Panchakarma A Multitiered Approach to Detoxification
Posted On Nov 19, 2020
By Maurissa Tancharoen Whedon
More than a health craze, Panchakarma takes a multitiered approach to detoxification. As she battles her autoimmune disease, our author dives in.You name it, I’ve done it. I’m that kind of woman. Never afraid to experiment, I’m game for anything, even if it seems crazy.If I’m not satisfied, I just move on to the next “big thing.”
Meditation, hypnosis, emotional freedom technique, shamanic healing, pranic healing, qigong healing, ionic foot baths,infrared saunas, pneumatic compression,acupressure, homeopathy, herbs, colonics, crystals, cleanses,enlightened medicinal techniques (whatever that means),and every damn diet imaginable—I’ve tried them all. I even went to a blind acupuncturist. Yes, you read that correctly:a blind acupuncturist.
There’s a reason for my exploits. I’ve been hospitalized a number of times, and not for insanity (yet). I have a chronic autoimmune disease called lupus. My immune system produces auto antibodies that cause inflammation, pain,and damage in various parts of my body. Pulmonary Vasculitis, Central Nervous System Vasculitis, and Diffuse Proliferative Lupus Nephritis—these are the fancy words I’ve learned for some of the life-threatening flare-ups I’ve experienced. The highlights, if you will. Clearly, experimenting with alternative healing therapies isn’t just because I’m the experimental type. I’m also desperate.
In April 2011, my feet and legs began to swell to five times their normal size. My kidneys were inflamed and failing me. I suffered from severe edema. The diagnosis was grim and the course of treatment was something along the lines of eight months of chemotherapy and a handful of hardcore medications. My kidneys began to show improvement but then the progress plateaued, and by the eighth month it reversed. I felt completely sucker punched. Never mind the looming talk of dialysis and transplants, I had balloon feet and my hair was falling out. Not cute.
However, I’m not one to give up. Despite tons of drugs that Western medicine has developed to keep my overactive immune system in check—drugs that have saved my life on a few occasions—I never stopped believing that there was something else that could actually “fix” me (or at least help lead me to a more balanced and healthy life).After living with this disease for more than two decades, I may have found “the thing.” And I found it just in time.
Now, I do not claim to be an expert. I simply want to tell you what I’ve experienced and how it has changed my life.
Ayurveda comes from two Sanskrit root words: Ayus,which means “life” and Veda,which means “knowledge,” or“science.” Ayurveda is the oldest form of preventative medicine and health care on the planet—over five thousand years old.That’s some old-school science right there. My path to Ayurveda started with a deep detoxifying cleanse called panchakarma.
The emotional and spiritual aspects of panchakarma (effective in treating skin disorders,conditions such as colitis, and ailments linked to chemotherapy)make it an experience unlike any other. This makes it rather difficult to explain, especially given that it’s a part of a health care tradition full of Sanskrit terms and beliefs that connect us to nature and to the universe—and to each other. In Ayurveda, health is not just the absence of illness,but the balance and integration of the mind, body, and soul.These are intimately and undeniably connected. Let me tell you—if you’re cleansing all those things at the same time, it is intense. I was fortunate to have Martha Soffer, an amazing and wise Ayurvedic therapist, guide me through it all.
When I first walked into Surya Spa—Martha’s cozy sanctuary nestled in the hills of the Pacific Palisades—I was immediately taken by the soothing aroma, a combination of herbs, oils, and insanely delicious Ayurvedic cooking. It was like stumbling upon Mother Earth’s kitchen and wanting to eat everything while curling up for a nap at the same time.
Martha looked at my legs and feet. I told her about my kidneys. She checked my pulse—a way that imbalances are detected in Ayurvedic medicine. Body imbalances are caused by imbalances in our “mind-body constitutions” ordoshas (Vatta, Pitta, and Kapha). I was having a Pitta imbalance,the dosha comprised of fire and water.
Martha shook her head as she checked my pulse. “Too much fire,” she said. “All the fire in you, it’s there because you hold too much inside.” My instinct was to be defensive—she had just met me. What does she know? Then I found myself crying, remembering that ever since I was a teenager, I had always imagined lupus as an uncontrollable fire burning me from the inside out. I kept saying I was tired of being sick and so afraid to live like this forever. I had lost all hope. She looked at me and told me that she would help me—that I was going to be OK. For some reason, I believed her right away.
