In 2011, I was able to take time out and commit fully to the process. At the juncture of the monsoon and the dry season in Goa, I began a 35-day Panchakarma. Goa is beautiful this time of year. The flora is lush and green, the temperature is cool and comfortable and there are no tourists…yet, so it is very quiet. I received treatment at a small Ayurveda center tucked away in the peaceful Portuguese* village of Assagoa, the perfect setting to undergo the process of Panchakarma.
“Panchakarma is a rebirth,” said Vijay, my Ayurvedic practitioner, and the founder of Ayurma. “At the end of the process you will be pure, like a newborn baby” Vijay smiled. Before accepting anyone for Panchakarma he interviews them to confirm the person is emotionally and mentally ready, as well as committed. Additionally, potential clients meet with the center’s Ayurvedic doctor, who conducts a physical exam.
I was deemed ‘ready’ by Vijay and the doctor, but after our meeting I knew that I was embarking on a much deeper journey than I initially realized. I felt excited about the weeks ahead, but also nervous, questioning whether I was disciplined enough to see the process through. At that time in my life, I relied upon caffeine as a stimulant, and of course this was something I would need to give up immediately. I had tried eliminating caffeine from my diet before and suffered intense headaches and cravings. Vijay pointed out that if a substance controls you, you must give it up, but if you can control the substance, it is no problem. Also, the thought of eating a bland diet for 35 days felt depressing. What overshadowed these fears was the promise of Panchakarma creating balance within my body, mind, heart and spirit. With the busyness of modern life, Panchakarama felt like a direct path to peace within.
My Panchakarma began the next morning without my usual cup of black tea, but rather sips of warm water. Zarina and Seja, my Ayurvedic therapists, warmly greeted me. I followed them into a candlelit treatment room where I was given a cotton towel to change into. Zarina motioned for me to take a seat on a low, wooden stool. I did, and then she stood behind me and placed her hands over my heart. Like an angel, she chanted a mantra, and when finished, stood in silence, meditating.
While seated, Zarina massaged my head, neck, shoulders and back, and then asked me to lie down onto a massage table made from karaskara wood, which helps to withdraw impurities from the body. In tandem, the women gave me an abhyanga massage. After, I climbed into what looked like a coffin, with my head protruding from one end, for a steam bath. Following that, I showered, using chickpea flour to remove excess oil. Then, I rested in the waiting room.
Sometime later, my therapists came in holding a bundle of burning sage and carrying a tray with a cup of bitter ghee, which contained a decoction of more than 50 herbs. Gently, Zarina placed cotton in my nostrils and Seja blindfolded me. I was handed the warm ghee and asked to drink it. I’d always liked the taste of ghee, but drinking it was very different – even with the scent of sage, a blindfold and cotton in my nose, it was very difficult to swallow. After drinking the ghee, I took rest. Even though I had a deep desire to lie down and sleep, I was asked not to. I was tired, a sign that the detoxification process had begun. Vijay said, “If you lie down, it will confuse your body. You must rest sitting, so that your body can digest the ghee.” After two hours of relaxing on the garden’s covered terrace and watching the monsoon rains, a thin rice soup was served for lunch. Vijay explained that no spices or flavoring would be used in the food I was eating. He said that today, our sense of taste is overloaded with sodium and chemical flavorings because of the high consumption of processed foods and dining out. One of the many gifts of Panchakarma is that your sense of taste is restored.
In Ayurveda philosophy, doctors, practitioners and therapists take an oath to care for their patients the way a devoted mother would care for her child. This was certainly true in my experience. Every day of my Panchakarama began with being lovingly greeted by my therapists and given a series of Ayurvedic treatments to prepare my body to release toxins, or ama. This preparation, or Purvakarama, is a process of snehana, saturating the body internally and externally with oil, as well as swedana, or therapeutic heat through full body steam (with exception of the head, which must be kept cool). Purvakarama is essential, because if the body is not properly prepared, ama lodged deep within the tissues will not be removed when the five actions of Panchakarma are administered.
After eight days of ingesting medicated ghee and receiving massage, Vijay told me I showed signs of complete internal and external oleation and was ready to receive the first action, Vamana, or vomiting therapy. My Ayurvedic constitution is Pitta-Kapha, and Vamana would address any Kapha-related imbalances.
Ayurveda teaches that each one of us is a microcosm of the macrocosm, or in other words, we are a reflection of the world we live in. Our bodies, minds, spirits and hearts are made up of the Five Great Elements that we experience in our environment: Space, Air, Fire, Water and Earth. Kapha, comprised of Water and Earth, gives fluidity to our body, as well as structure and stability. Pitta, comprised of Fire and Water, allows us to digest everything – food, thoughts and what we take in visually. Vata, comprised of Space and Air, gives movement, lightness and freedom to the body.
