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I’m perched on a toilet, holding my right ear with my right hand and moving my upper body in circles. I’m at the Shankara Ayurveda Spa at the Art of Living Retreat Center in Boone, North Carolina, and instead of relaxing in the sauna, I’m praying for poop. It’s day six of my eight-day stay at the Center, where I’m doing a traditional panchakarma cleanse. Today is all about virechana—a.k.a. extreme bowel evacuation.
Sure, panchakarma involves many lush body treatments, and I’ve had my fair share over the past week―with practitioners massaging me with warm oil, pounding every ounce of tension out of my muscles with sachets of healing herbs, and dripping warm oil onto my third eye―all to reset my nervous system and rid my body of what it doesn’t need. Yet this intense cleanse also involves eating a Spartan diet and devoting an entire day to trying to, well, eliminate. “Virechana isn’t just about cleansing the body, it’s also about cleansing the mental and emotional self,” says Medha Garud, director of Ayurveda programs. “The process helps you release many of the impressions and habits, called samskaras, that you are carrying in your system.”
Easier said than done, I think to myself as my insides churn. It’s humbling to realize that I may be one of those people who yoga teacher and Ayurvedic health consultant Kimberly Rossi, director of spa and business development, says “really wants to hold onto their crap.” Eventually, I plead with Vaidya Lokesh, the Center’s Ayurvedic doctor, for some relief, which is how I found myself doing these strange ablutions in the bathroom.
In that moment, I was in the toughest stretch of the panchakarma, a cleanse that called into question every aspect of my lifestyle and boiled it down to one central question: How do my choices augment or interfere with my well-being? While the answer was still unclear, one thing was certain: I was on a 21-day mission to find out.
Prepping for the big release
My recalcitrant bowels may be proof of my habit of resistance, but when the opportunity to travel to the Art of Living Retreat Center for this intense detox first presented itself, I didn’t hesitate to say yes. I knew panchakarma wouldn’t be easy—I lived in India for most of my 20s and had seen many people go through it—yet I was aware of the physical and mental benefits most people experience after completing it. The promise of the upsides outweighed the possible downsides. As it turns out, it was a good thing I started panchakarma with such an eager attitude.
“Panchakarma is not for the faint,” says Eric Grasser, MD, an integrative doctor in Santa Fe, New Mexico, who combines functional medicine with Ayurveda. Even the ancient texts caution that panchakarma needs to be undertaken by those in fairly good health. “For the very frail or debilitated, panchakarma is simply too intense,” says Garud.
Part of panchakarma’s intensity can be attributed to the cumulative design: It’s a three-stage detoxification process that traditionally lasts for three weeks. The first stage involves diet and lifestyle changes that prep you for the second, most intense stage of the cleanse; the third stage is all about transitioning out of that second stage and into a lifestyle that’s sustainable for the long haul. And every Ayurvedic doctor I spoke with says each stage is crucial, helping to maximize panchakarma’s effectiveness, minimize potential complications, and provide a protective container for the profound inner release the cleanse is intended to bring. Fortunately, I’m healthy and was confident I could physically withstand the extreme overhaul.
Exactly one week before my stay at the Art of Living Retreat Center, I was told to eliminate dairy, meat, sugar, caffeine, alcohol, and processed foods from my diet—all considered a burden for digestion. Even vegetables are a no-no, because their fiber unduly taxes detoxification, says Garud. I was also instructed to drink only hot water between meals in order to strengthen my digestive power and flush out toxins.
Kitchari, a lightly spiced, one-pot meal of basmati rice and mung dal, cooked with heaps of ghee, became my new culinary best friend; I consumed it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Why so much ghee? It loosens the body’s impurities—a process called oleation, says Grasser. “Most toxins are fat soluble, and the liver makes them water soluble so they can be eliminated,” he says. “Oleation works like a detergent, binding to the toxins and coaxing them out of the body.”
Within a week of taking the sugar and caffeine out of my diet and eating bowl after bowl of gruel, I felt my irritation levels flatlining. As a 45-year-old mother of two, my current phase of life can be distinguished by a line from a movie based on Nikos Kazantzakis’s novel Zorba the Greek, in which marriage, house, and kids are referred to as “the full catastrophe.” By catastrophe, I don’t mean disaster—rather the poignant enormity of one’s life experience.
