The Difference Between Traditional & Modern Cleansing Methods
Ayurveda is a lifestyle practice and a medical system that emphasizes regular cleansing of the physical, emotional and spiritual levels of the body and mind to maintain health.
As a lifestyle practice, it suggests simple daily cleansing measures, such as starting the day with a glass of water and dry brushing to stimulate lymphatic flow; favoring specific spices that enhance digestive function; and taking certain herbs that encourage natural detox pathways in the body.
As a medical system, ayurveda has developed one of the most complex methods for cleansing called panchakarma. Panchakarma specifically refers to 5-purgative measures for releasing the excess dosha from the body via: enema, laxative, blood cleansers, sinus medications, and stomach cleansing. Panchakarma is traditionally done for a minimum of 21-days and is quite rigorous in nature. Recipients must totally rest as ‘the slate is wiped clean.’ The detoxifying nature of traditional panchakarma prepares the recipient for rasayana (rejuvenation) where the body is built back up using specific diet, herbs, and massage.
It use to be, that one had to be a candidate for panchakarma. In other words, you had to be strong enough to handle the cleansing and depleting nature of the treatment itself. This could mean that the purvakarma methods (pre-panchakarma) treatment extended for months before the panchakarma treatments began.
In the United States, our panchakarma methods tend to be much more palliative and rejuvenative in nature. Palliative means gentle, works slowly over time and with repeated use. Typically, for various legal and liability issues, recipients are not guided through the 5-methods. Panchakarma programs are reduced to 3-days, 7-days, or 14-days and are combined with home treatments so that recipients can continue with their life responsibilities, family obligations, and work.
Even the Charaka Samhita, a classic ayurvedic text, outlines that one of the primary factors of authentic ayurveda exists in its ability to adapt to the needs of the modern man. And yet, to do this effectively I personally believe it is important to be transparent about what we are capable of offering, and clear when we decide to veer from the traditions of yore. In other words, why have we made the changes that we have from traditional panchakarma? Is it fair to even call it panchakarma anymore, or should we name it something else?
The change in panchakarma practice is not limited to American or European practitioners of ayurveda either. Contrary, we see the change initiated and led by prominent ayurvedic doctors with traditional training from India, the heartland of ayurveda itself. We also observe the change in approach to panchakarma in India as well where programs are being made shorter to accommodate the needs of travelers.
This does not mean that our modern panchakarma programs are fruitless. Contrary, they emphasize rejuvenation which most of us desperately need. It’s power lies in the ability to normalize nervous system function. The ability to guide recipients into a state of total relaxation makes space for miraculous levels of healing to occur. In my personal practice I have observed the most success with chronic anxiety disorders, nervous system disorders, fertility and autoimmunity.
What Are We Cleansing?
‘Toxin’ is now a household word, and many of us are familiar with detoxification programs, cleanses, fasts, and diets meant to eliminate them. Toxins are blamed for numerous diseases such as chronic fatigue, Candida, fibromyalgia, celiac disease, and many types of cancers, specifically breast and uterine. There are many people who believe that all disease directly comes from toxicity.
Our homes, offices, cleaning products, foods and air, are more contaminated than ever. Exposure to radiation and heavy metals, have been linked to thyroid conditions. Estrogen excess in the environment has been shown to contribute to cancers, fibroids, and hormonal imbalances. Coal burning plants contribute to asthmatic conditions, especially children. Cancer, allergies, autoimmune disorders, and many other conditions can be linked to toxins in our environment and food.
The average person has nearly 300 toxic chemicals in her blood! Chemicals from airplane seats can be found in the blood of frequent travelers several days after her last flight! Cell phones, computers, perfumes, pesticides, shaving cream, gasoline, garbage secrete dangerous chemicals that we breath and are exposed to chronically.
More than ever, it is imperative to engage in ongoing detoxification, and implement strategies to detox and build the immune systems continuously.
According to ayurveda, we are cleansing two primary things. We are cleansing the excess dosha accumulations of vata, pitta, kapha and we are cleansing excess ama (toxins).
An important distinction in ayurveda: it is possible to have excess dosha with or without ama. When excess dosha presents itself, it is mostly addressed with lifestyle practices. When excess ama (toxins) presents itself if it is definitely addressed with stronger cleansing methods such as panchakarma and fasting.
Signs We Need To Cleanse Excess Ama
In Ayurveda, toxins are called ama, and can be defined as the residue of poorly digested food. Dairy, meat, oily, sweet, salty and sour foods can be difficult for many of us to digest because of weakened digestive capabilities. When ama is present, stronger methods of detoxification such as panchakarma or fasting are required to cleanse the body.