Before starting panchakarma, there were four days of body preparation to receive the holistic detoxification experience. This entailed eating easily digestible foods—cooked vegetables, whole grains, soups, cooked fruits,many glasses of plain hot water or herbal tea a day, and varying teaspoons of a clarified butter called ghee. No alcohol, meat, dairy, sugars, caffeine, or any processed foods. I had to top off day four with a few tablespoons of castor oil. So, we have the easily digestible foods, the hot water, the ghee butter, and castor oil. I think you’ve probably guessed what the desired outcome was—and holy moley! What an outcome. By the end of prep, I already felt like a brand new woman. I was ready for panchakarma.
For the next ten days, I was at Surya Spa every day. My daily treatments would start with an abhyanga. Hindu chants played in the background as Martha and one of her assistants slathered me in a customized hot oil mixture,infused with herbs specifically for my condition. I’m talking from head to toe. I was covered in this amazing oil and it was absolutely glorious. They would massage me in unison, working the medicinal oil into my muscles and joints; their touch and movements in perfect sync. Every move is aimed to stimulate the release of toxins through out my body. Then came the pinda swedana—cloth boluses full of warm herbs, milk, and rice that they would rub rigorously everywhere. The warmth of the boluses opens the pores, driving the herbs and oil even deeper into underlying tissues. These treatments would last for, oh I don’t know—two to three hours maybe? Yes, I’m bragging.
After the abhyanga and pinda swedana, I would do additional treatments like an urdvatana—a full-body exfoliation that moves stagnant lymphatic toxins out of the body. Urdvatana stimulates sluggish circulation and digestion,and also helps to combat cellulite, which is a nice bonus.
There was also what I like to call the “special hat treatment”or shirobasti. Martha would fix this tall leather hat around my head, just above my ears and eyebrows, and pour oil into it so that it concentrated on my scalp and stayed there for a period of time. I would close my eyes and just sit, looking like Cleopatra, as my thoughts slowed down and my anxiety slipped away.
That’s the beauty of panchakarma. It aims to loosen toxins holistically so that you can eliminate them. And you do. Yes, you do. It is crazy how much there is to eliminate! Mind-blowing. But the most mind-blowing component of panchakarma is the emotional release. In Ayurveda, the toxic residue from lingering anger, sadness, guilt—any of that—can be the most damaging, causing imbalances in the body and, eventually, disease.
Every day after the various heavenly treatments, we’d end with a shirodhara. I would lie on my back as a thin stream of warm oil flowed over my forehead. For how long, I have no idea, because I was transported somewhere else every time—not necessarily dreams, but memories. Sometimes there was nothing at all, just peace.
Since I was a young child, my mind has always been in overdrive mode—obsessively thinking and constantly worrying. I still bite my nails, to this day. And it does make sense—a child with an overactive mind developing an overactive immune system. It was during the shirodharas that I finally experienced my mind getting quiet for the first time. Martha would calmly watch over me as my breath deepened and expanded. All I know is that this kind of quiet—remarkable stillness—felt like bliss.
I proceeded to do this for ten days. Some people,depending on their needs, will undergo panchakarma for up to a month; sometimes they will go even longer. By the second day of my treatment, I remembered something that I botched, back when I was ten years old—I was punching pillows. I felt embarrassed, guilty, and afraid. I proceeded to cry on the table, and Martha comforted me and told me to let it go. On day four, I thanked God for my amazing husband, Jed. I don’t know who or what I meant by God,but I needed to give thanks to something for letting me love like this. By day five, the edema in my legs and feet began to disappear. By day six, I finally embraced forgiveness. By day seven, I understood that having lupus was not my fault. By day eight, the edema was gone.
On day nine, during shirodhara, I saw myself at age 15.It all happened just as I remembered: I watched myself fall to the ground—out cold. Only this time, this 15-year-old girl sat up on her own. I approached her and proceeded to gingerly place my hand on her shoulder. She turned around and I saw her face. A red rash spanned across her cheeks,along her neck, down her arms, covering her fingertips. But she didn’t seem afraid and she wasn’t in any pain. She looked up at me and smiled. I knew at that moment she was going to be OK.
On day ten, I had hope again.
That was in November of 2011. In the time since then,I’ve done panchakarma three times and I absolutely plan to do it for the rest of my life. I go to Surya Spa at least twice a month just to get an abhyanga and shirodara. I eat according to my dosha and practice yoga regularly. If I feel my mind starting to spin out of control, I sit down and meditate, even if it is only for five minutes. Today, my kidneys continue to work just fine and my medications are down to a fifth of what they used to be. My doctors use the word “astounded” when it comes to my recovery and progress. Now that I have Ayurveda in my life, I’m the healthiest I’ve been in—well—a very long time.