With Ayurveda becoming more popular and attracting the attention of the West, I thought I would indicate what would be an appropriate Ayurvedic treatment. Recently, I met a friend who said that she had a fantastic Panchakarma session. She said they asked her how many days’ package she would need. She apparently said she could spare 10 days, so the organisers planned a 10-day programme for her.
It was basically a feel-good package where she was given a massage (abhyangam) with oil for about 45 minutes followed by a heat treatment (nadiswedana). Now while oiling or abhyangam is good for you, it cannot be called Panchakarma. You probably will get the same benefits from an oiling session at home. I have nothing against massage or abhyangam but they cannot be called an Ayurvedic treatment, in the same way like ‘beer yoga’ cannot be called Patanjali’s yoga.
Now, if you are serious about Ayurvedic treatment, you should consult an Ayurvedic physician who will tell you what kind of treatment protocol to follow. In general, if you are trying to keep vata under control (almost all of us need to work on this aspect), you could do what is called a matra vasti. This is the simplest of all vastis. Normally, this vasti is preceded by a few days of abhyangam and nadiswedana. This helps the ama or toxins (a near English equivalent) to collect in the stomach or colon from where it is flushed out by the vasti. Matra vasti is excellent for people who would like to stay healthy.
The matra vasti, however, is not Panchakarma. The Panchakarma is a far more elaborate procedure, which is tailor-made to each individual’s prakriti. Abhyanga and swedana are what just the preparatory procedures (purvakarma). Panchakarma is preceded by proper oleation both internally and externally. The Acharyas have given a nice comparison. If you take a mud pot and smear the inside nicely with ghee and then pour honey into it, you will find that the honey does not stick to the sides of the pot but rolls around. Similarly, if you are oleated nicely externally and internally, the ama will go away from the srotases. I remember the first time I underwent my first Panchakarma treatment many years ago.
My eyes were tied with a cloth and I was asked to drink a measure of ghee. I don’t know how much was it but I drank it with great trepidation. If you have ever drunk ghee, you will know that you feel quite full and have no appetite at all. And this is the next revelation. You do not eat anything till the ghee is digested. So you sit there doing nothing. All activity is prohibited when you are undergoing treatment. You are allowed to sip hot water with a little sunthi (dried ginger) boiled in it.
This kind of internal oleation continued for a few more days till I said I could not take it anymore and that if I even heard the word ghee I would throw up. The vaidya was quite unperturbed and said “good—that means you are sufficiently oleated”. Apparently everybody has a different threshold and agni, and the dosage depends on your ‘endurance’.
Now, there was the external oleation, the ‘massage’ as we know it, followed by vamana, therapeutic throwing up, followed later by a series of anuvasana and kashaya vastis (a series of unctuous and medicated enemas). These oils and kashayas would go into the system and bring out the ama, which had come unstuck because of abhyangam and swedanam. The toxins then get flushed out of the system. The medicated ghee to be given, the type of drugs to be used for vamanam, the oil to be used for vasti, the drugs to be used for kashaya vasti—all are decided based on the patient’s prakriti.
So the next time you have an ‘ayurvedic’ massage, please know that it is not Panchakarama but merely a massage with a temporary feel good factor.
The writer is retired Additional Chief Secretary of Tamil Nadu. She can be reached at sheelarani. arogyamantra@gmail. com/arogyamantra.blogspot.com