Panchakarma is a unique detoxification therapy in Ayurveda that should be on everyone’s bucket list. A Sanskrit word that means “five actions,” Panchakarma refers to the five different actions or procedures used in this comprehensive detoxification process.
It’s difficult to describe all the benefits of Panchakarma because the physical, emotional, mental and even spiritual shifts you may experience can be deep and profound. It is more than a way to just eliminate accumulated toxins and impurities from the body. Panchakarma also helps to reset the mind and shift your perspective of every aspect of your life—family, work, spirituality, finances, etc.
The reason Panchakarma is so powerful is because it helps to remove the blocks that prevent the natural flow of energy in our bodies and minds. As these blocks are opened, we are able to spontaneously shift in multiple areas of life simultaneously.
This is why Panchakarma has been a regular part of my health maintenance for over three decades. It’s an annual investment in myself that continues to give great returns.
Intensive Detox Is Needed Now More Than Ever
Detoxification is critical for physical and mental health, more so now than ever before in the past. Our modern world is filled with chemical toxins that we simply cannot escape—they are in our food, water, air, clothes, furniture, personal care items, dishes, etc. You may be shocked to learn, as I was, that the majority of chemicals we are exposed to on a daily basis have never been tested to be safe for humans.
Many of these chemicals are classified as persistent organic pollutants (POPs), “persistent” meaning they can last in the environment—and in our bodies—for years before breaking down. POPs are fat-soluble, so they are stored in fatty tissues where they can become highly concentrated. Once they get into our fat cells, these chemicals get trapped deep within our organs and tissues and are extremely hard to get out. This inordinate exposure to environmental toxins is seeding disease on an unprecedented scale.
Nature is very intelligent, and like all natural systems—rivers, lakes, forests, mountains, etc.—our bodies have innate processes for removing waste material and staying in balance. However, when toxins build up to levels beyond the biological norm, they overwhelm our natural ability to clear them. The resulting accumulation of toxic waste materials in the body and mind is called ama.
Ama is the seed for future disease because this buildup of harmful substances blocks the normal flow of nutrition and energy and prevents healthy functioning of our cells and organs. One of the main goals of Panchakarma is to remove ama from the body and mind.
What Does Panchakarma Do for the Body?
Panchakarma has been clinically proven to remove the industrial debris that is hidden deep within our tissues. As these toxins are cleared away, the root causes of physical and mental illness are permanently removed.
My favorite aspect of Panchakarma is that it goes further than other detox programs because it digs deep down into and releases fat-soluble toxins. In one study, researchers tested the effects of five days of Panchakarma on blood levels of PCBs and beta-HCH—highly toxic endocrine-disrupting and carcinogenic POPs. These fat-soluble chemicals are among the most dangerous and difficult to remove, and they normally remain in the body for a lifetime. The best degree of natural clearance that could be expected in five days is about 1%.
When the study participants were retested after five days of receiving Panchakarma, PCB and beta-HCH levels were reduced by an astounding 46%–48%. No other detoxification method has been scientifically verified to reduce fat-soluble toxins in the human body to this extent in such a short period without causing negative side effects.
Panchakarma’s ability to rapidly remove toxic compounds helps to reverse the chronic physical and mental health issues that result from an accumulation of chemicals in the body and mind. It also helps balance the doshas—Vata, Pitta and Kapha, the dynamic energies that govern our minds and bodies—by removing excess doshas that cause imbalances and ill health.
Through this process, Panchakarma purifies the physical body at a very deep level. It is a rejuvenating program that leads to a shift in health and consciousness, often resulting in a renewed, more positive perspective on life.
What is your dosha? Find out now by taking the dosha quiz
Who Should Try Panchakarma?
How do you know if you should consider a Panchakarma program? The body and mind have a way of informing us that things may be a little off. Signs that there is an accumulation of ama include:
- Body aches
- Brain fog
- Bad breath or body odor
- Digestive issues
- Tiredness or exhaustion, especially after eating or shortly after awakening
- Intense mood swings
- Unresponsive weight gain
- Excessive hair loss
- Premature aging
- Chronic disease of any kind
If you notice any of these, or if you have a chronic condition, Panchakarma can gently lead you back to better health. But you don’t have to be sick to benefit. If you’re already pretty healthy, the treatments will only help you become stronger, healthier and more energized. Disease prevention is incredibly important, and Panchakarma is an excellent way to keep your body in a state of balance that can help protect against all types of maladies.
Although Panchakarma is one of the safest types of treatment, it isn’t for everyone at all stages of life.
Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should delay receiving Panchakarma. Some of therapies may not be suitable for people who are in a very frail physical condition, unstable mental health state or elderly. Individuals with serious chronic diseases should consult an Ayurvedic physician to find out if this treatment is appropriate for them.