In my case, the exalted spiritual quest of my 20s in India had given way to a more advanced testing ground: domestic life. I’d forgotten how to be in right relationship with my body, never mind everything else. I’d spent so much of my time gauging whether my life measured up to some external ideal of success—with my career, family, and most of all myself—I didn’t know what a headspace unobstructed by negativity felt like. I sweated the small stuff (household division of labor, pet peeves too numerous to count) and squandered the big stuff (the fact that I was healthy and blessed with a family). The sweet relief of knowing I had enough eluded me. I never stopped comparing, and I always came up short. But after a week of mindful eating and self-inquiry, I was starting to sense that panchakarma could give me the clarity I craved. I wanted to know what my part was in my own stuckness, and how to cop to it.
I’m no stranger to putting myself in the hot seat; self-inquiry had practically been my day job during my eight-year stint in India, studying with a teacher whose central question was, Who am I? But such provocative inquiry had been put on the back burner, despite a three-decade-long yoga practice. At the beginning of the cleanse I didn’t grasp the drastic measures necessary to get me back on track, but I felt like I was off to a promising start.
Showing Up for the Experience
When I arrived at the Art of Living for the more intense, second phase of panchakarma, I was introduced to Lokesh, the Ayurvedic doctor, who took my pulse and determined my main dosha (pitta) and the one that’s most out of whack (vata), or “deranged” as Ayurvedic practitioners say. (For more information on the three doshas and how they affect health, see “Understanding the Doshas” on page 34.) Based on his assessment, Lokesh assigned me a roster of specific oil-based treatments, such as abhyanga (oil massage), shirodhara (liquid forehead treatment), and marma (Ayurvedic acupressure), all designed to help lubricate me from the outside in. The pampering is functional, yet undeniably luxurious. Dosha-specific oils prepared with herbs saturated my skin and hair. The firm, vigorous strokes of abhyanga tenderized my skin and soothed sore muscles. During shirodhara, a copper vessel, oscillating back and forth like an ancient pendulum, drizzled a steady stream of warm oil onto my forehead. And after each oil treatment, I was ushered to the steam room to further open the srotas (channels of circulation). Oleation, both internal and external, functioned as the antidote to my vata gone rogue.
Throughout my stay, my diet looked exactly as it had during my prep phase, with kitchari served up three times a day. However, the amount of ghee I was prescribed increased each day by one or two tablespoons per meal. I downed more ghee than I imagined was humanly possible. I watched as the moat of ghee around my mound of kitchari widened to an alarming degree, yet I quickly learned to love its over-the-top richness. My body took to it—never has my digestion been so seamless—and all of the other 10 panchakarma participants who traveled to the Art of Living for this detox said the same.
Between the yummy kitchari, the hours spent unspooling on the treatment table, the daily yoga and meditation, and a welcome break from technology (I was urged to put away my cell phone and laptop the moment I checked in), I felt a sense of sattva (purity) as a lived experience: my thoughts breached out from, and returned to, an unperturbable silence; the anointed contours of my body were made sacred; my breath assumed generous volume; my heart spread wide within me. Everything felt softer. The brittle shell of my coffee-slugging, hard-charging, strung-out self felt like it had been cracked in ways I hoped would never be put together again.
I appreciate how panchakarma functions as a highly choreographed intervention, albeit an ancient one. The kind that tapers gently but has a ruthless persistence. The rules made sense, yet could chafe all the same. In my group, many had good days that alternated with a healing crisis of some sort or another: diarrhea, headaches, sore throats, tiredness, spontaneous grief. Again, experts say this is to be expected: “Anytime you move something that may be stuck, it’s a flush. You’re bringing the doshas out from deeper tissues and you’re bringing emotions out from deeper places where they’re not flowing. Then all of a sudden everything starts to flow,” says Grasser. Whatever we had on lockdown was coming up for air—and there was no safer place for it to happen.
See also Quiz: Discover Your Dosha
Two weeks of kitchari, several pints of ghee, five marmas, four abyhangas, two shirodharas, and a handful of other soothing treatments later, virechana day dawned. Virechana is the crux of the panchakarma, which entails five gnarly sounding procedures typically listed in a top-down order: nasya (medicated oils applied through the nose), vamana (controlled vomiting), virechana (therapeutic purgation), basti (enema), and rakta mokshana (bloodletting). Because of liability concerns and cultural mores, induced vomiting and bloodletting are rarely practiced in this country. At the Art of Living, virechana was the preferred method of elimination. Basti was assigned as homework for the week following my return home.
