Getting Started With Dinacharya and Panchakarma
Reflecting on the last few years, I have been thinking about how I started learning about Ayurveda to begin with. I had a series of health issues that seem to be compounded by the state of my mental health. A friend had given me an Ayurvedic cookbook, years before, that I held onto. When my life had taken a turn for the worse and everything felt upside down, I remember reading through the first part of that book. There were no tips or quick fixes that you would expect in most books like that. Just information about the three doshas, Vata, Pitta, and Kapha. It explained the energetic composition of these three body types and what makes sense for overall health, followed by some recipes and healthy nutrition. That was my first intro to Ayurveda and it stuck.
Like many, I spent a lot of time getting on and off meds that didn’t help me understand why I had been sick in the first place and I wasn’t getting any better. A few things did start to add up for me: I grew up in California and Colorado, spending a lot of time in nature. I lost that connection over the years with my move to places like New York City and work in the corporate culture. I stopped spending time outside. I started working more hours in the day than I was sleeping. And sleep- what was that? I slept 4-5 hours with bedtime that was all over the place. I stopped cooking my own meals, skipped breakfast most days, ate at my desk– for lunch and most dinners. Luckily the part of working in big cities that is beneficial is movement. I walked all over the place. I don’t know that all the running around and that striving got me anywhere, but sicker. The farther down this road I went, the more I forgot who I am and the worse I felt.
I was so lost that having a series of injuries and my general health falling apart wasn’t quite enough for me to wake up. After a serious car accident, I had to take a sabbatical from my career in advertising. Sometimes when it seems like life is falling apart it’s actually falling together and happens for us. Fortunately, I found myself on a new path, immersed nature and all of its resources. I developed a regime of getting outside, moving my body, yoga, Ayurveda, and plant medicine. And as I researched alternative methods of wellness and indigenous healing practices, I discovered an unlimited wealth of natural healing from Mother Earth and ultimately within myself.
This new path started with my own version of an at home detox, later to find out how much I had to learn. I, along with most people, have gone to extremes in the past with fasting, laxatives, enemas, colonics, and diuretics to try to expel toxins from my body. I usually ended up loosing essential nutrients without getting at the inflammation and congestion that was making me sick. I realized just how little I knew about the entire process. I began learning how to detox with Ayurveda.
Panchakarma literally means five actions. Purging and letting go could also be used to describe what this ancient natural detox method is used to achieve. Panchakarma therapy is a series of procedures used for over 5,000 to reduce the accumulation of toxins in our system, seasonal health maintenance and rejuvenation therapy.
Unhealthy choices that throw off rhythms, normally in sync with nature, along with todays hectic lifestyles, inevitably means that our bodies are exposed to substances they are not equipped to deal with–even toxic. The accumulated toxins are a result of poor diet, lifestyle, and lack of emotional and spiritual well being. My overall well being had been affected by the build up of metabolic products that are also known as “ama” in Ayurveda.
From an Ayurvedic prospective the toxic build up that occurs inhibits the free flow of energy in the body. In my case I was tired all the time, not functioning well at all and had an over lack of interest in life. The consequence of my equilibrium being disturbed involved many illnesses I suffered from: including PTSD, ADHD, endometriosis, anemia, depression, and chronic back pain, to name a few. All of which, there is no coincidence that there was a connection to with my lifestyle and the residue of toxins that had accumulated over time.
Based on the central concepts of Ayurveda, Panchakarma suggests that illness is not caused by the build up toxins, but through the imbalances in both the mind and body. The treatments are intended to be done in order, with one step supporting the next. I used a lot of short cuts that didn’t give me the outcome I hoped, but did get me on a path to want to learn what to do next which I will describe in this article.
Panchakarma includes three stages to get to the root of the toxic buildup.
- Pre-cleansing and preliminary stage is using oil and sweating methods. (Snehana and Svedhana) [often used throughout the year as general maintenance and preventive program]
- Primary purification practices using purgation with enemas, vomiting, and nasal therapy.
- Post Panchakarma employing rejuvenation and detoxification.
Pre-Cleansing, aka, Purvakarma
This is the preparatory phase before Panchakarma begins. The goal is to prepare the body tissues for cleansing and release through diet. One to three weeks before one should eliminate all processed foods, caffeine, sugar, and dairy. One week before the diet continues to be modified to veggies and grains in a porridge called Kitchadi. These foods create a more alkaline environment in the body, which supports the cleansing process.
