Guide to Panchakarma: What You Need to Know

Guide to Panchakarma: What You Need to Know

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What is Panchakarma?

Panchakarma is an Ayurvedic rejuvenation and detox procedure that lasts from 7 to 21 days. Panch means five and karma means action, so panchakarma is the five actions of cleansing and rejuvenation. The five actions start with physical detoxification with a goal of health, longevity, and a deep mental and emotional transformation that enhances self-awareness.

The five actions of panchakarma are virechana (intestinal purgation), basti (enema), vamana (vomiting therapy), rakta moksha (blood donation), and nasya (brain lymph cleanse). While not all of these are indicated for every patient, these panchakarma therapies should always be performed by a qualified Ayurvedic practitioner.

The procedure starts with a preparatory process called purvakarma where the impurities stored in the deep tissues are loosened in preparation for detox. This is typically done with a process of internal and external oleation. This is performed by the external application of herbalized massage oils and the internal ingestion of gradually-increasing dosages of cultured ghee for 3-7 days.

See also How to Do Panchakarma at Home

In my panchakarma center, we would give a 7-day purvakarma program to my patients before they even arrived at our panchakarma center.  Administering at-home purvakarma for so many years inspired me to create our Colorado Ayurvedic Cleanse (14 days), Short Home Cleanse (4 days), and Kaya Kalpa Cleanse (5 days). In fact, I regularly prescribe one of our Ayurvedic cleanses as the purvakarma for my patients who want to do panchakarma in their local area, where the panchakarma menu may not be as in-depth. These at-home cleanses are a great way to detox and rejuvenate, even if you aren’t able to visit a panchakarma center.

To design your pre-panchakarma protocol, book a consultation with Dr. John.  

What to Look for When Choosing a Panchakarma Center

There are many panchakarma centers popping up around the country, which makes it very hard to know what to look for while choosing a center. After 26 years of experience, I can tell you that administering full panchakarma is a massive endeavor and a labor of love. At our peak, we employed 16 Ayurvedic therapists. Each took 3 months to train and another 6 months to perfect their skills. There are numerous massage treatments involved in what I call “full” panchakarma, and the strokes of each massage are choreographed. This means that each stroke of the ten different massages had to be memorized. In our center, each treatment started with a one-hour individualized massage with two therapists. This was followed by another 90 minutes of tailored panchakarma treatments.

In our two-therapist treatments, the synchrony had to be spot-on so that the four hands felt like one cohesive group. When they were synchronized perfectly, it was magic—the mind would quickly give up trying to figure out what was happening and the body would drop into a deep state of relaxation and healing self-awareness. In cases where the therapists were not in sync, it can reportedly feel distracting to the patient.

While well-trained and certified panchakarma therapists are crucial, it is even more critical that the panchakarma be administered by a certified and experienced Ayurvedic practitioner. Experience administering panchakarma is highly important, as each treatment should be tailored to the individual needs of the patient. In many spa-like Ayurvedic centers, everyone gets the same treatments and the massages are either loosely choreographed or ad-libbed.

See also The Science of an Abyhanga (Daily Oil Massage)

The Ayurvedic Treatments in Full Panchakarma

If you are seeking full panchakarma look for these treatments:

Abyhanga – Herbalized oil full body Ayurvedic massage. Two therapists.

Vishesh – Herbalized oil deep tissue massage. Two therapists.

Udvartina – Herbal paste lymphatic massage. Two therapists.

Garshana – Raw silk glove lymphatic massage. Two therapists.

Pinda swedna – Herbal steam bolus paste massage for deep tissue and joint cleansing. Two therapists.

Shiro-Abyhanga-Nasya  – Head and neck massage, eucalyptus inhalation and deep herbalized nasya (or nasal inhalation) to detox the brain’s lymphatic system and remove old emotional trauma. Two therapists.

Pizhichil – Warm oil pouring over whole body massage. Two therapists.

Shirodhara – Pouring of warm herbalized oil over forehead for deep relaxation and relieving old emotional trauma. One therapist.

Swedna – Herbalized steam bath with head outside steam, being cooled with ice packs to facilitate deep detox without overheating. One therapist.

Basti – Herbalized oil enema administered at the end of each day of panchakarma. One therapist.

Ayurvedic facial – Head, face and neck massage to stimulate head, face and neck lymphatic drainage. One therapist.

Marma Point Therapy – Application of herbalized oils on specific vital marma points to enliven self-awareness. One therapist.

