According to Ayurveda, poor nutrition and lifestyle lie at the root of all diseases. The reason? An unhealthy diet of processed food introduces toxic compounds into the digestive tract. It can also lead to constipation, which prevents the effective elimination of these toxic compounds. When we can’t excrete toxic buildup, our bodies absorb and store them in our tissues, leading to weight gain and disease. A lifestyle void of exercise or regular activity can exacerbate the problem, as it hinders the release of toxins through the lymphatic system. In sum, poor lifestyle choices are conducive to disease because they result in the buildup of ama, or toxic material, in the body. The solution? An Ayurveda cleanse.
Ayurvedic medicine is a holistic prescription for wellness that treats the whole person—body, mind, and spirit—via nutrition, exercise, and lifestyle optimization. One of the most critical components of an Ayurvedic lifestyle is regular cleansing, or detoxification. Both regular detoxification practices, like proper diet and regular exercise and massage, and periodic cleanses are integral to the Ayurvedic lifestyle. Today we explore the nature and benefits of an Ayurveda cleanse. Remember that you should only cleanse under the supervision of an Ayurvedic consultant.
The Role of Agni in Detoxification
The objective of an Ayurveda cleanse is to expel ama from the body by igniting dwindling levels of agni. Agni, also known as the “digestive fire,” governs metabolism, excretion, and the cellular absorption and exchange of nutrients. It also regulates the assimilation of thoughts and feelings and thus has a powerful impact on mental and emotional health. When agni is strong, our bodies are nourished. When agni is weak, we face nutritional imbalances and toxic buildup.
In repleneshing depleted levels of agni, an Ayurveda cleanse works to expel toxic material from the body, balancing the doshas and restoring homeostasis. The buildup of toxic materials in cellular tissue can lead to liver damage, cancer, inflammatory conditions, and developmental disorders. It also interrupts the proper functioning of the reproductive, neurological, endocrine, and immune systems. If you suffer from any of the aforementioned conditions, you may find relief through an Ayurveda cleanse. You may also experience more positive moods, improved cardiovascular health, and lower levels of blood pressure, cholesterol, and stress. In general, Ayurveda considers cleansing mentally, spiritually, and emotionally detoxifying. In the world of Ayurveda, it is virtually a panacea.
How to Practice an Ayurveda Cleanse
Ayurvedic philosophy acknowledges and caters to our bio-individuality. Specifically, Ayurvedic philosophy recognizes that we all possess varying levels of the three life forces, or doshas. How you should conduct an Ayurvedic cleanse therefore depends upon your doshic makeup. It also depends on a host of other factors, such as age, season, and general health. There is no one-size-fits-all approach for cleansing in Ayurveda. There are, however, a few preferred methods of detoxification that we will discuss.
An Ayurveda cleanse ranges in length from one day to several months depending on the nature of the cleanse. While some Ayurvedic cleanses require fasting or juicing, most entail the consumption of solid, wholesome, and naturally detoxifying foods, as depriving the body of food and/or liquid can actually smother the digestive fire. One form of Ayurvedic cleansing requires that one adopt a monodiet, consuming only one type of food. This form of cleansing reduces the burden on the digestive tract and detoxification system, allowing the body to expend energy on detoxification. Kitchari is one of the most popular features of a monodiet. This warm, nourishing blend of grains, greens, legumes, and spices fuels agni and promotes detoxification without stressing the body.
Ayurvedic cleansing is not just a matter of altering your diet. It also encourages the incorporation of other detoxifying practices into your life. Dry brushing, for example, stimulates the lymphatic system, as does self-administered oil massage. Meditating and journaling are excellent ways to detoxify the mind and heart. A “digital detox” can do wonders in balancing stress levels and restoring lost energy. Finally, exercise and steam baths also encourage the release of toxins through the sweat glands.
Iron Fist Cleansing vs. Cleansing as a Lifestyle
The signature Ayurvedic cleanse, panchakarma, is not for the faint of heart. It is an extended and extensive cleanse that involves massage, oil enemas, purging, and a strict monodiet of kitchari. Panchakarma should never be performed without the consultation and oversight of an experienced Ayurvedic practitioner.
