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May 27, 2021

Cleansing: Health Necessity or Hype?

*Editor’s Note: Elephant is not your doctor or hospital. Our lawyers would say “this website is not designed to, and should not be construed to provide medical advice, professional diagnosis, opinion, or treatment to you or any other individual, and is not intended as a substitute for medical or professional care and treatment. Always consult a health professional before trying out new home therapies or changing your diet.” But we can’t afford lawyers, and you knew all that.

 

What Ayurveda’s ancient Panchakarma cleanse taught me.

Do we even need to cleanse?

Or is cleansing just another trend, telling us we aren’t good enough as we are and need to spend money and change to improve?

Weren’t our bodies designed to cleanse themselves?

These are all questions I considered before I first decided to cleanse some years ago.

Yes, our bodies do have this amazing innate ability to cleanse and process waste materials on their own. However, factors such as poor food choices, stress, genetic predisposition, unbalanced hormones, and weak digestion can often result in less-than-optimal functioning of not only our digestive system but our entire body. This leads to the accumulation and spread of toxins throughout the body. Toxins that when built up lead to many of the mental and physical diseases we see in the world today.

Add the polluted environments we live in, our fast-paced lifestyles, our tainted food, and water supply, and the lack of unbiased education on proper nutrition leading us to processed “health foods” our bodies weren’t meant to digest and we are left with the sad reality that most of us could benefit greatly from at least a yearly cleanse.

According to Ayurveda and texts from Ayurvedic guru David Frawley, some of the physical signs you might need to cleanse include:

>> Thick coating on the tongue
>> Low energy throughout the day
>> Body aches and pains
>> Uncontrollable cravings or attachments
>> Foggy mind or difficulty focusing
>> Bad smelling breath, odor, and flatulence
>> Constipation and/or diarrhea
>> Digestive difficulties of any kind, gas, bloating, burping, or heartburn
>> Difficulty listening to what your body needs (sleep, food, rest, exercise)

With all the cleansing options out there, it can be pretty darn overwhelming to choose—but for me, it was a no-brainer.

I’ve been studying Ayurveda for a few years now and have seen the positive results that shorter, self-guided Kitchari cleanses have yielded. I also try to practice what I preach, so felt it was necessary to try the more in-depth and intense Ayurvedic cleanse: Panchakarma.

But why Ayurveda?

While I could write an entire post on why I love Ayurveda, I’ll keep it simple.

Whereas modern medicine tends to focus on helping you manage symptoms of your health problem, this more than 5,000-year-old system of healing teaches the importance of digging deeper to get to the root of our problems while empowering us to reclaim our wellness on a physical, emotional, physical, and spiritual level.

With no one-sized all solution of prescription for all, Ayurveda takes into account the unique chemistry of each individual and offers a variety of practices and diets that fluctuate with the season and leaves room for change as we naturally evolve.

With diet seen as the foundation of all healing therapies, Ayurveda views food as the most important form of medicine. In fact, it is said that “when diet is correct, medicine is of no need; when diet is incorrect, medicine is of no use.” But—and this is a big but—this food is only considered to be medicine when it is properly digested and converted into nutrients our body can absorb. And this only occurs when our digestive fire (Agni) is balanced.

This metabolic or digestive fire is what fuels digestion, absorption, and assimilation into the GI tract, as well as the exchange of nutrients at the cellular level.

Unfortunately, Agni is often weakened by poor lifestyle choices and the stress of our external environment. This leads to poor digestion of food, allows undigested food and emotions to build up as toxicity, and eventually travels to weak sites in our body, creating disease.

In Ayurveda, this toxicity is called Ama and is described as a heavy, sticky, foul-smelling substance in the body that can also be described as the first stage of disease.

To rid the body of this built-up toxicity, Ayurveda often diagnoses the cleansing process known as Panchakarma.

Originally designed to bolster the health and longevity of royalty, Panchakarma is said to harness the natural intelligence of the body to restore optimal health and balance, rejuvenating the physical and emotional body.

Known to restore balance to all organs and channels of elimination (colon, sweat glands, lungs, bladder, urinary tract, stomach, intestines), Panchakarma is also said to increase digestive capacity; remove built-up toxins from the intestinal lining; alleviate congestion from the body and mind; slow the aging process; strengthen immunity; enhance energy and feelings of well-being; as well as help heal and soothe the intestinal wall.

Sold yet? I sure was.

So what exactly is Panchakarma? The Sanskrit word translates as “five actions” and refers to the process of cleansing the body of toxic materials accumulated from poor nutrition, stress, and environmental toxins through five cleansing actions, along with follow-up rejuvenation.