During this phase, activity in the mind should also begin to become more internally focused. This means we must spend more time connecting with nature by walking, swimming, or other activities that promote quiet reflection. Deep breathing and focused letting go of what is no longer serving you helps to prepare the body of blockages.
The next phase is often a liquid fast to be done the day before beginning the actual Panchakarma. A tea is made from cumin, coriander, fennel, ginger, black pepper and drunk throughout the day. Often it is advised to begin the day with one to two teaspoons of ghee in hot water to assist in releasing toxins.
And in the last preparatory phase, there is a return to the simple diet of the first phase which is eating the diet of Kitchadi followed by Snehana (Oleation) and Svedhana (Sweating).
Warm medicinal oils are applied all over the body. I personally use refined sesame oil (good for all body types) and Mahanarayan oil (helps with intense pain in the tissues). There are other recommended medicinal herbs and combinations of oil, made special for an individuals needs. The intake of ghee with medicinal herbs is also recommended. Oils help to loosen toxins in the skin and the blood in the outer disease pathway. This dislodges sticky, hard to remove areas and gets to the smallest channels. At this point the toxins begin to drain from the deeper tissues and start to move through the GI tract. As everything activates, this enables transport of ama and wastes as they return to the GI tract for elimination. The purpose of using oil is to lubricate tissues so flow is easier without further damage during the process.
Sweating therapies are to heat to the body. The main purpose isn’t just to sweat. It’s to dilate the body’s channels so that the objective of the first stage of oleation is more easily achieved. The heat allows the skin and the blood to be cleansed while restoring balance. Once the toxins are back in the GI tract they are ready to be completely released from the body. Some ways heat is used to continue the process are, internal (e.g., spicy herbs) and external (e.g., jacuzzi, sauna, steam room)
Process of Panchakarma: Five procedures
Panchakarma is a cleansing process that restores the body to it’s natural equilibrium.These step procedures help to cleanse the gastrointestinal track, esophagus, respiratory tract, and blood from unwanted substances.
1. Vamana (emesis-vomiting therapies)
2. Virchana (purgation)
3. Basti (herbal medicated enemas)
4. Nasya (Medicated Nasal Oils)
5. Raktomokshana (Bloodletting-phlebotomy).
Unique to Ayurveda, this process of expelling toxins from the body, begins with first loosening up what’s lodged in the tissues. This allows the toxins to return to their original sites in the gastrointestinal tract. Once there, they can be expelled through the five Panchakarma methods. This is the part of the process that was new to me. I had done other detoxes that seemed to return me to my previous state soon after returning to my same habits- even if my diet was better, skipping this first part of the plan seemed to leave a lot of toxins in place that keep returning me to the same place.
Vamana is a guided purgation in which the accumulated toxins are expelled through vomiting. It’s best to practice during early summer and close to full moon when the water element is high (Kapha time). After Snehana and Svedhana are completed, you have had a good sleep and food is digested in the early morning after sunrise. On the evening before, the client is fed a Kapha stimulating meal consisting of sweet, heavy, cooling, dense unctuous foods, followed by a low dose of calamus to stimulated the stomach. In the morning, when the procedure begins, you drink a milk porridge with the selected emetic and a cup of warm licorice tea. The whole procedure lasts about an hour. Indications for Vamana are Kapha disorders such as asthma, obesity, most lung disorders, acute fevers, anorexia, eczema and viral disorders. Vamana essentially helps remove excess kapha.
Literally meaning the expulsion of Doshas through the anal passage. Purgatives eliminate excess Pitta from their site in the liver, gall bladder, and small intestine. The time of purgation is after Vamana and after 9am in the morning(end of Kapha time). Again after Snehana and Svedhana are completed, Virechena is performed.. Virechana is a specific therapy for Pitta and liver disorders. Indications include: fever, skin diseases, inflammation, headaches, constipation, anorexia, asthma, cough, jaundice gout, indigestion, GI disorders and edema.
Basti (medicated herbal enema) therapy is primarily used. Basti is the Sanskrit name for urinary bladder. Though basti imparts a direct effect on the colon (if that is the site of administration), it’s influence is far reaching to rest of the body and organs. Since the colon is related to other organs and tissues, when the colon is cleansed and toned, the entire body is healed and rejuvenated. A healthy functioning colon absorbs nutrients and is imperative for overall health. General indications for Niruha Basti are retention of fluids, loss of strength, dosha deficiency, fever, splenetic diseases, abnormal inflammation, headache, stiffness, and gout.
