air and space) and pitta (fire and water) dosha in my system. The symptons of the imbalances in my dosha appear as inflamed joints (pitta), early onset osteoarthritis, constipation and dryness of voice and throat (all vata). The preparatory treatments described above - dhanyamla dhara, elahizhi, abhyangam and dinacharya (daily ritual). This led to the peak of the treatment at 14 days. According the the "five actions" everyone's treatment is different. Many people receive the treatment called Vierechana. This is the purgation or cleansing of the GI tract through a process of drinking ghee (clarified butter). It is apparently pretty nauseating. I did not have to drink ghee! Lucky me! On the other hand, my treatment was to experience Basti (also called Vasthi). This is the medicated oil enema. I have never received an enema. I was definitely nervous.

I heard that the common basti treatment was a package of three over three days. The first day was not overly pleasant but relatively gentle. The second day though, was severe. The two treatments were different herbal blends of medicated oil. The first day was clearly prepatory and the real douzy came on the second day. The effect of the medicated oil threw me into a crazy sweat and my whole body flushed red. I was overwhelmed with an asthma attack and then a good 30-40 minutes flushing of the system including a sickening experience of nausea, cramps and purging. It was intense to say the least. I knew for sure that there was no way in hell I could repeat the experience the next day. Fortunately for me - it was deemed enough.

Talking to others that endured basti I believe I was the only one who had this type of experience. Others felt nourished and relieved by the experience. Who knows? I must have had some serious toxic "ama" (residue) to expel. It was an exhausting experience but I survived. There is no doubt something big happened here. The following week is spent in continuance of dinacharya (daily ritual) and abhyanga (oil massage) treatments to support and nourish the process of detoxification and re-building.

Vaidyagrama prides itself on the complete and authentic ayurvedic experience. Clearly the visit here is not directed at the spa seeking type of patient. There are many of these types of ayurvedic spas in southern India. Instead, Vaidyagrama is a true healing village where the physicians deliver their best care according to symptoms and concerns and they are not there just to fulfill the whims of the patient.

The village is self-contained and they request that you do not leave at all during your stay. Not even for a walk outside in the elements. The experience is really designed around pratyahara- one of the eight limbs of yoga that refers to a withdrawal of the senses. This means that there are no distractions, no technology. They ask that you refrain from physical activity. This includes yoga asana because the practices draws energy away from the healing process. They actually prefer that you do nothing at all! Meditation is of course encouraged. I would consider this the advanced practice of pancha karma because to do nothing is advanced. I broke down. I journaled, read three books and painted. I chose spiritually oriented books- the Ramayana and "A New Earth" by one of my favorites, Eckhart Tolle. Otherwise I chose not to engage with others that much. I was pretty unsocial. It took too much energy and I was truly focused on the inner process. It was a wonderful time for deep introspection. I will say this, at one point I wrote in my journal that PK was like being on your death bed re-living your life and choices. In a way my old self was dying. I was in a process of re-birth.

At the end of the 21 days you are sent home with a three months' supply of herbs and oils to continue the process of support. I didn't realize what that meant until I saw the huge box of items to return with! I ended up purchasing a cheap suitcase on the way to the airport and now had an extra bag to haul back to the states which was a little stressful but well worth it.

I was leaving Vaidyagrama to begin a four day process of traversing the world to get home. I felt very raw and sensitive. I would not recommend this type of exit plan to anyone. I would definitely do it differently next time. It was overwhelming to go from this type of seclusion straight into what feels like the madness of the modern world. I survived but it was disappointing to not have control over my food choices as you know how traveling can be.

Now that I'm home I treasure these sacred herbs from the motherland and adore lathering the oils thick with Indian herbs on my body.

People always ask if you feel the results of this treatment in some kind of revelatory way. I did not. I felt vulnerable, unsettled and even depressed for at least two months after my return home. It took a lot of personal processing. It has now been almost three months since I have returned from India and my pancha karma treatment. In the last month I have noticed some amazing shifts in consciousness. I have realized a profound transition in my relationship with myself and life. I am quite sure that I  released some old, self limiting ways of seeing. I am full of gratitude for this illumination, this clarity I have received. My time in India was the greatest gift I could give to myself. I feel blessed and fulfilled. I am discovering what it means to be whole. I feel fragmentation and doubt dissolving. I feel hopeful in all ways.
The final day at Vaidyagrama you get to plant a tree. A seedling to represent this new start. I got to plant a hibiscus bush! How lovely! I hope to return to Vaidyagrama and repeat the pancha karma treatment again. Honestly I would love to repeat it next year. I have heard that three consecutive years of this treatment and you are completely transformed. Of course, even once is a very real experience. I recommend pancha karma to all of you willing to take a deep look at yourself and discover what's really important. You will change. You will.

This last picture is me on my parting day with my physician Dr. HariKrishnan, his assistant, my beautiful neighbor in "the block" Sangeetha, and Rama my good friend.

Ayurveda is to be in tune with nature. To cultivate physical, mental, emotional, social and spiritual well being. As Dr. RamKumar says "Health is a state of bio-physical and physiological well being and is the contented state of consciousness, senses and mind."

Hari OM!

Please visit for more information on this very special place in southern India.



  1. What a great reference, thanks for taking the time to write this up! You're glowing in the photo!

  2. Thanks Robyn!There's some glow going on. :)

  3. Thank you Kristen for illuminating this profound experience. I was your neighbor and was finishing my PK as you arrived. I'm glad you found your experience as profound and life changing ad I did. You and I had completely different treatments and yet I totally identify with everything you wrote. I wish I could have written about it so well! You have painted a precise and accurate picture of the Vaidyagrama experience. Much gratitude!!!

    1. Thanks for reading Sharon! It was pretty special to share the block. ;) I hope you are well and thriving. To health, happiness and clarity! much love.