From Here to Serenity
Despite years of right living—regular spiritual practice, frequent yoga sessions, a vegetarian diet with rare transgressions—I looked in the mirror recently and had to admit I was, well, aging. My joints ached, my skin quality was changing, and my eyes were too dry to endure contacts. Pounds had slowly accumulated, fatigue dulled my enthusiasm—and forget about my memory. Those lapses I once attributed to breastfeeding? Perimenopause.
A professional healer for 25 years, I'd been around the alternative medicine block. Herbs, acupuncture, Reiki, rolfing—you name it, I've used it. Western doctors labeled me healthy, and I was certainly free of pathology. But I didn't like what was happening—what it looked like or what it felt like. On the day I absentmindedly boiled not one but two teapots dry, I knew it was time to do something. But what?
Long ago, when I lived in India, I encountered Ayurveda, the 5,000-year-old system of health maintenance native to that country. The most powerful clinical tool of this ancient whole-body practice is a sophisticated system of cleansing procedures called panchakarma. In the years since, I'd heard stories of panchakarma reversing chronic conditions, often those that hadn't responded to conventional medical treatment. Debilitating chronic fatigue, crippling osteoarthritis, hepatitis C, chronic headache—all these conditions had, it seemed, benefited from panchakarma treatment.
So if it worked so well for people who are truly sick, what could panchakarma do for me? And what would it cost? At upwards of $250 a day—plus airfare and childcare—I always assumed I couldn't afford panchakarma. Now I wondered if I could afford not to try it. At 40-something, I knew this decline was not going to magically reverse itself. Other people take vacations or traipse off to yoga conferences, I reasoned. Panchakarma could be my own personal Club Med-icine, a "really good investment," as Deepak Chopra, M.D., says, "with a really good return." I decided to go for it and signed up for a stay at the Ayurvedic Institute in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Ancient Antidote for Stress
The concept of panchakarma can be a hard one for Westerners to grasp. Those who have heard of it are often quick to assume it's another internal cleansing regimen. But it's more than that. Dr. John Douillard, Ayurvedic physician and author of Body, Mind and Sport (Crown, 1995), says, "Panchakarma is not a detox program. This is only its side benefit. It is a transformation in consciousness—replacing stress with silence."
An understanding of the principles behind the Ayurvedic view of health and disease (the event that panchakarma aims to prevent) helps put the practice in context. Ayurveda explains health as a dynamic balance, the individual living in harmony with natural law. The system takes into account an individual's elemental, unique constitution, called prakriti, as well as how far the person has varied from that balance, the vikriti. Each person's constitution is described in terms of doshas, three distinct energy patterns known as vata, pitta, and kapha. Though all three doshas exist in each of us in different proportion, one is generally predominant. Knowing the ways these doshas coexist in our constitutions can help guide our daily eating and lifestyle choices towards a state of balance—and better health.