The night before Vamana, I was given a sweet porridge made from milk and wheat. Before bed, I took an herb called Vacha, to stimulate my stomach secretions. The next morning, over the course of about an hour, I drank four liters of fresh, medicated milk. The milk tasted sweet, and I felt relaxed. Zarina and Seja sat with me, gently rubbing my back and encouraging me to continue drinking the milk. Once finished, I sat with my eyes closed and waited. After sometime, I felt the urge to vomit. Surprisingly, the vomiting was effortless, there was no nausea, and it passed within a few moments. Afterward, I felt so light and mentally aware. My heart was lighter too, as if a sheath was removed.
For a few days following Vamana, I returned to a schedule of abhyanga, swedana, rest and lunch. Then it was time for the next action, Virechana, or purgation, which cleanses the small intestine. Virechana alleviates Pitta imbalances. The purgation process begins with a meal, time for digestion and then a purgative is given. The urge to move my bowels came, and after eight movements, the therapy was complete. Physically, I felt clean and strong. Virechana, was a turning point for me. I was nearly halfway through the Panchakarma process, and the days seem to be melting away.
It was at this time too that I reflected on how easily I had given up caffeine, without a single side effect. When you maintain a Sattvic, or pure, lifestyle, unhealthy habits fall away effortlessly. I was so supported by Vijay, who took time every day to sit with me. He always asked how I was doing and would share much about Ayurvedic philosophy and the process I was undergoing. I was cared for so beautifully by the therapists and other staff at Ayurma. Additionally, I practiced gentle yoga and pranayama, as well as meditation.
During the process, I had deep insights. I surrendered many old beliefs and emotions that I recognized didn’t served me. Anger, hurt and grievances I’d held onto for years literally dissolved. I could feel myself becoming lighter, cleaner, clearer and kinder by the day.
Basti, the third action, was profound. On alternating days, I received herbal oil and water enemas. Basti lasted for 12 days and helped to relieve my Vata imbalances, especially my anxiety and restlessness. I felt the deepest sense of calm following Basti. I wasn’t in a hurry to go anywhere or to do anything. I was more mindful, thoughtful and moved more slowly. Living in this world of haste, I realized how I had gotten so caught up in my own busyness. Basti helped me question why I felt the need to be busy all of the time. There actually wasn’t a good answer, and that realization changed the way I approached life.
With the end of Basti was the return to abhyanga and swedana, which was immensely nurturing and relaxing. After some days, Nasya, the fourth action of clearing the region of my head, was administered. Nasya was the most difficult for me, but it was also the most powerful. With the application of medicated oil into my nasal passages, Seja would vigorously massage my sinuses. It was somewhat painful, but also invigorating. The hard part was forcefully blowing the oil out. Although I wasn’t congested, during this process I removed so much mucous that it seemed as though I had a really bad head and chest cold. I understood that the ama was lodged deep within my tissues, and the process of removing it felt so freeing. Nasya lasted for eight days. As the days unfolded, my eyesight improved – everything seemed brighter and more colorful. I experienced immense clarity and a heightened sense of intuition, and I could breathe deeply and fully with ease.
Now the end of my Panchakarma was approaching. The last day of my treatment was the fifth action, Raktamoksha, or therapeutic withdrawal of the blood. As I rested on the massage table, Seja placed two leeches low on my right leg. Easily the leeches attached, and as they did I felt a slight prick on my skin. Raktamoksha took an hour and a half, and I watched with curiosity as the leeches’ bodies expanded, becoming full with impurities from my blood. The session ended as the leeches became completely satiated and naturally fell from my leg.
As they dropped off, I realized my Panchakarma was complete, and I was forever changed. In that moment, I felt a wave of emotion. I was so grateful to the wisdom of Ayurveda, as well as to Vijay and my therapists for their loving care for the past five weeks.
Panchakarama was the greatest gift I’ve ever given myself. Physically, I felt and looked different. The lines of stress on my face disappeared. I lost the excess weight I was carrying. My hair and skin glowed. I felt fully alive with renewed vigor and creativity – everything seemed possible. My mind was bright and my heart full of joy. Vijay was right, I felt anew and pure, as if I’d been reborn. Today, more than two years later, I still feel the effects of the process. Vijay said that Panchakarma would continue to unfold within me for the rest of my life – I believe that’s true. Panchakarama is the gift you give to yourself that keeps on giving.
*A colony of Portugal for 451 years, Goa was liberated in December 1961.