The “five treatments” of Panchakarma traditionally included therapeutic vomiting, herbal enemas, nasal irrigation with medicated oil, bloodletting, and purgation. But, before you run screaming, some of the practices have been adapted to the modern world, with the more extreme methods such as bloodletting and therapeutic vomiting being modified or removed.

While each Panchakarma offering may differ depending on where you go, the goal and outcome of modern-day Panchakarma is the same: complete detoxification on a cellular level, allowing the body to return to its natural state of health.

While I’ve had this intense cleansing process on my radar for some years now, I didn’t quite feel ready to take the plunge until recently.

After the year of COVID-19, where I indulged in food, caffeine, and bad habits such as tobacco for the first time in my life, I was feeling heavy and attached to my unhealthy vices. I knew I needed to do something to break the bad habits that had trickled in, so I decided to go to an Ayurvedic specialist (Cory Tixier) who has been studying, living, and sharing Ayurveda for many years before me, in order to gain the support and supplies needed to complete this cleansing process.

Going in, I had grand plans to journal each day, documenting and releasing whatever emotions I felt along the way. But reality quickly hit and I only managed to get some days in, which I share below. While I knew this would be hard, I didn’t quite realize quite how hard until a few days in when I began to grow tired of the same ol’ Kitchari mush and much of the physical and emotional toxins began to surface, making me feel tired, sore, and moody as can be.

The Panchakarma I undertook consisted of a strict and scheduled diet of simple and easy-to-digest Kitchari (every damn day), cleansing herbs, practices such as enemas, ghee and castor oil drinking, dry brushing, oil massaging, sweating, tongue scraping, oil pulling, (all amazing practices I’ll write more on in a future post) meditation, journaling, and rest from many of my usual activities with lots of sleep instead.

Because I’ve already had many questions about my experience with this process, I decided to share some words from my PK journal. (Perhaps a little TMI? But hey, it’s real!)

Day 3 of 10

Okay, day three of Panchakarma pre-cleanse and I said I would start writing about my experience from day one, but ha! lesson one, I still love breaking rules. Mostly when they don’t make sense, but also, sometimes, in some interesting self-destructive ways. I see it. It’s nothing new, it just shows up in different ways.

Yup, I see it and am practicing new routes. It’s simply a practice, and with time, commitment, and intention, I’ll continue to progress. Something tells me something is about to shift once more. I am finally feeling ready to practice full-blown commitment to something again. Something I’ve been skillfully avoiding since the last major commitment gone awry.

But I go into these next seven days with the ultimate commitment to myself and this process. Whatever comes up, whatever needs to release, whatever I need to face, I go in with an open heart and open mind. I set the clear intention to continue on in this practice of making new choices in this life. Choices different than those from past.

I see, honor, and laugh at my inner rebel who simply wants to be free and have fun, yet now understand the power of discipline and focus in a whole new way. Am I a bit scared to leave the comfort of my old ways and face this new challenge of surrender? Yes! That Vata-infused fear is still real, but I enter this process with deep respect and trust in Ayurveda and the power of self-healing. These words of Ayurveda I’ve been reading lately have truly been penetrating my heart like never before.

Oh, Ayurveda! There’s so much to freaking learn, so much to remember, but with time and practice, I know it will all continue to become more familiar. I somehow trust this ancient wisdom more than I trust most things in this life and am grateful to be finally learning to let go and trust in myself. I have no doubt this wisdom came to my life for a purpose, right on time like everything else—and that purpose is to help me continue deeper into healing, so I can inspire and share the healing with others. Because I know I’m certainly not alone. We are on this healing journey together whether aware or not. Layer by layer, step by step, the evolution occurs. Bring it on, Panchakarma!

Oh yeah: one last confession. I had one last joint to smoke and while I woke up feeling like I’d be okay without it, I still chose to indulge. This was the wean off substances phase afterall right? Gah!

Yet another freaking attachment I’ll have to learn to live without—for the next 7-10 days at least.

Sometimes, I can’t help but question what I’m doing. Why am I trying to be so hardcore? Am I trying to finish this game of life? Am I trying to make it to some final level—some epic battle needed to be won? And somehow, that idea doesn’t seem so strange in this crazy world, although I suspect I have many lifetimes to go before I reach that final battle…

Day 5 of 10

Day two of the deeper cleansing process and I’m feeling all sorts of feelings bubble to the surface. Seeing my resistance to this process, resistance to surrender, and this lingering anger towards god knows what come up as I grumpily drive to the store behind a slow driver to buy more veggies to make yet another pot of freaking Kitchari—when all I really want is a fat joint and maybe some pizza, chocolate, or sex. Oh, the freaking drama queen mind! Somehow this feels a lot like PMS, but a bit more intense.

