rē•introducing Panchakarma, the Original Detox
Exploring the ancient healing modalities of Ayurveda.
When Martha Soffer first encountered Ayurveda’s ancient holistic healing system and its panchakarma detoxifying process more than thirty years ago, she thought, “This is amazing! Why doesn’t everyone do this?” Today, she is the founder of Ayurvedic-based Surya Spa in California. There, she’s committed to helping others discover those same feelings of well-being, health, and vitality. “Ayurveda’s so ancient that it’s hard to imagine.
It’s older than cities. Languages have been born and died while Ayurveda kept going, passed down from generation to generation,” the Ayurvedic doctor, chef, and herbalist tells rē•spin.”Languages, religions, all those things that we think have always been there? Ayurveda was there first.”
Ayurveda, says Soffer, is designed to find a balance between the three doshas, or energy forces, found in each person. These are the vata, pitta, and kapha. “Our ‘doshic constitution’ is what we’re born with, and when we live in harmony with that constitution, we feel good, physically and emotionally,” explains Soffer. But in a society that often rewards many behaviors that throw us out of balance, she notes that you can start to feel unwell emotionally and then physically. “If we don’t do something to put ourselves back in equilibrium, that unease that we feel eventually becomes a disease.”
One method of achieving this: panchakarma, a traditionally five-pronged cleansing process. Placing equal emphasis on the mind, body, and spirit, panchakarma is “the original detox,” she says. “Breaking toxins loose from where they’re lodged in the body is central to our therapies. It’s not that our bodies don’t have the ability to do this; it’s just that sometimes we need a little help.”
What is Panchakarma?
In the simplest terms, panchakarma is a series of treatments and meals that take place over consecutive days. It is designed to restore the body’s capacity to heal and detoxify. It also removes accumulated waste through natural channels such as blood vessels and sweat glands.
“Maybe the phrase ‘healing journey’ is overused, but that’s really what happens during panchakarma. The treatments evolve over the course of the days because each client is changing, too,” Soffer tells rē•spin. “What I love the most is how people come through my door because of a specific physical problem, but when they leave, the real healing is emotional and psychological. Sometimes it even feels like the body produces the symptoms, trying to get us to understand, ‘Hey, this can’t go on any longer; you have to take the time to heal yourself.’”
The Panchakarma Process
Traditionally, the five procedures of panchakarma entailed:
- vaman (forced vomiting)
- virechana (cleansing of the lower intestine)
- basti (medicated enema)
- nasya (nasal administration of substances)
- raktamokshana (bloodletting)
These steps have become more approachable and gentler but equally effective today.
While Western medicine focuses on treating illness, Ayurveda is designed to promote optimal health. “Regular panchakarma, particularly at the change of the seasons, keeps little, vague problems from turning into real problems,” says Soffer. Her spa offers a panchakarma series spanning anywhere from 3 to 28 days and encompasses a variety of treatments. “Even if we did the same procedure day after day, it would have a different effect and would likely use different herbs because panchakarma is a transformation process,” she explains.
Some of the most commonly used treatments include pizchilli, shirodhara, abhyanga, swedhana, and chana besan, broken down by Soffer below:
- Pizichilli: “This is a treatment reserved for the royalty of ancient India, mostly because it uses so much oil! We flow two streams of warm, herbalized oils over the body for hours. It’s an oil bath, but instead of floating in a vat of oil, you recline on a luxurious treatment table while two therapists rhythmically massage the oil into your skin. It creates this amazing sense of luxury and relaxation. At the same time, the healing power of the herbs are massaged into every part of the body.”
- Shirodhara: “This is a very different kind of “massage.” Again, we use warm oil infused with herbs chosen specifically for the client. But in this case, the oil itself does the massage. We use a bronze vessel that releases a slow, steady stream of oil, and our therapists play this across the forehead in specific patterns. It’s the most subtle massage you can imagine and focused on the third eye, the marma (or energy) point located just above the eyes on the centerline. But the effects of a Shirodhara are profound — powerfully calming, bringing about a greater sense of awareness, and even expanded consciousness, as many clients report.”
- Abhyanga: “At its core, this is a four-handed massage, where two therapists synchronize their movements; each mirrors the other. They work the entire body with oils infused with herbs to help the client achieve balance. Abhyanga mobilizes toxins out of the tissues, and the synchronous massage moves both sides of the brain into a near-transcendent harmony.”
- Swedhana: “This is a steam treatment where the sauna is a wooden box, just big enough for one person. There’s a seat inside and a hole for your head on top, so your head stays cool. Steam opens the pores, of course, and we use a herbalized steam that penetrates the body. This is a great way to break loose stubborn toxins, and moist heat accelerates the body’s natural toxin removal pathways.”
- Chana Besan: “This is one of my favorites, maybe because it’s so unexpected and effective. We use a dough made of chickpea flour to build dams or wells on the skin’s surface and create pools of herbalized oils that focus on specific areas of the body that need extra attention. For example, in the Netra Basti, a variant, we submerge the eyes, which lets us treat an exceedingly delicate part of the body.”
Surya’s Panchakarma Program
A typical day in a panchakarma program at Surya includes a four-hour treatment and warm vegetarian meals. There are also options such as a sound bath, yoga class, or a QiGong-like Ayurvedic energy healing session. And because medicine is food, everything used in the panchakarma process features edible ingredients. After the cleanse is over, Surya Spa aids in getting each individual transitioned back into their day-to-day lives. They provide advice, classes, and special products to bring the same experience at home to extend the effects.
Beyond the spa, what people do at home is just as important. “Your diet, lifestyle, and the world around you, all of these things either help you retain balance or push you out of balance. Ayurveda is ultimately about learning to nourish your body and soul,” says Soffer.
Basic detoxifying treatments that can be performed at home include using a neti pot to clear nasal passageways. Staying hydrated to aid in healthy digestion and help thin lymphatic fluids. Dry brushing helps to promote circulation and lymphatic drainage, and meditating aids the mind.
The Benefits of Panchakarma
Many clients who initially come to Soffer are experiencing some suffering — whether they’re carrying a heavy burden, daily stressors, or something more minor. By using one of the infinite variations of panchakarma to treat them, “suffering retreats, and awareness appears,” she says. While the mind and body are a single being, the body often manifests symptoms. “The body speaks to me, and we use panchakarma to treat the body, but so often, the root of the issue lies in the heart and the mind.”
Whether your panchakarma detox is three days, five days, or longer, it’s designed to give your body a rest, a chance to heal, and rē•set. “Bit by bit, you’re going to feel better and better, more and more balanced, vital, calm, alive — like you’re entering a new life — or returning to that state of well-being that you might not have felt in a long time… that you might have even forgotten that you could feel. That’s the transformation that happens day by day.”