Pancha Karma: Aligning with the intelligence of seasonal cleansing

In locations where there are four seasons every season has unique characteristics that define it. Spring is characterized by cool, wet, variable qualities. Summer in most places is primarily hot, dry and intense. Fall brings about the qualities of cool, windy, dry and variable weather patterns. Winter is characteristically cold, wet and steady. Each of these characteristic qualities affects our physiology and affects the growth of certain plants and the animals that consume them. For example in the Spring the stored food like nuts and seeds that were used during the winter are all gone and there is less availability of food. What is available are primarily spring greens and roots that tend to cleanse the blood, lymph and heal the kidneys. Examples of these kinds of herbal foods are dandelion greens and chickweed. These herbal foods are perfect for gently cleansing the body of the heaviness and rich foods that predominate in the winter. If the diet is not adjusted to honor this natural cycle then the heavy food can bio accumulate in the body leading to conditions such as obesity, heart disease and cancer. That is why aligning with these rhythms can prevent the accumulation of wastes caused by eating too much of one kind of food until the body can no longer adapt and it becomes aggravated thus leading to disease.

Unfortunately many of us lack the education and awareness to tune into these natural rhythms. It doesn’t help that since the advents of the supermarket and a globalized economy we can eat whatever we want whenever we want as long as we can afford it. Thus many of us are not subject to this same natural cleansing that happens yearly for most animals.  This natural transition to a diet that is in alignment with the seasons is different than a cleansing program. Although many of those programs mimic these natural rhythms in their own way. The primary exception is that they tend to follow a one size fits all approach. Just as each animal responds differently and eats different foods during the change of seasons, an effective cleansing approach must take into the account the unique state of the individual. This is where the Ayurvedic approach thrives. The Ayurvedic cleansing program is called Pancha Karma which means five actions. Depending on the accumulation that leads to imbalance one of these five actions will be chosen that is unique to the individual. There are some general guidelines that are followed, but a professional assessment to determine the amount of toxicity in a person, the persons unique timeline for detoxification, and the overall vitality of the client must are all taken into consideration. Based on this information a unique treatment can be developed that will provide the maximum benefit to the individual.

As each animal responds differently and eats different foods during the change of seasons, an effective cleansing approach must take into the account the unique state of the individual.

In Ayurveda there are three stages of cleansing Purva karma (preliminary procedures), Pancha karma (5 actions), and Uttara/Praschat karma (Follow-up practices). Detoxification and cleansing are like gardening.  A precise and well thought out plan must be established so that the mineral and chemical properties of the soil are the best for the plants being chosen.  The plants are planted at an appropriate time so that they will grow and not die.  The amount of water, sun, and care are all accounted for to give the plant the best possible environment to flourish. Just like gardening you can plan and prepare ad infinitum and yet the plants may not respond in the way you anticipate so you must be willing to change your plan if necessary. This is the same within the cleansing procedure. By determining the precise therapies, foods and herbs that will be used at each stage and then responding to the unique way in which the procedure affects the body true cleansing can take place. Instead of forcing the body to confirm to the cleansing the process the cleansing process must be modified to respond to the unique needs of the individual.

Purva karma

Most Ayurvedic cleansing programs these days are primarily Purva Karma. These preliminary procedures can be used for daily cleansing and detoxification as they are geared towards opening the channels of elimination. Purva karma brings the undigested materials that have bio accumulated such as emotions and food and places them into a channel that can be remove them from the body. This is primarily the digestive system in the form of the liver, colon and kidneys, but it also includes the lungs and the skin.  Perhaps one of the misconceptions about purva karma is that it removes toxicity. This is not entirely true. The practices of purva karma are used to bring the toxins into their site of origin and elimination.

The ten therapies that are utilized in purva karma are

  1. body oiling
  2. sweat therapy
  3. herbal tonics
  4. internal oleation
  5. exercise
  6. food
  7. aromatherapy
  8. food
  9. lifestyle
  10. meditation.  (Tirtha, 173). 

All of these therapies can be used in varying degrees in order to prepare the body and mind for more complicated cleansing procedures.

The ultimate goal of purva karma is an aware and clear mind that only craves food when their is physical hunger and is moderate in all activities. Although cleansing can be helpful once this state of self awareness is attained it is rare that cleansing is necessary. As each one of us is unique and the most effective purva karma routine must be individualized the recommendations for how to use these different therapies are categorized based on the Doshas. By understanding the dominant dosha that is out of balance, you can use the below suggestions to create a purva karma protocol for improved cleansing.  A brief synopsis of the dosha’s may help to clarify which procedures could be best for you. Vata are thin and restless. Pitta types tend to be athletes and business men. Kapha types are usually large framed and easy going.

1. Body oiling: 

This is a nourishing therapy that is used to increase the qualities of heavy, cold, soft, unctuous, thick, slimy, and smooth.  It will also increase sluggish, bulky, and stable qualities within the body, so it should be used with care.  The main application is through massage:

  • For thin restless wind types – sesame oil, mahanarayan oil, and castor oil are best.  Massage can be warm, gentle, and firm.  Hot spices and small amounts of food frequently are important adjunct therapies.
  • For fire types such as athletes and merchants – coconut, ghee, sunflower oil are best.  Massage is soothing, light, gentle, and slightly cool.  Gotu kola should be taken to cleanse and cool the emotions
  • Large framed easy going Water types – mustard oil is best.  Strong, dry, light, and hot massage techniques. 