The objective of panchakarma is to reverse the movement of toxic material. Typically, toxic material is absorbed through the digestive tract into the cells. Practicing panchakarma instead draws compounds from the cells into the digestive tract for expulsion.
While extreme measures like panchakarma can work wonders for some, others may find that eating in accordance with Ayurvedic principles has a sufficiently cleansing effect. The Ayurvedic diet optimizes every bodily system and maintains sufficient levels of agni. Dense in nutritious whole foods, and Ayurvedic diet reduces the ingestion and promotes the excretion of toxins. Thus, adopting an Ayurvedic diet may eliminate the need for extreme cleansing.
Whether you choose to practice the occasional, strict cleanse or to incorporate cleansing practices into your everyday lifestyle is merely a matter of your dosha and preference.
Is Ayurvedic Cleansing Effective?
People have practiced Ayurvedic cleansing for thousands of years, but it is only recently that its efficacy has been scientifically validated. Dr. Herron, Director of Research at the Institute of Science, Technology, and Public Policy at Maharishi University concluded through both longitudinal and cross-sectional studies that Ayurvedic therapies are effective in reducing the burden of fat-soluble, lipophilic toxicants on the body. Not to be confused with toxins, toxicants are unnatural, man-made toxic substances like PCB’s and DDT. These harmful toxins make their way into the food supply in several ways. For example: fish consume plastic debris in the ocean, allowing PCB’s to travel up the food chain and contaminate our foods. These sorts of substances are in all sorts of foods, from fish and meat to dairy and even produce.
The study incorporated multiple methods of cleansing, including the consumption of Ghee in the morning and the elimination of meat, fats, oils, and cheese. It also entails castor oil cleansing, daily massage, herbal steam baths, and herbal oil enemas. The study found that these methods worked synergistically to significantly reduce toxic buildup in the body. In fact, subject’s final PCB levels were less than 1% of what scientists would have anticipated based on it’s half life. The reason? The scientists believed that the use of healthy oils like ghee and oil enemas drew fat-soluble toxicants out of cellular tissues and into the bloodstream to be eliminated.
Many people naively reduce the practice of yoga to physical movement. To them, yoga is just an exercise, like running or swimming, performed purely to improve the state and appearance of the body. But yoga is not just a physical practice. In fact, the external aspect of yoga serves merely as a method of achieving an internal state of alignment, which is the true purpose of yoga. The concept of yoga has held sociocultural significance in the East for thousands of years due to its innately spiritual nature. The key to accessing the spiritual element of yoga? Pranayama breathing exercises.
Perhaps exceeding the significance of asanas, or yoga poses, pranayama is a form of breath work with spiritual significance. Incorporating pranayama breathing exercises into yoga is what transforms the practice from a physical exercise to a means of achieving spiritual enlightenment.
What is Pranayama?
Pranayama is, simply stated, the practice of even, controlled, conscientious breathing. Pranayama is designed to facilitate the effortless flow of energy through the body. Prana is our life force, an energy that flows through our bodies and fuels the mind and spirit. The word ayama translates to “to draw out.” Thus, pranayama is the practice of drawing our energy through the body to energize mind, body, and spirit. When we perform pranayama, prana flows through the nadis, or the body’s energy channels, cleansing and fortifying them to restore their proper functioning.
Pranayama breathing exercises are the key to transforming asanas from physical exercise to a spiritually elevating practice. Yoga is not as simple as completing a series of poses. You must instead control the flow of breath while completing the asanas to create an enlightening experience of the whole person—mind, body, and soul. One practitioner describes asanas as a meditation of the body and pranayama as a meditation of the mind. When performed together, the whole person enters a meditative state of transcendence, ascending to an elevated spiritual plane. In other words, pranayama unites our outward activity with the inner workings of our consciousness to invoke a meditative state in which prana flows to energize, calm, and sustain us.
Why Do Pranayama Breathing Exercises?
