Our simple, rejuvenating 4-day Ayurvedic cleanse is just the thing to set yourself up for a joyful, healthful winter season.
It's the most wonderful time of the year—and perhaps the most daunting when it comes to doing well by your body and mind. Maybe you’ve been pretty consistent about eating fruits and veggies, making it to yoga class at least once a week, and hitting the pillow at a reasonable hour. But without exception, everyone makes exceptions (say, that late-night crunch to hit a work deadline or a beer-and-pizza party with friends). And the holidays can do a number on the health habits of even the most disciplined among us. It’s easy (and fun!) to get caught up in the whirl of seasonal activities … only to find yourself feeling rundown and succumbing to colds, flu, or worse come the new year.
The good news: You can set yourself up for an easier, healthier winter by taking time now, in autumn, for this gentle, four-day Ayurvedic cleanse designed by Larissa Hall Carlson, E-RYT, a yoga teacher and dean of the Kripalu School of Ayurveda in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. In Ayurveda—the ancient Indian system of healing and sister science to yoga—cleanses are generally done at seasonal junction points. Many of us think of cleansing as a spring to-do, and that timing can be very helpful for removing winter’s sluggishness and preventing seasonal allergies, Carlson says. But cleansing in the fall is also key to maintaining health. “Through poor diet choices as well as environmental pollution and chemicals, the body accumulates toxins year round,” Carlson says. “Fall cleansing can help balance the digestive fire and prevent winter sickness.”
Increasingly, even Western health practitioners will recommend following a seasonal cleansing program because of the glut of synthetic chemicals we encounter in food, personal-care products, water, soil, and the air. In the United States, more than 80,000 chemicals used in food containers, flame retardants, pesticides, and other products have not been tested for their health effects, and researchers have found traces of nearly 300 toxins in the umbilical-cord blood of newborns. When these toxins are passed from mother to child in the womb, our children are often born “pre-polluted,” according to the President’s Cancer Panel 2010 report. “But the body can naturally eliminate toxins when the digestive fire is consistently strong,” says Carlson. And that’s what her Ayurvedic cleanse sets out to do.
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In her plan, Carlson emphasizes gentleness, sustainable routines, and equal attention to both body and mind. This contrasts with other, harsher detox plans, which, although often effective for deep cleansing via laxatives or enemas, can actually shock, exhaust, and deplete your digestive and nervous systems. “When the body-mind is experiencing daily stress from work, relationships, financial struggle, or aggressive dieting, there is often digestive distress and constriction, which prevents toxins from flowing out of the body,” Carlson says. “In order to detoxify safely and effectively, the body and mind must be relaxed, and the channels of digestion and elimination flowing with ease.”
To ease the internal process, you’ll eat easily digestible foods during the cleanse, so your body can put more energy toward eliminating toxins, but you’ll also maintain enough variety and flavor in your diet to keep you from losing interest or feeling hungry. As a four-day program, the cleanse is just long enough to strengthen the digestive fire and purify the mind without going so deep that it’s necessary to have a personal Ayurvedic practitioner oversee the process. And though Ayurvedic dietary and lifestyle recommendations can be specific to your dominant dosha—your unique physical and mental constitution that influences your well-being—this cleanse is tri-doshic, meaning it works for everyone, according to Carlson. So there is no need to first complete a complicated quiz to identify whether your dominant dosha is vata (air and ether), pitta (fire and water), or kapha (earth and water). “As individuals, we are swayed by our own constitution, but nature also can influence us,” Carlson says. “Vata dosha governs fall and winter, and therefore, everybody carries excessive cold and dry qualities during these seasons unless you’re doing activities to prevent this trend, like a seasonally appropriate cleanse.”
So whether you’re looking for a mind-body reset now or aiming to prevent future health woes, try our universal Ayurvedic cleanse. “It’s practical, safe, and effective,” Carlson says. The nourishing diet, self-care routines, and yoga practices offer an enjoyable whole-body approach to cleansing and rejuvenation—all enveloped in a supportive environment. Consider it the kickoff celebration for a healthy, happy season.
Before You Begin
Ease your transition into the cleanse with these pre-launch preparations:
- Take precautions: If you’re taking medication, have recently had surgery, suffer from a serious medical condition, or have any health concerns, review this cleanse with your health care practitioner before beginning. Do not cleanse during pregnancy.
- Eliminate dietary crutches: For a few days to a few weeks before the cleanse, gradually eliminate any caffeinated and alcoholic beverages, dairy, meat, fried foods, processed foods, sugar, and any other unhealthy foods you rely on during stressful moments, so that giving them up entirely isn’t such a shock to your system and psyche.
