Pancha-what? Our writer takes us along on a 10-day traditional Ayurvedic cleansing retreat, as part of her journey toward healing.
It started with ghee. Teaspoons, tablespoons, and jars of clarified butter. This not only prepared my tummy for a deep Ayurvedic cleanse, it won my affections. I’ve long been an “everything is better with butter” gal. Reverence for all things oil was one of the qualities that drew me to India’s ancient healing system. After living the lifestyle devotedly for several years—sipping warm lemon water at daybreak, lunching as my main meal, rising with the sun and setting with the stars—panchakarma was the next step in our relationship. This sensuous, full-body detoxification is one of Ayurveda’s most potent healing tools.
As with any courtship, it takes commitment. As in no outside relationships. My panchakarma practitioner forewarned I’d be unplugging when I arrived at the California College of Ayurveda in Northern California’s picturesque mountain town of Nevada City. I wanted that. I needed that. I figured that meant checking emails and texts, like, once a day.
Inside a Panchakarma Center
“You ideally should give people the office phone number in the event of a true emergency, something you would actually need to leave here to handle,” says Mark Halpern, president of the California College of Ayurveda. “That’s what it takes to get really quiet. If you have one ear on the rest of the world, you’re involved in the drama of the world.”
Drama may be a bedfellow in many relationships—but not with Ayurveda, which is a return to wholeness. To make sure my electronic devices don’t seduce me, the friendly spa staff promptly makes off with my iPhone and laptop. For the next 10 days. Halpern says we want all my prana directed toward healing. I came to find relief from an autoimmune condition that’s stumped allopathic medicine and flirted optimistically with Ayurveda. As a former chiropractor who healed from a crippling autoimmune disorder himself, Halpern understands its restorative potential. During my intake, he explains how panchakarma was once prescribed seasonally for prevention or anytime it was needed to cure an illness.
“Traditionally, if you went to a person practicing panchakarma, you went for as long as it took,” Halpern says from The Ayurvedic Spa at the college he founded. “Panchakarma hospitals were places people went to be nurtured for rejuvenation. This is your hospital!”
My eyes flit around this uncommon infirmary. A mandala painting, Buddha altar, and sprigs of wildflowers welcome me to the earthen-hued living space, bedroom, and treatment suite in my private, high-beamed cottage. We’re sitting on the porch facing a swimming pool–sized water feature in the backyard. Red and orange–splashed Koi zigzag around a pond while iridescent blackbirds preen on river-washed pebbles. Halpern walks me down Reward Road, past Hummingbird Lane, to a nearby forest trail. Towering stands of ivy-cloaked Jeffery Pine and Bigleaf Maple stand lord. Shards of light filter through the forest lace. This is my kind of hospital.
At dinnertime, a student pops in with a tray of cilantro beets and a steamy bowl of kitchari. If panchakarma has an official food, this fragrant blend of split mung beans and basmati rice is it. The spiced stew is favored for its easy-to-digest, complete protein. I’ll be eating it for pretty much every meal. Since food in all its variety comprises 98% of my stray thoughts in meditation, this should be interesting. I reach optimistically for a thermos of ghee and almond milk before bed. This is pleasure with a purpose. Ghee loosens impurities, called ama—basically undigested food particles caused by eating the wrong foods or simply weak digestion. The body-based treatments I’ll be getting flush them out.
The Traditional Cleansing Panchakarma Treatments
The next morning, I lie prone on a heated massage table as Sarilian Pinto, who supervises my panchakarma treatments, and a student assistant stream warm oil onto my skin. Together, they stroke my body in such synchronized motion I wonder if one person has grown four hands—until they split off, one massaging herbal sesame oil onto my scalp and the other my feet. This is my kind of medicine.
This choreographed, medicated massage called abhyanga dislodges ama from deep in the body’s tissues (come out, come out wherever you are!) and shoos it to the colon to be banished from the body—with, ahem, a little assistance. More on that later. Next, Pinto unleashes a tiny rivulet of warm oil onto my forehead. My usual fast-firing thoughts slowly dissipate in that kind river. All that’s left is sound and sensation. This oil-dripping, called shirodhara, synchronizes brain waves and releases stress from the nervous system. I’d pretty much call it bliss.
“You have so many receptors on your skin connecting to the nervous system,” explains Nitya Line Beaulieu, another one of my Ayurvedic specialists, who emanates an abiding calm. “The oil on your skin instills a sense of love, trust, and care, which allows you to ‘ahhh,’ be at ease and open.”
Oh yeah. By the time she places a miniature tent over my body enveloping me in lavender and lemongrass–scented steam called swedana, it hits me ‘life doesn’t have to be hard.’ Healing comes from ease. My cells feel watered, refashioning into a new pattern only they understand.
Some days, Pinto and I talk about the power of subtle thoughts and how, unchecked, they can become consumed by symptoms. “You have this amazing power to believe what you say,” she declares one afternoon after an energy treatment called marma. “If you change your perception of your symptoms, it will reverse the physical manifestations.” Over the nourishing days and silent nights, seemingly fixed thoughts become malleable energy.
Panchakarma feels like a breakthrough relationship. The kind that opens wide your heart, but taxes your body a bit. Some days bring familiar aches, malaise, or new discomforts—diarrhea, headaches, and a sore throat as oil oozes south from my nasal passages.
“I always say panchakarma is not for sissies,” says Beaulieu before the last therapy I get each and every morning. She hands me a long tube connected to a little bucket of either herbalized oil or a tea decoction, otherwise known as (oh my) an enema—although I prefer the Sanskrit term basti for its apparent civility. Here’s the thing: after a morning of fragrant pampering, the basti is no big deal. I mean, it’s a big deal in terms of benefits. This daily grand finale of panchakarma nourishes and flushes impurities from the colon. Believe it or not, it feels soothing, like a warm bath on your insides.
See also 3 Classic Ayurvedic Detox Practices
During the course of 10 days, I’m massaged naked by a team of once-strangers who become healers, midwives, confidants, and friends. At first, I’d wince with self-consciousness when they’d pull the sheet off my chest. But that evaporated through the loving chants and prayers; tableside chats about Yosemite, yoga, and our personal sorrows and triumphs; ponds of aromatic oil; and gentle touch. In such a vulnerable state, you soften.
“All of a sudden a whole world opens within,” Beaulieu says one day after a transcendent facial massage. “Then you go deeper and start looking at other layers—emotions and past traumas. Panchakarma creates space to look and touch within.”
It turns out, a love affair with Ayurveda is a relationship with the Self, that inexhaustible source of everything, where all is well. With its palpable bounty, panchakarma shows me that love is the substrate for healing. As I push off back down the mountain road with my still powered-down iPhone, I have miles to travel. And yet, I am already home.
Are You Ready for Panchakarma?
Look for these three features for an authentic panchakarma experience:
- An Ayurvedic doctor or specialist experienced in the full range of panchakarma therapies, including the basti.
- A center that offers preparation and follow-up care, in addition to the residential therapies.
- A panchakarma spa with on-site or nearby housing, to minimize travel and distraction.
Four Panchakarma Centers
These centers offer cleanses as short as 3 or as long as 20 days.
The Ayurvedic Spa | California College of Ayurveda
Nevada City, California
800.864.8714, ext. 9000
Shankara Ayurveda Spa | Art of Living Retreat Center
Boone, North Carolina
Santa Cruz, California