And while I remain compassionate to all that comes up, trusting that as these physically stored toxins begin to loosen and flow through my body, the emotional toxins of past are doing the same, I still can’t help but count the days until this process is over and all these toxins and emotions have left my body.

After an intense night of sleep with many vivid dreams, I physically feel tired and emotionally raw—and this is only day five—the warmup of what’s to come. What the heck did I get myself into? But overall, beyond all the whining, I continue to trust in this process and feel this is exactly where I’m meant to be.

Oh yes, and my Sadhana practice has gone to sh*t. Meditation without my beloved ganja, somehow doesn’t seem so appealing right now and while I managed to hit my mat for a much-needed yoga nidra session yesterday, I’ve had zero motivation to do any of it today. In fact, today I’m feeling much resistance to the whole yoga and spiritual world as I scroll through my Instagram, seeing all these “love and light” woke posts.

But instead of judging myself or forcing anything, I’m just sitting with it all, giving myself permission to rest as much as needed. Tomorrow is another day and as I’ve learned from past breaks from my attachments, I eventually adapt and thrive once I pass the initial phase of resistance.

So enough with the whining. Time to continue on with this day of scheduled herbs, bowls of Kitchari, cups of tea, cleansing practices, and continuing to work on that freaking discipline.

Day 4 (I thought it was day 7 ) of 10

Ugh, so yesterday I realized I am not done with this experience as soon as I thought. I somehow thought the three pre-cleanse days were counted, however yesterday I rudely discovered it’s not. So I’m feeling a bit gah again today. I’m already so over the flavor of this CCF (coriander, cumin, fennel) tea and the mushy texture and bland taste of this Kitchari and Congee, yet still have long to go.

I’m trying to stay positive and remind myself how freaking nourishing this is for my body, mind, and soul each time my mind wants to have an internal temper tantrum, but ya, morale is low at the moment.

After last night’s castor oil cocktail and waking up in the middle of the night to purge a waterfall from my butt, I’m feeling depleted, and emotionally raw, so I’m taking today, as suggested, to simply rest and not do too much.

Although I have kind of been doing that already these past few days and am getting a bit antsy. There’s a whole world out there and here I am stuck in my studio with nothing to do but sleep or watch Netflix. Yes, I suppose I could do something productive like reading or continue deep cleaning my place, but right now that’s the last thing I want to do.

Yup, motivation and morale are at an all-time low. Again, something to notice and sit with, as I know it’s common at this point in the cleanse, but man these days are feeling long as f*ck. Even my beautiful mountainside place is irritating me, as I listen to the birds loudly chirp outside, increasing the intensity of this headache I’m feeling. Not to mention this high-pitched noise humming I keep hearing. Am I losing it or what?!

The nightly practices of dry brushing, oil massaging, oil pulling, and nose oiling have also been tough, as I usually just want to get to sleep so another day will pass, but at least I’m doing them. Although I have to confess, I’ve been doing them for less time than suggested. But hey, I’m still doing them so E for effort right?! I can’t help but hear my teacher’s voice in my head—do what you can—comforting me and reminding me to not be so hard on myself (the pattern I’ve been working on for years) for not following the rules “to a T,” like I initially vowed to do. I guess at this point in my life I just need to accept that’s who I’ve been for so many years—a rule modifier of sorts.

Anyway, not much else to say, other than six more freaking days to go. Tomorrow morning is the Basti which I’m completely dreading. Something about shoving a tube up my butt and filling my body with tea just doesn’t sound so appealing. But hey, maybe it won’t be as bad as I’m making it out to be in my mind. Let’s see. Okay, time to go sit and stare at the mountain, waiting for the day to pass. First-world problems indeed, but right now I can’t help but be annoyed by everything and want to complain. Isn’t that what this journaling was for? Gah!

Day 9 (rejuvenation) of 10

Well, looks like I didn’t write as much as I initially hoped, but man, between all the meals, teas, pooping, cleansing practices, and much-needed rest, I just haven’t had the time or energy. But here I am on day nine/day two of the rejuvenation period where I’m finally allowed to enjoy something other than the bland-ass Kitchari and other mush I’ve been allowed to eat.

Not going to lie, I wanted to cry when I first sipped that date almond milkshake. The best thing I’ve tasted for what seems like a long time. I guess this cleansing process has really taught me to appreciate the food I have access to and am able to eat.