Why practice pranayama breathing exercises? Pranayama is a method of consciously deepening and extending the breath to effectively calm and cleanse the body. Often, when we are not minding our breath, we begin to breathe quickly and shallowly. Poor breathing in turn inhibits the flow of prana through the body, leading to fatigue, anxiety, depression, and spiritual desolation. Whether poor breathing patterns are the result of a stressful lifestyle, negative emotions, or a physical ailment, they tend to only perpetuate the problem. Restoring a healthy breathing pattern can restore the vitality that has been lost to poor breathing habits.
In Western terms, breathing too quickly indicates over-activity in the sympathetic nervous system. Whether rapid breathing is the cause or effect of this activity, the overall result is an elevated heart rate and stress hormones, upset stomach, nervousness, dizziness, confusion, and irritability. If the breath continues to quicken, rapid breathing can even devolve into a panic attack—a harmless but nonetheless terrifying experience in which the body enters “fight or flight” in absence of a threat, leading to feelings of intense fear and impending doom. These unpleasant effects are the result of oxygen buildup in the blood, which disturbs our body’s pH balance.
But just as stress can affect our breathing patterns, our breathing patterns can impact our stress levels and, in turn, alter our psychological states. Practicing pranayama activates the parasympathetic nervous system, restoring the blood to healthy pH levels and calming the mind in times of panic.
The Purpose of a Pranayama Practice
Pranayama breathing exercises originated thousands of years ago as a method of achieving elevated consciousness. But its purposes are not limited to the spiritual realm. A regular pranayama practice will cultivate general awareness of the breath throughout your day. You may find yourself breathing slower and deeper, and thus better energized and able to cope with stress.
Certain types of pranayama can be used to alleviate specific ailments. In general, breathing in energizes the body and breathing out soothes the body. If you’re feeling fatigued, work to slow and deepen your inhale. Feeling anxious? You should instead work to slow your exhale. If you’re feeling blue, you want to ensure that your inhalation and exhalation are of equal length. Continue breathing deeply in and out at the same rate, slowing the inhalation and exhalation with each breath. Rapid breathing has a more detoxifying effect, but may be unsafe for those with asthma, heart disease, hypertension, pregnancy, or anxiety.
How to Practice Pranayama
I recommend 20 minutes of pranayama per day. But even just a minute here and there throughout the day will yield health benefits. It is best to practice pranayama before eating or consuming caffeine. Pranayama engages the abdominal muscles and may be uncomfortable when your stomach is full. Caffeine elevates your heart rate, making it more difficult to slow your breathing.
There are several different types of pranayama unique to specific yoga practices. Kripalu yoga, for example, is a gentle practice that employs pranayama both before and after asanas as a means of becoming attuned to the body. Ashtanga yoga, on the other hand, incorporates a form of pranayama called ujayyi throughout the asanas to fuel your inner fire.
Ujayyi is just one of many types of pranayama. Also known as “victorious breath,” ujayyi is both invigorating and soothing. To perform ujayyi, constrict the throat muscles so your breathing becomes slightly raspy (but not rough or restricted). You should not have to use a lot of force during ujayyi, and your breath should flow naturally. The slight constriction of the throat will extend and even out the breath without conscious effort. Deergha swasam is another popular pranayama. This method entails first filling your belly with air, then your rib cage, and finally your upper chest, exhaling in reverse. Kapalabhati is a form of rapid, sharp breathing that requires contraction of the lower abdominal muscles.
There are far too many pranayama techniques to list here. A helpful tool for relaxing during any type of pranayama is to use visualization techniques. Envision filling your body with light, or positive energy, as you inhale. When you exhale, picture negative energy, toxic emotions, and poisonous waste leaving your body. Doing so will not only calm your body, but also brighten your disposition.
The Ayurvedic lifestyle and philosophy maintain that good health begins with good digestion. According to Ayurveda, poor digestion is the root cause of most disorders and diseases because it generates inflammation. It can also inhibit the absorption of vital nutrients and cause general feelings of fatigue and malaise. Poor digestion typically begins with stress, poor diet, or simply consuming the wrong foods for your dosha. When you force your body to contend with foods that it isn’t able to digest properly, the immune system unnecessarily kicks into overdrive while the body expends excessive energy on digestion.