Oil helps loosen and liquefy excesses in the skin and blood (the outer disease pathway).  It dislodges and removes the heavy and sticky qualities from the smallest channels as like attracts like.  Toxins drain from the deeper tissues into the digestive tract.  The oil also lubricates and protects the tissues fromt he other procedures.  Oils are best in the treatment of dryness, cold, and addictions caused by excess wind in the form of Vata. 

2. Sweat therapy

Qualities include hot, sharp, fluid, unctuous, rough, subtle, liquid, stable, and heavy. Techniques include warm water, steam, and sauna. 

  • For Vata – brief steam baths and hot tubs with mild warming spices internally like cinnamon, ginger, or cardamon with lots of water will allow them to heat up without drying out.
  • Pitta – mild sweating following by a cool shower and cool herbs such as oregon grape, burdock, and dandelion root will open the channels without causing fever.
  • Kapha – strong, dry heat with strong herbs like ginger, sage, black pepper, and cinnamon to the point of discomfort is best. 

After oleation sweat therapy effectively dislodges and liquefies toxins, while improving digestion.  It causes the body’s chanels to dilate allowing improved circulation cleansing the skin and blood which in turn relieves, cleanses, and reduces fat tissue and muscle tension. Sweat therapy is best for Vata and should be administered only after the previous meal has been digested.

These preliminary practices should be followed until the signs of effective oleation are present.  These are soft, shiny skin, soften skin and hair, healthy elimination of stool that looks yellowish, oily and soft; brighter urine, both should smell like ghee. Eye, ear and nose secretions shine slightly. Mental clarity, enthusiasm, energy and strength increases. Exess application of the preliminary procedures can cause heaviness, stiffness, dullness, fever, fainting, and vomiting.

After the preliminary procedures have adequately brought toxins into the digestive tract and the signs of oleation and fomentation are present then the client can proceed to the eliminatory practices as defined by Pancha Karma.  The eliminatory practice chosen will affect the excess, air, fire, or water that must be eliminated respectively.  The five practices are Therapeutic vomiting, purgation, medicated enemas, medicated nasal oils, and toxic bloodletting.  These practices require a qualified and knowledgeable practitioner to administer.  They may have to be performed many times in order to cleanse deeply seated toxins and should be repeated as much as 3 times a year. Many cleanses and detox programs focus specifically on these procedures and are best when utilized with the preliminary practices and the follow up practices.  Because of the complexity and caution that should be applied with these procedures I will turn now to the follow up practices that should be followed in order to reestablish optimal balance after the detoxification has taken place.

When the appetite returns the first 3 meals should be a thin gruel made of 8 parts water and one part rice.  The next 4-6 meals are thicker and a pinch of turbinado sugar and black salt can be added.  Meals 7-9 are a porridge or thin soup, ghee can be added at this time.  A thicker meal with grain and beans cooked together can be added.  Meals 13-18 should progressively add one of the six tastes: going from sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter, and astringent.  Lastly a doshic appropriate diet should be followed.

Herbs can also be utilized in order to build and rejuvenate the affected tissues after the 10th meal.


Cinnamon, ginseng, hawthorn, rose, sandalwood, saffron

Licorice, marshmallow, shatavari

Small intestine
Cardamom, cinnamon, fennel, ginger

Aloe gel, turmeric, dandelion, manjishta

Astragalus, ginsing, licorice, bala


Gokshura, brahmi, shilajit

Calamus, brahmi, shank pushpi

Aloe gel, saffron, shatavari

Macuna, bala

Comfrey root, marshmallow, irish moss, slippery elm, shatavari

Amalaki, ghee, saffron, shatavari, turmeric

Amalaki, ashwagandha, bala, ginseng

Ghee, ashwagandha, bala, sesame, shatavari

Comfrey, ashwagandha, guggul, solomon’s seal, shatavari, myrhh

Ghee, ashwagandha, brahmi, haritaki, sandalwoood, licorice

Fo-ti, ashwagandha, saw palmetto, lotus seeds, shatavari, bala

(Tirtha, 205)

A cleanse or detoxification program is only as good as the preparatory and follow up practices that begin and end it.  As a carpenter would say measure twice cut once.  Once you have performed the cleanse time and care must be used in order to use this new freshly shaped piece of wood and create something beautiful with it.  May your guides and protectors be with you on your path too good health. 

Contraindications to cleansing

That is why each treatment in unique.  Some guidelines can be followed without detriment to the client and those will be discussed in detail, but contraindications for certain cleansing practices should be followed.  For example precautions for taking laxatives are recent fever, poor digestion, hemorrhoids, ulcers, immediately after menstruation, or with TB.  (Tirtha, 190).  The main ingredient in most cleanses is a strong laxative, but these precautions are rarely mentioned on the box. 


Cleansing is not for everybody, but by following these recommendations you can go a long way towards purifying your body and mind.

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