- Schedule time off: The cleanse may be the time to use up a few vacation and personal days before you lose them at the end of the year. To create the optimal environment for cleansing, your days should be as stress free as possible, with little or no work scheduled. Stress can create digestive discomfort and constriction and prevent toxins from flowing well out of the body, according to Carlson. She adds, “Taki ing time to focus on a simplified diet, self-care practices, and yoga provides the opportunity not just to regulate and strengthen physical digestion and elimination, but it gives the mind rest from the constant input of information, allowing time to process and digest mental and emotional experiences, and detoxifying the mind.”
- Set up a home-practice space: If you don’t have a dedicated practice room, carve out a corner in your bedroom or living room for your yoga mat, meditation cushion, eye pillow, blanket, journal, and inspiring books.
- Unplug: Notify friends and family that you may be off email and social media for a spell. During a seasonal cleanse, unplugging from social media and electronics reduces stimulation to the sense organs and gives the mind a rest.
The four-day cleanse includes eight components: meals; drinks; a five-senses purification; channel-cleaning breathwork; seated meditation; mindful eating; nature walks; and yoga. Check out the calendar below for a schedule of activities for each of the four days, then use the detailed instructions that follow as your to-do toolkit. There are also a few overarching guidelines: The plan is designed to deliver three meals a day with minimal or zero snacking, to give your digestive system a break between meals. Eat each meal until you’re satisfied, making lunch your biggest meal and dinner your lightest, so your body can process food before bedtime. And during breaks between meals, practice the lifestyle activities that complement your diet and are critical components of a holistic-cleanse strategy.
- Drink warm lemon water.
- Complete the 5-senses purification.
- Do channel-cleaning breathwork.
- Eat breakfast. On days 1 and 4, eat only steamed vegetables and quinoa. On days 2 and 3, eat only simple kitchari.
- Practice eating mindfully.
- Walk in nature.
- Drink 1 cup of tea as desired.
- Eat a large, satisfying lunch: Every day, lunch is simple kitchari.
- Practice mindful eating.
- Sip 1 cup of tea as desired.
- Avoid snacking. Instead, sip warm water throughout the day. However, if you’re hungry between meals, don’t deprive yourself. Snack on peeled almonds that have been soaked overnight—these are easily digestible.
- Practice yoga for 20 to 60 minutes.
- Eat dinner: Each day, dinner is harvest stew. Be sure to give yourself 2–3 hours before bedtime to digest this meal.
- Wind down by reading inspirational books, writing in a journal, or meditating.
- Go to bed early enough to get 8 hours of sleep.
In Ayurveda, how you eat is as important as what you eat. “If you eat when you’re stressed or multitasking or when your attention is not on the food, you can create indigestion because you’re not thoroughly chewing,” Carlson says. Eating mindfully helps support proper digestion, so you absorb what you need from the food for body and mind and eliminate toxins. Here are Carlson’s top tips for mindful noshing:
- Eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner around the same time every day to establish a routine for the digestive system.
- Enjoy a peaceful environment. Avoid distractions and stimulation, such as television, computers, and cell phones. You can listen to soothing music and enjoy dim lighting.
- Sit in a comfortable, relaxed manner during meals.
- Eat quietly or take in only positive impressions. Avoid reading the newspaper’s crime news—browse the arts section instead. Or better yet, enjoy the view out your window or look at a flower on the kitchen table.
- If you’re eating with company, focus all conversation on positive topics. Avoid debating, arguing, gossiping, or complaining, which could create stress.
- Take a few breaths before eating as you appreciate all the energy that went into growing, harvesting, transporting, and preparing this lovely meal.
- Engage all your senses in the meal. Look at colors. Smell the scents. Eat slowly and chew thoroughly (take at least 10 chews per bite). Savor the flavor and texture of the food.
- Consider seconds. In order to avoid snacking, meals can be on the larger side. However, stop for a few moments to assess whether your body wants more or not before taking another portion.
- At the end of each meal, take a few breaths before getting up to feel the effects of the meal. Wait for a burp. The body will give you a natural burp when your stomach is full. Notice that you now feel satisfied, satiated, and nourished through all the senses.
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Sip these beverages to aid digestion during the cleanse.
1. Lemon water
Drink 1 cup of hot water with a fresh squeeze of lemon, which helps the body rid itself of excess mucus. Rehydrating also helps with your morning bowel movement. Citrus adds flavor.
Choose one of the following cleansing teas, steep tea bag in hot water for 5 minutes, and drink up to 2 cups total per day. Enjoy the tea’s unique benefits, which are noted in The Yoga of Herbs, by Drs. David Frawley and Vasant Lad.
- Tulsi (holy basil): The antibacterial, antiseptic, and calming properties of tulsi help remove congestion (for excess kapha dosha) from the lungs while soothing the nerves (for excess vata dosha).
- Ginger: The stimulant, expectorant, and carminative properties of ginger help remove excess phlegm and mucus from the body, while aiding digestion.
- Cumin-coriander-fennel: Cumin strengthens digestion and absorption, coriander helps balance excess pitta and lower inflammation, and fennel helps reduce gas while strengthening digestive fire (agni).