How Often Should You Get Panchakarma Treatments?
Traditionally, detoxification programs take place with the change of seasons because these seasonal transitions often lead to imbalances and accumulation of ama. Doing Panchakarma once a year during one of these seasonal transitions is ideal.
But you can do it any time you feel out of sorts, sick or simply need a reset.
Where Can You Get Panchakarma?
Panchakarma is offered at many Ayurvedic clinics and health centers in India and at a growing number of places in the United States. To learn more, ask your Ayurvedic practitioner for a referral, or search online for a Panchakarma facility near you.
How Is Panchakarma Done?
Panchakarma takes place over several days so that your body can rest and process the entire experience. It’s a time of emotional, mental, spiritual as well as physical cleansing, so it is important to take a break from work and family responsibilities that make it difficult for your mind to settle into a place of silence and reflection.
During Panchakarma, you will eat a therapeutic vegetarian diet prepared with spices that support digestion, gut health and detoxification. Typical foods include vegetables, legumes, rice, whole grains and kitcheri, a traditional Indian porridge made with rice and lentils that promotes cleansing and healing.
Panchakarma is highly individualized and is adjusted throughout the course of your treatment according to the changes that your body and mind undergo. Every step of Panchakarma is meant to restore your body’s innate healing ability.
Even after completing Panchakarma, the body and mind continue to heal and reboot for the following three months, which is why I recommend that whenever possible to make the three months after Panchakarma more restful and inward focused as possible. It’s an exquisite process of creating an entirely new vibrational setpoint for your life.
The Five Actions of Panchakarma
As mentioned earlier, there are five “actions” or therapeutic approaches of Panchakarma that help to reverse the negative tendencies in the body and mind through purification. An Ayurvedic physician will typically focus on one to three of these actions, depending on your unique needs.
- Vamana: Therapeutic emesis (vomiting) helps to remove toxins for the stomach and intestines and balance kapha. It is particularly effective for the treatment of skin diseases.
- Virechana: Therapeutic purgation (bowel cleanse) is good for a number of conditions because it helps to balance all three doshas by pulling out toxins from the colon and intestines. The pitta dosha responds particularly well to virechana, which is why it is often used for skin conditions as well as liver problems.
- Vasti: Therapeutic enemas are great for balancing vata. Because vastis remove accumulated toxins in the colon and rectum—the home of much of your gut microbiome—they help with many different conditions. The vata dosha oftentimes moves another dosha out of balance, creating systemic disease, so vastis are a very common procedure in Panchakarma. There are two general types: anuvasana vasti, a smaller medicated oil enema, and niruha vasti, a larger medicated herbal decoction enema. Sometimes the two are used jointly. These enemas are good for numerous conditions, including general relaxation of the mind, mood disorders, neurological conditions, arthritic conditions, chronic pain, weakness and chronic constipation.
- Nasya: Nasal irrigation using Ayurvedic herbalized oils is an important therapy for directing herbs to the central nervous system and opening the channels to the mind. Nasya helps with headaches, spinal cord problems, mood disorders and a large variety of neurological conditions, as well as ear, nose and throat disorders.
- Rakta Mokshana: Therapeutic bloodletting helps to remove highly imbalanced pitta that is presenting an immediate threat to the patient. Although it is used less frequently today, in the past this procedure played a prominent role in treating acute, urgent conditions caused by excess pitta. It is also used for chronic skin issues.
Supportive Panchakarma Treatments
There are also many supportive treatments that help the body move toxins out, reduce any excess doshas and address any focal issues that may be present:
- Abhyanga: A full-body massage with medicated oils specific to your dosha, abhyanga is sometimes followed by svedana, a steam therapy.
- Pizhichili: During pizhichili, the entire body is bathed in streams of medicated lukewarm oil with simultaneous massage.
- Udwarthanam: This deep tissue dry massage, using herbal powders rubbed in upward strokes in the opposite direction of the hair follicles, helps to reduce excess kapha.
- Shirodhara: Shirodhara involves the slow and steady dripping of medicated oil or other healing liquids such as milk, coconut water or buttermilk onto the forehead. It helps to deeply relax the mind by gently activating the third eye, which allows the subconscious mind to release negative thought patterns. People often fall asleep during this treatment and when they awaken feel like they have come out of a deep meditative state.
- Ela Kizhi: This treatment is prepared with medicinal leaves that have vata-pacifying properties. The leaves are combined with other ingredients, depending on the condition, and fried in medicated oil. The mixture is then placed in a cloth and made into poultices, which are warmed to a specific temperature and rubbed over the body.
- Podi Kizhi: Poultices made of medicated powders, warmed and applied to the body, are used in Podi Hizhi. In some cases, medicated oils may be applied to the body prior to treatment.