Weak digestive fire is the primary cause of ama accumulations in the body. In ayurveda, we digest our experiences through all of our senses. We what we see through our eyes; hear through our ears; smell through our nose; feel through our skin; and taste with our tongues. A strong digestion is the ability to retain the nutrient of what we digest, and effectively eliminate the waste. When this ability is compromised for any reason (emotional trauma, environmental pollution, poor diet, chronic stress) we begin to accumulate ama (toxins).
This is why ayurveda emphasizes emotional and mental cleansing practices such as meditation and rituals. It is not enough to cleanse the physical body, though this is extremely important too.
Symptoms of Ama: Inability to move past an emotional situation, chronic fatigue, digestive issues of all types, uncontrollable food craving, low immunity, body odor, white coating on the tongue, difficulty maintaining an average weight, low energy, skin disorders especially acne and psoriasis, low sex drive, depression, low energy, bloodshot eyes, bad taste in the mouth.
Signs Of Excess Dosha
We can have excess dosha with or without the presence of excess ama (toxins) in the body. This is a very important distinction that ayurvedic medicine makes, and influences the treatment protocol exponentially.
Excess dosha is treated with lifestyle practices. Excess ama is treated with cleansing measures. There is some overlay between the two that are especially apparent when excess kapha dosha is involved. Excess kapha and ama share many similar characteristics and are reduced with some of the same methods.
Vata (Air & Ether)
Vata’s primary home in the human body is the colon. At the beginning, when vata excess starts to manifest symptoms are bloating and dry constipation. In the mind, excess air & ether can cause hyperactivity, day dreaming, or scattered behaviors.
Over time, if vata continues to accumulate symptoms of hyperactivity will continue to escalate. A person may approach a multitude of activities completing very little. He or she may be interruptive, all over the place, disorganized. In the physical body, there may be chronic pain, low back or hip issues, dryness, insomnia and weight loss.
Treatment for excess vata includes: regularity and routine in lifestyle such as eating/meditating at regular times, oiling the body, abhyanga, self-massage, stillness meditation, pranayama, and breathing practices.
If vata is present with ama, we will see things like candidiasis, chronic constipation, wasting away, degeneration, osteoporosis, poor appetite, craving for sugar, depletion and digestive irregularity.
Treatment for excess vata with ama includes: abhyanga, sweating, gentle fasting methods, gentle herbs for cleansing the liver and blood, warming alteratives (blood cleansers), diaphoretics (herbs that cause sweating), courses of snehana (internal oleation) and gentle laxatives (low doses of castor oil).
Pitta (water & fire)
Pitta’s primary seat in the body is the small intestine. When excess pitta dosha begins to occur we will see imbalance in this area. Imbalance usually begins as quick digestion (diarrhea, loose bowel, undigested food in eliminations). Excess pitta in the mind may manifest as chronic work, anger, short fuse, and desire to control.
Treatment methods for excess pitta are intended to cleanse the blood, liver and small intestine while cooling the body. This is typically done through alteratives (blood cleansers) such as burdock root, dandelion root, and amalaki. Cooling yoga practices such as sheetali pranayama. A diet that favors cooling, bitter and astringent tastes such as leafy greens, kale, swiss chard, dandelion greens.
When excess pitta presents itself with ama we will see symptoms such as acne, irritability, poor nutrient assimilation, excessive sweating, hatred, bacterial, fungal and yeast infections with sour smelling body odors.
Excess pitta with ama is typically treated with a course of internal snehana (internal oiling) and strong laxatives that cleanse the small intestine. It is supported with the lifestyle practices and blood cleansing herbs.
Kapha(water & earth)
Kapha dosha’s primary seat in the human body is the stomach. At the beginning of imbalance we will observed disturbed kapha dosha here. Symptoms such as delayed gastric emptying, nausea, and vomiting are common. Excess kapha in mind include melancholy, depression, resentment, and lethargy. Over time if kapha is not remediated we will observe an escalation of water retention, slow behavior, difficulty concentrating, detachment, introversion, and blame.
Excess kapha dosha is typically treated with lifestyle practices that heat and stimulate the body such as rigorous exercise, regular fasting, and pungent spices such as black pepper, cayenne pepper, and ginger root. Dry skin brushing stimulate the lymph which is important for kapha dosha. Emotional release practices helps kapha let go of the past.
Kapha and ama excess presents itself as low digestive strength, bacterial and fungal infections, oozing conditions, psoriasis, mucous, heavy menses, swelling, dull mind, and increased bodily secretions.
When excess ama presents itself with excess kapha, very strong purgative measures are indicated. This is the most harmful combination and requires strong treatments that address the kapha tendency of mind (slow to change, depressed, procrastinating), and tendencies of body (weight gain, water retention, weak digestion). Luckily, unlike vata dosha types, kapha types can usually handle the intensity of strong cleansing methods.