Learn Ayurvedic Massage Techniques in my book, The Encyclopedia of Ayurvedic Massage

Finding a Good Panchakarma Center

Panchakarma in India and the U.S.

My official Ayurvedic training started in 1986, at the World Ayurvedic Center outside of New Delhi, India. At that center, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (the founder of Transcendental Meditation) gathered dozens of Ayurvedic physicians from all over India to take residence there. The goal was to revitalize Ayurveda and panchakarma in the true Vedic tradition. There, I met Deepak Chopra and was invited to co-direct his Ayurvedic Panchakarma center in Massachusetts, which I did for 8 years. In 1994, I moved back to Boulder, Colorado with my growing family and opened the LifeSpa Ayurvedic Panchakarma Center and ran that in the same Vedic tradition through 2013.  Today, the only panchakarma center in America that uses the same model that I learned in India is called The Raj, a destination Ayurvedic panchakarma resort in Fairfield, Iowa which I can highly recommend.

I am regularly asked where to do panchakarma in India, and there are many amazing centers in India to choose from. I haven’t done panchakarma in India since the late 1980s, so I do not have recommendations I can make based on my current experience. If you do go to India for panchakarma, I suggest you spend at least a month there. Give yourself time to get over the jet lag before starting your treatments.

See also jet lag and staying healthy while traveling

In the United States, there are many panchakarma centers to choose from that are run by incredible India-trained Ayurvedic doctors with decades of experience. However, it is only fair for me to review the panchakarma centers I have actually experienced. I do plan on visiting more U.S. panchakarma centers soon and will make my recommendations at that time. Recently I have had some wonderful experiences with European panchakarma centers.

Experiencing European Ayurveda

After our panchakarma center closed, my wife and I started taking panchakarma vacations. In 2014, we went to a panchakarma center in the Austrian Alps called Sonnhof Ayurveda Resort and experienced for the first time what they call ‘European Ayurveda’. There, they hire certified panchakarma therapists from Kerala, India that are overseen by Ayurvedic Vaidyas (Doctors of Ayurveda). They offer what is very close to full panchakarma. What makes European Ayurveda unique is the combination of full panchakarma with the very elaborate European spa experience. Panchakarma in the US and in India is strictly Ayurvedic panchakarma, but the three European Ayurvedic panchakarma centers we have been to, have some additions. The variety of dry saunas, steam baths, Infrared therapy, and pools along with yoga, breathing, meditation, and full-service gourmet Ayurvedic meals added another level of deep rest, healing, and luxury to the experience.  

Sonnhof Resort, Austria

In 2018, we visited another panchakarma center in Germany outside of Frankfurt called Kunzmann’s. Here, we had a similar experience to the one in Austria, with Ayurvedic doctors and panchakarma therapists from Kerala—although, in our opinion, not as comprehensive as Sonnhof.

In September 2022, my wife and I wanted to do some panchakarma to detox, rejuvenate, and essentially take our first vacation since Covid. Outside of Vienna, in the foothills of the Austrian Alps, we went to Sonnhof’s sister panchakarma center called Ayurveda Resort Mandira.

Ayurveda Resort Mandira

Mandira’s panchakarma is also administered by Ayurvedic doctors and therapists from Kerala. The resort sits on a hot spring with three thermal pools. This adds additional relaxation to their full European menu of panchakarma, saunas, steam baths, infrared therapy, yoga, breathing, meditation, and organic Ayurvedic food. We spent ten nights with 9 days of panchakarma and had an amazing experience at a surprisingly affordable price.

See also Supercharge Your Immunity During Ritusandhi—the Ayurvedic Junction Between Seasons

When to Do Panchakarma

When is the best time of year to do panchakarma to maximize the benefits? I have been asked this question for years, and the short answer is: it is best to do panchakarma when you have time to rest, relax and retreat while doing it. Then, it is best to cleanse during the change of the seasons—around the periods of equinox and solstice. For home panchakarma programs like ours, a full retreat from day-to-day stressors is not always possible. To address this, we offer both a ‘retreat’ track program and a ‘working’ track in our Colorado Ayurvedic Cleanse so that you can maintain your regular schedule and still get the benefits of a home panchakarma. If you want to maximize cleansing benefits, we recommend a Colorado Ayurvedic Cleanse around the two equinoxes (in fall and spring) and a Short Home Cleanse around the solstices (in winter and summer) if possible. The Kaya Kalpa Cleanse is best done as a retreat cleanse.

Learn More about LifeSpa’s Cleanse Kits Here

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Dr. John

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