The Panchakarma Experience

Herbal Oil Massage

Herbal Oil Massage

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As a Yoga retreat organizer based in India for many years, I’ve had frequent opportunities to experience the ‘authentic Ayurveda’; queuing with the locals to see the village doctor, taking part-time treatmentson the tourist trail and even working in a 100-bed Ayurveda charity hospital. However, the chance to go deeply into the full experience of Panchakarma - the classic Ayurvedic detox - has eluded me, until now.

With the £2,000 per week UK spa experience firmly out of my price range, and hesitating at the comfort levels of an Indian ashram-style facility, I find a third alternative coming in at less than half the price of its Western equivalent – a luxury Ayurvedic hospital in Kerala, providing all the comfort I need to completely surrender to this ancient process of transformation.

Diagnosis: Day 1

I am greeted at Kairali’s The Ayurvedic Healing Village by Dr. Raman Chandrasekharan – a physician of 45 years’ experience and viewed as something of a guru within the industry. Utilizing an approach to health that conflates physical and behavioural traits into a reading of one’s total nature, he takes just minutes to ‘scan’ my mannerisms and physical features for my precise Ayurvedic dosha type, and spends a further hour describing his beloved Ayurveda – an elegant ‘science of intuition’ identifying the future health conditions of the patient at the earliest possible stage.

I receive a personalised Panchakarma treatment programme based on my personal Vata-Pitta (wind-fire) doshatype and am asked to attend regular consultations with Dr. Sarvan Narangaparambil throughout the process, so he can adapt the initial schedule according to my response. My twice-daily consultations form the core of my Panchakarma experience – a source of guidance providing emotional support I will later find invaluable.

Surrender: days 1-4

The basis of every Panchakarma is the purva karma phase, or preparatory procedures. For me, this means four days of ‘oleation therapy’ –a detoxification process requiring internal and external lubrication. I begin my days with a drink of medicated ghee (clarified butter), followed by twice-daily oil massage and steam bath - intended to loosen the toxins in my body and bring them to the intestinal tract. The herbal ghee is extremely potent stuff, medicine intended to ‘pierce the channels’, according to Dr. Sarvan. He warns me that my metabolism will increase rapidly, right down to the cellular level, and my food intake will be limited to increase the strength of the detoxification.

Nobody could complain about twice-daily oil massages, and total relaxation under the palm trees of Kerala, right? But, for the first few days I suffer terribly! The very hunger and exhaustion that prove the process is working well also trigger a completely unanticipated emotional reaction. With all my energy diverted to the detoxification process, I remain in the mental rhythms of city life and fight against myself until I am forced to let go, give in, and do absolutely nothing.

Just as ‘Shavasana’ (the corpse pose’) is sometimes said to be the most difficult Yoga posture, so the surrender required by purva karma turns out to be the most difficult stage for me; though ultimately, the most beneficial.I can’t put it in any better than Dr. John Douillard, Ayurveda expert and author of Body, Mind and Sport (Crown, 1995) "Panchakarma is not a detox program. This is only its side benefit. It is a transformation in consciousness—replacing stress with silence."

Purification: days 4-10

By the time of the second phase (pradhana karma),I am firmly in the head-space of the Panchakarma process. Settled, relaxed and trusting of my doctors;I feel ready to face whichever of the classic ‘five cleansing actions’ (Panchakarma) are prescribed for me. Due to a Vata-Pitadosha predominance, I am spared the experience of emesis (induced vomiting), and begin with purgation, induced by herbal laxatives, to remove the accumulated toxins of stage one. My days continue with medicated enemas prescribed from among the 100 or more recipes given byAyurvedic scripture.

At this stage, I notice my emotions become vivid and mobile – rapidly arising and subsiding; experienced almost as physical sensations.It is as if my thought patterns, previously enmeshed in my physiology, have become detached and are undergoing their own process of detoxification. Recalling the teaching of Deepak Chopra – that the dispersal of repressed emotions is a key part of Panchakarma - I devote myself to a routine of meditation and pranayama, which helps me feel lighter by the day.

Strengthening: days 10-14

By the third phase of my Panchakarma programme, I feel better than ever before – an abundant sense of strength and mental clarity. My routine continues with regular oil baths, and daily Nasya karma, the Ayurvedic head detox’ involving the pouring of medicated oil into the nostrils, and treating the chronic sinusitis I’ve suffered for a decade. My daily Ayurvedic consultations grow longer in duration as we enter the paschata karma phase - traditionally the time when the doctor works closely with the patient to find the most sustainable routine for their Ayurvedic type and particular health conditions. We discuss every area of my diet and lifestyle, and the fundamental changes I can make to stay as grounded and clear as I feel on the retreat in Kerala.

Returning to a busy working life in New Delhi, I realise that the intensity of the Panchakarma experience is probably the reason for its vastly growing popularity worldwide. We are starting to understand that Ayurveda offers complete transformation, requiring us to face our inner fear of surrender -a challenge that every serious Yoga practitioner is familiar with.

 Emily Yates

To learn more about Yoga and Ayurveda retreats at The Ayurvedic Healing Village in Kerala, visit