“Virechana is important because over the past two weeks, the internal ghee and external oil have moved all the toxins out from your intestinal wall into your gut and deep into your lymphatic system, but they still need to be flushed out through the bowels,” says Garud. “The Ayurvedic texts say after virechana, the absorption capability of the stomach and intestinal wall is increased by 90 percent.”
Let me tell you firsthand: If panchakarma were a narrative, virechana would function as the big reveal. Although actual results were private, of course, bowel-movement talk in the lounge was an open discussion. I tracked my compadres’ frequent excursions to the bathroom, wondering when my turn would come. How could I soften into the unexpected difficulty of this moment, instead of trying to resist it? If I was due for another bout of intense self-inquiry, here it was. Astride the toilet with nothing to show for it, I was having an epiphany on why the struggle felt not only so real, but so relentless.
Earlier that day, after a lunch of thin rice porridge, I laid down in my room and an unexplainable sadness pressed down on me as my stomach churned. It was familiar: my biggest samskara is a tendency to hold on—to resentments, to being right, to being the victim—when letting go would better serve me. Still, to realize how this unyielding quality in myself could physically affect me was a true humble-warrior moment. It was the uncomfortable piece of truth I needed in order to see my life more clearly.
See also How To: Ayurvedic Warm-Oil Massage
As afternoon turned into evening, Lokesh and Garud consulted about my predicament. They sent Mary Walker, a member of the retreat staff, up to my room to give me a marma treatment, which involved very light touching of subtle energy points. They hoped this would stimulate some kind of movement. Mary placed her hands over my heart, and within seconds I felt a wave-like contraction push upward. I ran to the toilet just in time to vomit. At last, I felt a release, followed by a euphoric lightness. Mary tracked it all without flinching. Her neutrality may have saved me: She neither praised nor shamed. In that moment, I realized I needed to learn how to pay that type of kindness forward—to others, but most of all to myself. It reminded me of something I had heard often during my days in India: Another word for peace is allow.
Maintaining the Afterglow
If panchakarma is about breaking down toxins, the week after the cleanse is about building up everything from your digestive powers to your new relationship with yourself, says Garud, adding that this is why it’s crucial to reintegrate slowly. She told us to keep eating kitchari for a few days, and she suggested reintroducing new foods gradually rather than all at once. The worst thing I could have done, I learned, would have been to eat a hamburger and fries after I left the retreat.
Following the cleanse, I compared notes with one of my panchakarma friends, yoga teacher and Ayurvedic lifestyle consultant Beth Sanchez, who has done more than 15 panchakarma cleanses in her lifetime. “What always wows me post-panchakarma is how it empowers me to really choose, rather than be pushed around by habit, craving, addiction, or convenience,” she told me. “You feel supported. You actually crave things that are good for you. This is what we call prajna. In yoga it’s translated as ‘wisdom,’ but in Ayurveda it means ‘cellular intelligence.’”
At home, this almost feral intelligence lingered for me, despite launching back into the whirligig of kid meltdowns, work deadlines, and ad-hoc meals. Now, almost two months post-cleanse, I can see where my prajna had been kinked. The comparisons, the holding on for the wrong reasons, the way my sense of OKness was wrapped up in other people, had all cut me off from my inner task: the care and feeding of my own soul. I had lost sight of what was genuine in me. The full catastrophe is what I’m facing, but how can I allow for it—bless it, even—instead of resist?
Panchakarma helped me see that the generous perspective I yearned for could only come from wholeness, from a body that’s fluid and balanced and a mind that sees the world through the lens of enoughness rather than deficiency. It also taught me that for cleansing to go deep, it has to be done with benevolence, not self-denial. That was the source of what Sanchez had referred to as “support.”
“I always thought it was interesting that the word sneha in Sanskrit can mean ‘oil,’ but it can also mean ‘love,’” Grasser told me. “There’s something extremely nourishing and loving about oil.” For me, over the course of my panchakarma and beyond, oil has come to represent all the ways I want to absorb and be absorbed into something vast and forgiving.
These days, I’m less concerned with how I rank in the invisible hierarchical system that lives in my head. I’m not in it to win it, but I am all in—in my attention to the right things: how it feels to exhale without restrictions, how extending my rib cage up and over as I fold forward during my Sun Salutations can ripple through me like a prayer. It’s softening I’m after. All I need to do is start with what’s real: a warm meal made with love, the hard battles that are worth the fight, and the domed spaciousness that wants to occupy my body, if I let it.