Last night, I stepped out for my first social outing in weeks. As my friends polished off a delectable cheese board and drank the choicest of wines, I sipped on hot water and left before dinner was served. My reason for abstaining from food and drink was the gruelling Ayurvedic Panchakarma program I put myself through earlier this month, which tested my willpower far more than any simple detox might have.
The decision to embark on it was not taken lightly. For the past six years, I had watched a strange insect bite on the inner portion of my left ankle turn to a dry, flaky, extremely itchy patch, which later spread, bled and became prone to swelling and discharge. In time, I was diagnosed with psoriasis, an autoimmune disorder where the body’s cells regenerate at a rapid pace, resulting in an unsightly skin ailment. Modern medicine has found no apparent reason for its occurrence (genetics, stress and lifestyle are listed as plausible causes), and neither has it found a cure.
Hence, when frequent flare-ups began affecting my physical and mental health, I turned to Delhi-based Dr. Avilochan Singh, a fifth-generation practitioner of Ayurveda. He assessed my pulse over a period of three months, and when he felt I was ready, recommended the Panchakarma treatment of virechana. The Virechana treatment helps to eliminate toxicity from our body through induced loose stools to balance pitta.
The Panchakarma are a set of five procedures that follow a specific protocol: the body must undergo a preparation period before the purge takes place, as well as a strict period of recovery. The aim of any Panchakarma treatment is to balance the body’s three physiological forces (doshas) of vata, pitta, and kapha, which when imbalanced, result in ailments. Ayurveda practitioners recommend different forms of Panchakarma including vamana (induced vomiting to balance kapha), virechana, enemas or vasti (to balance vata), nasyam (nasal cleansing), and rakta mokshan blood letting, for different ailments ranging from weight loss to reducing the suffering of cancer patients.
Dr Singh explains, “A Panchakarma procedure can reduce the intensity of the medical issue and bring balance to your body so that the prescribed Ayurvedic remedies work faster and better to reduce the symptoms, and in some cases, get rid of them entirely.” He highlights that Panchakarmas aren’t mere detoxes to clean the digestive canal. They are aimed at clearing toxins from the body’s cells, to promote healing from within. “It’s like a surgical procedure, so it must be done under proper supervision and with strict planning at every stage. After successful completion, things can be reintroduced to the diet in a timely manner.”
Many factors had to be considered before I began. Apart from following the strict dietary guidelines, I had to be willing to stay indoors, forsake exercise, reduce my workload to stay away from stress, and avoid air-conditioning and devices. It was an exercise in re-learning how humans are meant to live.
Although most people prefer checking in to an Ayurvedic facility, I did it from home under Dr Singh’s supervision, which made it both easier (comfortable and affordable) and more difficult (more temptations with the household running as normal). For the first three days, I steadily reduced my intake of food, starting from rice and dal and eventually moving to a watery rice soup. I was allowed no snacks, sugar, or caffeine. Sipping on herbal tea and hot water were my only weapons in staving off cravings. Simultaneously, I drank an increasing dosage of ghee (clarified butter) every morning, to detach the toxins from my cells – a tough proposition as my gag reflex made it difficult to keep the thick and glutinous liquid down.
When the day of the purge arrived, I was given an herbal powder to induce motions. What followed were five hours of constant watery motions where a shocking amount of blackish discharge was thrown out of my body.
From the next day, I slowly began eating proper meals again. Though results are best seen in the long run, I was quite startled to see a significant improvement almost immediately. My flaky psoriatic patch peeled off, revealing normal (though discoloured) skin beneath. Earlier attempts at removing it had only brought raw, burnt-looking skin to the fore.
Apart from the visible evidence of healing, I feel the Panchakarma taught me more than any nutritionist, gym trainer or wellness guide could. It opened my eyes to the amount of junk I was consuming on a daily basis without realising it, and showed me how little was needed to live a healthy life. The process was an emotional see-saw and the physical discomfort was immense, but it was nothing in comparison to the peace of mind that has come in its wake.
Perhaps what the Panchakarma did best was make me aware that everything I found ‘necessary’ to my pleasure, was merely an indulgence. Armed with this knowledge, I now choose to indulge in my health, even if it means picking hot water over wine for some time to come.