Funny enough, while I was happy to enjoy it, I also couldn’t help but be suspicious as the delicious liquid went down my throat into my freshly cleansed and apparently raw digestive system. Is this too much? Will my body remember what to do with it?! Dramatic, I know, but another beautiful lesson from this experience has been to really reflect on the nourishment and impact of food I’m enjoying on my digestion and health. Instead of simply eating to enjoy, questioning how will this digest?

All drama aside, I know from my guide, this phase of the cleanse is an important one, as I am beginning to rebuild the protective coating in my digestive tract. Something she scared me straight with, as she warned me about the damage I could do if I quit now and resumed my regular food routine. So, as much as I want to scarf down a pizza as soon as I can, I’ll stay on track.

So how do I feel, aside from excited about the new variety of diet? I am feeling good! Clear and focused in the mind, happy in my heart, and physically energized. I deep cleaned my whole place and still somehow had energy. While I’m not sure I’d have the strength to hike long distances like before the cleanse, I know I will only feel better with each day I rejuvenate. Enemas (not as bad as I feared, as usual), ghee and castor oil drinking, and mono dieting behind me, I am feeling so grateful for this experience already.

While I couldn’t help but be a bit razzed by the fact that I can’t simply jump back into my eating habits before the cleanse come day 11, and rather must slowly ease back into more varied eating over the next months, I understand this concept and know this is going to be a great mechanism to eliminate some of the stuff I was indulging in before cleanse—yes tobacco, candy, processed snacks, I mean you.

While I know I am not ever going to be one to be a 100 percent purist when it comes to the food I consume or the life that I live, I certainly feel this is going to be a major shift. Not only in the way I relate with food, in terms of what I eat and how fast I eat it, but also emotionally. It’s hard to explain, but aside from the weight loss (which was not at all my goal) from this experience, I feel lighter—emotionally speaking.

While I’ve been madly digging on this “healing journey” since leaving my marriage and digging into childhood trauma years ago, it’s been a slow and hilly process. Going into this experience, I could still feel this lingering heaviness in my heart and emotions that no amount of meditation, asana, bodywork, plant medicine, or anything else I tried could quite release. While I’m sure there are many more layers to peel back (there always seem to be), I feel like this experience was certainly a major release of much of stuck emotion that was hiding deep within my body and I look forward to seeing how this release manifests in my life moving forward.

Day 12
I made it! I somehow completed this 10 + three pre-cleanse day, deep cleansing journey and what can I say, I feel fan-f*cking-tastic! While I’m still pretty much eating on the same schedule and with the same mushy textured, easy-to-digest foods, it feels so good to know I’m now free, to slowly add back the foods I missed. And somehow that newly returned freedom and the fact that I’m feeling clearer,  more focused, and happier than I have in a long time (despite the fact that I’m in prime PMS time), is enough to keep me away from the things I thought I’d be right back on once this was all said and done—namely cannabis and bread.

Which really says something about just how powerful this process is. Those two things were two of my greatest attachments going in, which reminded me yet again of how letting go of attachments, while hard at first, only proves we have the power to adapt and learn to be content without whatever it is we let go.

While I no longer have to stick to the schedule from the cleanse, I find myself continuing and even enjoying the nightly practices that seemed so tedious at first, and have been sleeping great. I am so grateful I stuck with this and feel my discipline game has been upped which I know will only help me as I move forward in life.

While I’m still not smoking cannabis, I know I’ll eventually return to this powerful plant one day, as I still believe it had its place in my life.

What this process did, was help me see how I had a bit of an unhealthy relationship with the plant, due to the fact that I was using it more out of habit, rather than as needed as medicine or occasional fun. It’s been nice to see I can enjoy life without it and am enjoying the clear mind and enhanced memory that comes along with the break.

So do I suggest this process? Based on my experience, hell yes!

I’ll certainly be doing it again come fall, as Ayurveda commonly suggests to do (spring and fall). While there were certainly three days in the middle when I may have said no, due to the fact that I felt like sh*t as all my physical and emotional toxins came to the surface, I can definitely say now, those three days of suffering were way worth the outcome.

That being said, this was simply my experience, which I share in the hopes it will inspire you to reflect on your own body and life and perhaps experiment with your own cleansing process even if it’s not Panchakarma.

While you may not be ready for something so extreme (for many years I was not which is why I started with the three-day mini Kitchari cleansing), perhaps you are ready to detox from one of your unhealthy attachments—sugar, processed foods, tobacco, toxic relationships…the list goes on.

We all have our vices in this life. And if not, that’s okay, too.

Sometimes, it takes years for something we read or hear to truly resonate. But if you’ve read this far, I suspect that desire is there.

So, be patient with yourself and take whatever step you feel ready for.

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