- Navara Kizhi: This is a special therapy that is prepared from Navara rice, a particular grain of rice with medicinal properties that is indigenous to the Kerala area of India. The rice is combined with specific herbs and made into poultices, which are warmed and used to massage the entire body.
Additional Panchakarma Therapies for Specific Health Concerns
In addition to these supportive therapies, local therapies may be offered to help treat specific areas that need extra attention.
- Bhaya Vasti: This treatment involves the placement of lukewarm oil over a particular area of the body for a prolonged period. The oil is enclosed in a homemade circular container made of black gram flour paste, which allows the medicated oil to deeply penetrate to the muscles or organs being treated. Types of bhaya vasti include:
- Kati vasti targets the lower back.
- Greeva vasti targets the neck and shoulders.
- Jaanu vasti targets the knees.
- Shiro vasti targets the head.
- Pichu: In a pichu treatment, a long, thick cloth is soaked in warm medicated oil and applied to specific areas of the body to help relieve joint/back pain, soft tissue injuries, etc.
- Upanaham: Another therapy for localized pain, upanaham uses a specially prepared medicated herbal paste that is applied to affected areas, then wrapped with leaves of medicinal plants or with a special cloth.
- Thala Pothichili: Thala pothichili consists of the application of medicated paste on the head. This is a cooling treatment for the head and helps to correct an imbalance of pitta in the mind. It also activates specific Varma (energy points) on the scalp.
- Padabhyanga: Ayurvedic foot massage is a soothing, revitalizing, calming and balancing therapy for a variety of disturbances of the nervous system. Padabhyanga stimulates Varma points on the feet that directly benefit the entire body and mind.
What Should You Expect During and After Panchakarma?
Everyone’s experience varies but physical symptoms, which are related to where your toxins are stored, generally start within the first three to five days. For example, people who tend to have headaches may experience an increase in headaches the first few days, and those who have skin conditions may notice flareups as the local toxins are getting mobilized for excretion. Some people, however, notice an immediate relief in these physical symptoms once the treatments begin.
The emotional and mental detoxification process often begins during the fifth to seventh days of treatment. As the channels of the physical body begin to open, this allows unprocessed emotions and thoughts to also be “digested.”
People are sometimes caught off guard by the strength of these symptoms and their abrupt onset. Some report that, despite spending many years working on psychological themes in their lives, they are surprised that they arise so vividly during the process of Panchakarma. This is because the simultaneous opening of the physical channels that occurs provides a deeper state of detoxification of the mind that may not be accessible with other therapeutic modalities.
This process of release can include sudden feelings of frustration, anger, vulnerability, grief, sadness, fear, abandonment, etc. As the physical body begins to remove toxins, old emotional and mental patterns are able to come to the surface to be processed. This psychological upheaval is a powerful sign that the treatments are working.
I have found that for individuals who are participating in Panchakarma for the first time, the physical, emotional and mental symptoms of detoxification may be more significant than for those who partake in it more regularly.
Your body and mind continue to find a new setpoint for up to three months after completing Panchakarma. During these additional three months of detoxification, you will continue to take herbs recommended by your Ayurvedic physician.
For at least the first month you should stay on a Panchakarma vegetarian diet of unprocessed whole foods that are easy to digest and not too spicy. The diet also includes eating light at dinnertime and finishing the consumption of all food before the sun sets. If you’re not already involved in a meditation process, this is a great time to start one to help your mind continue to rebalance and release negative thought patterns.
Seeds of Wisdom
I pray daily that one day, perhaps within our grandchildren’s lifetime, our environment will be clean again, our water will be safe and our food will be free of unnatural chemicals. Until then, we all need to find a way to remove the buildup of toxins that are constantly bombarding us. That is why I believe Panchakarma should be on everyone’s bucket list—and covered by every medical insurance company.
Panchakarma does so many good things for you. It relaxes you, it makes your skin glow, it boosts your mood, it improves your agni (your digestive fire) and it gives you a way to change the course of chronic disease that is nurturing to the body, mind and spirit. Because Panchakarma reduces measurable amounts of environmental toxins from your body, it is an excellent therapy for treating and preventing disease and engendering overall health and well-being. For instance, research has revealed an improvement in cardiovascular risk factors after Panchakarma, and people who have undergone this therapy have demonstrated an improved ability to make behavior changes three months after the treatments.
Panchakarma is one of the most nourishing, loving, and profound processes for healing. This great treasure from the past has been kept alive for thousands of years and continues to be offered throughout the world today. It is a path of self-discovery and transformation that allows you to take back control of your health at a time when we cannot control all the chemicals in our environment.
In short, Panchakarma is a gift beyond measure!