Raktamoksha or bloodletting is the traditional Ayurvedic method for purification and cleansing the blood. It involves releasing toxic blood from various body sites. In India leeches are used for healing localized areas,” similar to “wet cupping” methods where the therapist uses a scalpel to make light cuts and draw blood. Donating blood is antother method here in the west to purify the blood.
Toxins present in the GI tract are absorbed into the blood and circulated throughout the body. This condition is called toxemia and often the cause of repeated infections, hypertension and many other circulatory conditions including urticaria, rashes, herpes, eczema, acne, leukoderma, chronic itching or hives. This is where Raktamoksha is indicated. In addition to cases of enlarged liver, spleen and gout. Extracting a small amount blood from a vein relieves the tension created by the toxins in the blood. Bloodletting also stimulates the spleen to produce antitoxic substances which helps to stimulate the immune system. Toxins are neutralized enabling radical cures in many blood born disorders.
Generally the last step in panchakarma therapy, nasya refers to applications of medicinal oils administered through the nasal passage. It’s recommended to take nasyas in the morning on an empty stomach. The oils spread throughout the head and related parts. It influences all the doshas and the diseases situated in these parts. Nasya, prevents the diseases of the eyes, ears, throat, oral cavity, improves vision and speech, delays aging, helps headaches, lockjaw, insomnia, nasal allergies, and stiff necks.
Uttara Karma – Post detox
Panchakarma therapy is recommended at least once a year. It’s important to resume a diet that has been established for your own constitution or dosha. Oil or ghee is first taken with the gradual reintroduction of the six tastes. Then, In order to rebuild the damaged tissues and give them a new level of strength and purity, one must gradually eat regular meals that reestablish the Agni after purification.
Charaka states that “As a small spark of fire becomes kindled into a large flame when fed gradually with dry grass, similarly the Agni or enzymes in the body responsible for digestion and metabolism in a purified person grow strong and stable, and becomes capable of digesting all types of food by the gradual administration of thin rice gruel (Kichadi).” Rebuilding healthy cells and tissues is known as rejuvenation and is the basis of the Ayurvedic approach to longevity.
Benefits of Panchakarma Therapy
- Body and soul purification: Solution to get rid of impurities and toxins from the mind, body, and soul.
- Complete well being: one of the best ways to have a healthy stress free mind and body.
- Balancing vitiated doshas: Doshas are the governing factors of the human body energetic constitution. With the imbalances of doshas, the body often responds in an abnormal way and we deal with illness. Panchakarma helps restore balance of the doshas and proper functioning of the body.
Conclusion and where I am at in my own process with panchakarma.
I have achieved the first three preparatory phases in Purvakarma. In my process of working with plant medicines it’s necessary to prepare the body, based on our own unique constitution, to detox and It’s no joke to eliminate sugar, caffeine, processed foods, and dairy from ones diet. It has taken me a long time just to develop this discipline alone.
Dinacharya (a Sanskrit word made up of ‘dina’ meaning day and ‘acharya’ meaning activity) is a daily routine designed to connect us to our circadian rhythms, or the internal body clock. The last few years, I have been establishing diet and lifestyle that is harmonious with my own dosha (energetic constitution).
I have adapted an Ayurvedic lifestyle that includes:
– A daily routine of yoga, pranayama and movement that alleviates stress, promotes relaxation, and has improved my overall health
– Meditation, mindfulness and spiritual practices to support emotional balance
– Routine of healthy, nutrient dense, plant based eating with detoxifying spices and other components that optimize digestion
– Circadian rhythm aligned sleep routine
– Self care practices that nurture mental and emotional health and well being
– Herbal treatments, oils and detox to rejuvenate the organs and skin
The main thing to understand is that I spent most of my life with a disconnection from the circadian rhythms linked to most health concerns. I had very destructive patterns that got me sick and can’t be undone in one treatment. Deeper tissue rejuvenation is the most important work we can do to recover the body’s life force (Ojas). Connecting with nature, remembering who I am– healing is happening gradually and rebuilding healthy cells and tissues will take time.
I plan to undergo a full panchakarma treatment when it’s possible for me and can’t wait. I will definitely continue to share my process which as ultimately led me to my life’s purpose of being in service. It’s funny how life is always happening for us- even in the midst of chaos. Reminds me of nature in the most magical of ways.
By Adrianne Read
Holistic Wellness Therapist