Adopt this morning self-care ritual to aid the detoxification process.
- Hear: When you wake, listen to the sounds of nature, kirtan, or other soothing music to fill your ears with positive sounds. Say loving words to your family. And avoid turning on the morning news.
- See: Upon waking, splash eyes 3–6 times with cool, filtered water to refresh and awaken the eyes.
- Taste: Use a tongue scraper to perform 3 to 6 firm scrapes from the back of the tongue forward to the tip, pulling off any white, yellow, or brown layers on the tongue, which are toxins. Rinse your mouth and tongue scraper with filtered water in between each scrape. Then, dissolve ½ tsp salt in a glass of warm, filtered water and gargle 3 to 6 times.
- Smell: To rid your nose of germs and bacteria, in a clean, purified neti pot, dissolve 1/8 to ¼ tsp of neti-pot salt in filtered warm water. Over a sink, pour half of the solution through one nostril, letting it seep out the other nostril. Repeat on the other side. Blow your nose to clear out excess mucus. Then, apply 1–2 drops of nasya oil (a blend of herbs like eucalyptus, calamus, and skullcap in oil) in each nostril edge to lubricate the cave of the nose and protect mucous membranes.
- Touch: On days 1 and 3, do an exfoliation massage (garshana) to prepare skin for absorbing oil used in the daily warm-oil massage (abhyanga/snehana). Using a dry loofah glove, make light, lengthy strokes over the long bones of your body and make circles at the joints, for 1 to 2 minutes.
Before you shower each day of the cleanse, do a warm-oil massage to increase circulation, stimulating detoxification of the lymphatic system. Lube up the skin with a couple tablespoons of warmed sesame oil. Move over the whole body, doing long strokes on long bones and circles at the joints. Get into the shower and continue your massage in the wet environment, so the oil penetrates your skin. Next, soap areas that need washing (armpits, genitals, hands, feet), leaving others with the protective oil in place.
Yoga Sequence To Stoke Digestive Fire
With plenty of hip and abdominal work, this sequence is meant to stoke the digestive fire. While practicing, keep the breath deep and rhythmic to stimulate circulation. If you want to lengthen your practice, Carlson recommends beginning with 3 to 6 rounds of your favorite variation of Sun Salutations.
Channel- Cleaning Breathwork
Practice alternate-nostril breathing (nadi shodhana) for 5 to 20 minutes each day before meditation to soothe the mind and calm the nervous system.
How to: For one cycle, fully cover your right nostril with your right thumb, and then gently inhale through your left nostril. Uncover your right nostril and cover your left nostril with your right ring finger. Exhale through your right nostril, then inhale through your right nostril. Uncover your left nostril and cover your right nostril with your right thumb, and then exhale through your left nostril. Repeat, letting your breath be gentle and rhythmic.
Get out in nature for a 15- to 30-minute daily walk, which will boost harmony, balance, and peacefulness, and increase metabolism for detoxification.
How to: Try a local forest, park, garden, or waterfront—the exact location isn’t as important as the opportunity to be outside and to reduce sensory stimulation (so leave those earbuds at home!).
Practice this seated So hum meditation for 5 to 20 minutes once or twice a day, in the morning or evening, to anchor the mind’s attention and invite self-inquiry.
How to: Sit in a comfort able position on a chair, cushion, or meditation bench. Release hands to lap. Lengthen from your tailbone to the crown of your head. Close your eyes. Relax your facial muscles. Soften your shoulders. Follow your breath. On the inhale, silently repeat So, and on the exhale, hum. Let the mind focus on the mantra. So hum means “I am that”—you are asking yourself, What am I; what is my true self? When the mind wanders, gently guide it back to the anchor of the mantra, following the breath. Upon completion, release the mantra and take in a few breaths to feel the imprint of the experience, noting if there is greater spaciousness and clarity in your mind.
After the Cleanse
When you wrap up the cleanse, it may be tempting to go out for celebratory pizza and beer. But this could shock your system and undo all your dedicated work faster than you can say, “Extra cheese, please.” The cleansing process continues for several days after you finish the plan, so go easy on your body and mind as you transition back to your regular routine. Follow these tips for 2–3 days post-cleanse to fully integrate what your body has gained—and to reap lasting benefits.
- Eat cooked foods. They’re more easily digested, especially during the vata season of late fall.
- Avoid denser, heavier foods that require more digestive energy, such as red meat, hard cheeses, and pastas.
- Drink warm lemon water in the morning to stay hydrated. Signs of dehydration include thirst, dry lips or skin, and constipation.
- Get at least 8 hours of sleep each night.
- Gradually make your way back to your usual exercise or yoga routine.
- Eat mindfully.
Pamela Bond is a senior editor at Yoga Journal. Larissa Hall Carlson, E-RYT, is the dean of the Kripalu School of Ayurveda.