Cleansing the body is an ancient practice, which can also be highly beneficial today. Ayurveda, the ancient Indian science of self-healing, offers safe, time-tested approaches to cleansing. In this story, local ayurvedic experts share their wisdom on the benefits of ayurvedic cleansing and why spring is an optimal time to cleanse.
Ayurvedic medicine is based on the theory that the human physiology has three humors, or doshas: vata, pitta, and kapha. The doshas are biological energies that govern all physical and mental processes and derive from the five elements (earth, air, ether, water, and fire) and their related properties. Vata, composed of air and ether, governs movement and communication. Pitta, composed of fire and water, governs digestion and metabolism. And kapha, composed of earth and water, governs the principles of structure and lubrication. We are comprised of all three doshas, but they are expressed in each of us in different proportions that determine our unique constitution.
Monica Yearwood, owner of Hamsa Ayurveda & Yoga Center, says that ayurveda can be thought of as a lifestyle practice that promotes living in alignment with the observable cycles in nature in order to enhance health and avoid disease. As a medical system, ayurveda utilizes herbal medicine, yoga, meditation, diet, and certain cleansing practices to treat disease and imbalances in the doshas.
Monica suggests that the best way for any person to reap the full benefits of a cleanse is to solidify healthy lifestyle practices first. While it is tempting to use stronger cleanse programs to “kick start” a healthy lifestyle, most of us find intense lifestyle shifts difficult to uphold. Those who have an established practice of meditation and yoga and eat a seasonal diet might be ready for one of the stronger cleanse methods such as fasting or panchakarma—a deeply cleansing ayurvedic practice.
Jim Kulackoski of Darshan Center says that ayurveda seeks to align the individual physiology with the universal or “cosmic physiology” through simple yet powerful philosophies, exercises, and therapies. During the seasonal transitions, ayurveda prescribes certain cleansing modalities and routine adjustments that help the body align with the prevailing tendencies of the new season. Springtime cleanses, says Jim, involve detoxifying to lighten the body, a complex process in which the body must simultaneously reduce the density and weight it acquired over the winter and slow the metabolism to avoid overheating. This is tricky because slowing the metabolism can lead to weight gain instead of loss if the proper measures aren’t taken.
Ayurvedic clinician, yoga therapist, and author Indu Arora says that ayurveda provides simple ways of healing through dinacharya (keeping a solar routine), ratricharya (keeping a lunar routine), ritucharya (keeping a seasonal routine), and kitchen pharmacy. She stresses two key ayurvedic principles: (1) food is medicine and (2) nothing has greater power to heal the body than the Self. Indu views cleansing as a holistic process of purification of the mind and the body.
Ayurvedic practitioner James Tennant of Tejas Yoga explains that as the seasons shift from cold to warm, excess mucus and fluids tend to “loosen their grip” within the body. Our bodies function much like nature; as the snow melts and the earth heats up, so does the excess kapha (whose qualities, like those of winter, are heavy, slow, damp, oily, slimy, soft, static, and sweet) within us.
There are many approaches to cleansing the body based on ayurveda. It’s important that you choose one most suitable for your constitution and your state of health. It’s also helpful to work with a qualified, well-trained ayurvedic practitioner. Some Chicago area studios such as Hamsa, Darshan Center, and Tejas Yoga offer spring cleanses. Tejas Yoga’s program allows the participant to assess current eating habits, prepare for a three- to five-day mono diet of a simple lentil and rice soup (kichari), learn self-care therapies, and attend workshops on ayurvedic nutrition.
Last spring, I participated in the Darshan Center’s 14-day cleanse, which I found to be thorough and effective. For this cleanse, we were given a manual that advised daily morning and evening routines. We were instructed to rise no later than 6:00 a.m. and be in bed by 10:00 p.m. Throughout the cleanse, we scraped our tongues, drank plenty of water, and ate a diet solely of kichari and steamed vegetables. We also performed prescribed yoga postures, shaking exercises, and garshana (dry brushing our bodies), and applied pressure to our marma points (acupressure points).
We had the options of journaling, performing abhyanga (self-massage), practicing a liver cleansing meditation, and drinking ginger tea throughout the day. For the first five days of the cleanse, we did snehana therapy, which is ingesting medicated ghee (clarified butter infused with special herbs). We then performed virechana therapy on the sixth day, where we took castor oil pills and had several bowel movements that detoxified the body of deep tissue impurities that had been loosened by the medicated ghee and other techniques we had used up to that point. On day six, we began taking the ayurvedic herb mix triphala and Chinese herbs that support the liver. We slowly introduced different foods into our diet at the end of the second week.
What I benefitted from most was the level of discipline needed to complete the cleanse. For me, cleansing was a deeply spiritual practice. Through journaling and being observant of the reactions I had to cleansing, I was able to understand some deep, subtle aspects of myself.
Indu says that if we maintain moderation and common sense in our everyday diet, there is actually no need for cleanses. In her view, a springtime cleanse is simply a mindful choice to understand the rhythm of nature and choose the foods that support the transition from winter to spring. Indu offers simple tips to help with this transition:
1. Drink warm water (with or without lemon and ginger) first thing in the morning.
2. Add ginger, cinnamon, black pepper, rosemary, thyme, ajwain seeds, turmeric, sage, and parsley to lentils, curries, and broths.
3. Focus on more semi-solid or liquid foods instead of heavy, creamy, and solid foods. Eat kitchari for dinner and lunch at least once a week.
4. Drink tulsi (holy basil) tea to strengthen the body’s immunity and mobilize kapha.
5. Massage the body with warm sesame oil to encourage lymphatic drainage and improve circulation of fluids. Alternatively dry brush your skin using silk gloves or chickpea flour.
6. Avoid kapha-building and -aggravating foods like cold milk, salted butter, bananas, avocados, creamy soups, white rice, root vegetables, and white sugar.
7. Practice sun salute A, chant the gayatri mantra, practice surya and linga mudras (hand and body gestures), practice kapalabhati shat kriya (a breathing technique), do a sinus cleanse using a neti pot every other day, and practice agni sara and nauli (special abdominal exercises that promote digestion) and twisting postures on a regular basis.
8. Scrape the tongue using a copper or steel tongue scraper every morning to remove the buildup of toxins.
And Indu adds that you should keep your thoughts fresh and positive and remember that you are your best healer. The body always communicates. Listen carefully and it will guide you toward health.