Blue Lotus Ayurveda Newsletter

What Is Panchakarma?

September 2005

Panchakarma is Ayurveda's unique deep cleansing and rejuvenation program. Panch means "five" and karma means "action." Panchakarma consists of five therapeutic actions or treatments that are specific methods to safely and effectively remove ama (toxins) from different areas of the organism.

Panchakarma is very unique in that it is tailored to meet each person's needs depending on their constitution and imbalances. The therapies involved in this program work to loosen ama (toxins) from the deep tissues and then remove it through the natural channels of elimination. Before you undertake the process of panchakarma, a skilled Ayurvedic clinician must assess your specific situation and determine both constitution and current state of doshas, as well as which tissues, channels and organs are involved in any health issues that may need to be addressed. Panchakarma is a specialized set of therapies that should not be done without the proper clinical training.

There are three phases of panchakarma: The preliminary therapies, called Purvakarma; the five main therapies of Panchakarma (vamana, nasya, virechan, raktamokshana and basti); and post-treatment procedures called Paschatkarma. Both pre- and post-panchakarma procedures are essential to the success and long lasting effects of the panchakarma program.

Purvakarma Therapies

These therapies serve to prepare the body to get rid of stored ama (toxins). Snehana (oleation) is the first step, and it consists of saturating the body with herbal or medicated oils both internally and externally. Internal oleation helps to loosen ama and move it from deeper tissues into the GI tract where the main therapies can eliminate it. External oleation consists of abhyanga, or vigorous massage over the whole body with medicated oils. The choice of oils depends on the particular needs and doshic imbalance of the individual.

Swedana (literally "sweat") follows abhyanga. The main objective of this therapy is to dilate the channels so that the removal of ama can be more easily achieved. There are various swedana treatments that can also be used as adjunct therapies during panchakarma, but the most commonly used during purvakarma is Bashpa swedana, which applies steam evenly to the whole body (with the exception of the head) with the use of a sweatbox. This method is used to further detoxify the body after abhyanga. It is usually followed by herbal plasters and poultices called lepa, to help draw toxins out of the pores of the skin.

Lastly, purvakarma uses shirodhara. According to Ayurveda, deep relaxation provides an environment where imbalances can be overcome and where it is easier to restore the harmony and functional integrity of the doshas. Shirodhara is a subtle and profound therapy that pacifies vata dosha, calms and nourishes the central nervous system, promotes relaxation and tranquility, and improves mental clarity and comprehension.

The basic idea behind the function of purvakarma therapies is to oil the body inside and out so as to allow the ama, which has a sticky quality and lodges in the tissues, to move freely and be expelled. It is similar to oiling a bowl thoroughly and then pouring honey into it. The slippery quality of the oil does not allow the honey to stick to the bowl anymore, so the honey can be poured out of the bowl easily.

More about purvakarma therapies

Panchakarma Therapies

After snehana, swedana and shirodhara have been performed, ama is back in the GI tract and can be removed from there with the main panchakarma therapies: Vamana, nasya, virechan, raktamokshana and basti. Each of these therapies promote the removal of ama through the normal channels of elimination, either moving it upward, downward or through the skin. The Ayurvedic clinician will assess your specific imbalances and decide which therapies should be employed, depending on which doshas, tissues and organs are involved and where has ama lodged.

Vamana is very useful for serious kapha conditions. Nasya removes ama from the nasal passages, ears and eyes, and cleanses and opens the channels of the head, improving the oxygenation of the brain. Virechan cleanses the small intestine and pitta related organs, removing ama and excess pitta from the body and balancing all metabolic functions. Raktamokshana is used to remove excess pitta-related ama from the blood, and may be used for certain blood-related and skin conditions. Basti (herbal enema) is probably the most powerful of all five karmas. Its goal is the purification and rejuvenation of the colon. Since it balances and nurtures vata dosha, basti has a wide-ranging influence in the body and affects all the doshas, channels and tissues.

Common enemas and colonics can help cleanse the colon, but the main difference is that they do not nourish the tissues and they only remove what is present in the colon. According to Ayurveda, repeated flushing of water with colonic therapy may weaken the mucous membrane, wash away beneficial bacteria and dry the colon, further disrupting the eliminative function of vata. When basti karma is used in conjunction with purvakarma therapies, it not only cleanses the colon, but it also helps nourish all tissues and remove toxins from the whole body.

More about panchakarma therapies

Diet & Lifestyle Changes

During this time, it is essential to put aside the usual preoccupations with work and family and devote yourself to rest as much as possible, both physically and mentally. Surround yourself with a pleasant environment, reduce sensory input and avoid experiences that provoke strong emotions or stress. Yoga and meditation are highly recommended at this time. This is an essential aspect of panchakarma, since it will help the detoxification process go deeper.

The diet prescribed during treatment is also a key element and should consist of small amounts of kitchari (a nourishing and cleansing porridge made with mung beans, basmati rice, medicinal spices and ghee) to provide the body with enough nutrition to keep it strong. You are detoxing, so saving and restoring your energy is very important. Ayurveda discourages long term fasting because the sudden onslaught of ama that can flood the system from fasting for more than a few days is often too drastic and can damage the tissues, weaken the digestion and have long term health repercussions.

Paschatkarma & Rasayana

The procedures that follow the main therapies of panchakarma, called paschatkarma, are aimed at assisting the body in the re-establishment of healthy metabolism and immunity. If these post-treatment procedures are neglected, the digestion may not normalize and the production of ama may continue. So after the program is over, it is advised to maintain the same type of diet and to gradually add vegetables and other foods. It is also very important to return to regular activities gradually, because the body is in a sensitive and somewhat vulnerable state at this time. This is also the time for rasayana (rejuvenation), which is achieved with the use of herbal preparations that increase the vitality and energy, and nourish and rejuvenate the entire organism. The Ayurvedic specialist will give you specific guidelines for dinacharya, or daily routine, as well as other seasonal recommendations for after panchakarma.

Vata Management

Because vata dosha initiates and drives all physiological movements, including that of the other doshas, it is considered in Ayurveda to be the main player in all the bodily processes. So, managing the functioning of vata is one of the main objectives in panchakarma and is a good preventative measure in our daily life. For this reason, any of the therapies mentioned here can be used individually or in combination as a vata management program. Vata management is especially recommended after panchakarma, but it can be done at any time to maintain health and prevent disease.

Contact us to receive a panchakarma brochure, to schedule a panchakarma program, or if you have any questions about it.

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