Healing your digestion begins with restoring balanced levels of agni, our metabolic energy force or “digestive fire.” When our agni is weak, we cannot properly metabolize or eliminate food. As constipation develops, the body absorbs toxic compounds trapped in the colon into the blood stream, leading to disease. Conversely, excessive agni can cause food to pass through the body too quickly, causing dehydration and nutrient deficiency. The body can only properly absorb nutrients and eliminate disease-promoting waste when agni is balanced. Thankfully, there are certain yoga poses that help to restore lost agni and renew digestive health as part of an Ayurvedic lifestyle.
Why Yoga Aids in Digestion
Yoga enhances digestive health in multiple ways. First, it entails deep breathing that energizes the body and activates the abdominal organ system, igniting agni. It also helps to compress and stretch the organs to encourage peristalsis. Yoga poses that involve twisting are particularly useful for those with significant levels of ama, or toxic build up, in the colon. Finally, yoga reduces stress levels, taming elevated levels of cortisol. High cortisol levels are linked to adrenal malfunction, which can affect water regulation and thus cause dehydration and, by extension, constipation. In general, stress negatively impacts digestive health. By combatting stress, yoga tames cortisol levels and thus promotes healthy digestion.
Whether your suffer from an inflammatory condition, eat too quickly, or consume the occasional disagreeable food, you are bound to suffer from digestive discomfort at some point. An Ayurvedic lifestyle and consistent yoga practice can go a long way in treating regular digestive discomfort such as gas, bloating, and constipation. In promoting regularity and nutrient absorption, yoga can even relieve pain associated with Crohn’s and IBS. Over time, yoga will reduce the likelihood of developing leaky gut, toxic buildup, and even colon cancer.
Compressing and Lengthening
Poses that compress and lengthen the intestines effectively ignite agni and encourage efficient digestion. These may be particularly beneficial poses for vata dosha’s Ayurvedic lifestyle, which is more prone to constipation.
Alternating cat pose and cow pose is a great way to combat slow digestion and relieve gas and bloating. Begin on all fours with your hands below your shoulders and your knees aligned with your hips. Lower your belly to the floor and lift the head and tailbone to the sky, inhaling deeply. On your exhale, curve your back and tuck in your head and tail bone as if you are reaching the middle of your back to the sky. Continuing in this fashion for a few minutes will increase blood flow to the epithelial cells, which encourage digestion.
Bridge is another pose that stimulates the abdominal organs through lengthening. Lie on your back with your knees up and slowly push your hips toward the sky, keeping your weight on your upper back and feet. Cobra pose and locust pose also effectively lengthen the intestines, permitting the release of pent up gas and waste.
After completing bridge, practice a compressing pose like a forward bend to thoroughly stimulate digestion. Apanasana, or knees-to-chest pose, is another great pose for compression and is great for treating bloating and gas. To release gas and massage the abdominal organs, bring the legs down and slowly twist your body from left to right.
Yoga poses that involve twisting effectively massage the abdominal organs. This massaging effect not only encourages elimination, but it also helps to release built up waste from the intestinal wall. In so doing, it can treat chronic constipation and improve nutrient absorption.
Half lord of the fishes pose is a great pose for massaging the intestines. To perform this pose, sit cross-legged on the floor, bringing your right foot over your left leg so that your knee is close to your heart. Then twist your torso to the right, bringing your left elbow to the outside of your right leg. Place your right arm on the floor to stabilize yourself. Remember to breathe deeply in order to stimulate your digestive organs. Marichi’s pose has the same effect; just extend the left leg. To reap the full benefits of these poses, perform them on the opposite side as well.
For those with acute discomfort, a deep twist may be painful. Instead practice triangle pose and revolved triangle pose to stimulate the colon without pain. These poses provide a gentle twist whilst strengthening your lower body and core muscles.