Why Cleansing is Important
The body is remarkably intelligent and hard working. Day after day, it processes all kinds of inputs from our environment, distinguishing what’s good from what’s not, while working to eliminate harmful substances and routine metabolic waste. These days, our bodies are often overwhelmed with an overload of stressors: processed & genetically modified foods, environmental toxins & pollution, psychological stress & unresolved emotions- just to name a few.
Inevitably, in attempting to “digest” it all, we accumulate some degree of toxicity-which, over time, can build up in the system, deposit in the tissues, and compromise our health. Ayurveda utilizes gentle spring cleansing to give the system a break and to encourage the body’s natural cleansing mechanisms. The body is intelligent (genius actually, think about it- the body autonomically breathes all day, digest/processes food and creates waste material, regulates temperature, coordinates movement…. pretty seamlessly most of the time).
The body also knows how to rest, recuperate and repair itself- we just have to know how and when to help it along the way.
That’s where Ayurvedic cleansing comes in. Cleansing is a ritual practice with a deep history in many cultures for religious, spiritual and health reasons. While modern-day cleanses such as juice fasts or elimination diets are at our fingertips via a google search, Ayurvedic cleanses have been practiced for thousands of years.
While numerous modern (and usually fad) cleanse options exist, they are often depleting to the body & can contribute to dosha imbalances. Ayurveda suggests that most individuals don’t actually benefit from long water or juice fasts for extended periods of time. Intense fasting practices utilizing extreme deprivation upset the bodies nervous system, ojas levels (strength, immunity & vitality), aggravate vata dosha and leave many feeling strained and drained. Not to mention, to find lasting benefits from intense fasting protocols, we also need to fast and abstain from mental stress (work, responsibilities, technology, challenging emotions, etc) to fully allow the body to cleanse, heal and benefit while existing on so little….hmmm….funny how we forget that part or fail to make time for rest while cleansing.
Seasonal cleansing is considered a vital part of an Ayurvedic lifestyle, with great potential for improved energy, strength, stamina and immunity, (referred to as ojas) as well as a renewed love of and zest for life. Cleansing also rests and resets the digestive system, helps eliminate toxins, and removes excess doshas-all of which contribute to the healing and replenishing both mind and body.
Traditionally, Ayurvedic cleanses are performed three times annually. Their timing corresponds with the change in seasons.
- Summer/early fall
- Late fall/winter
Any seasonal shift is a great time to cleanse, however spring is considered ideal. As late winter/early spring is Kapha time of year (earth water elements); and Kapha always marks the beginning of a new cycle, just like the fresh “new-ness” of the spring season, the body also wants to clean, repair and rejuvenate itself. Another Ayurvedic analogy: the rivers/water channels are frozen and stagnant all winter long, but begin to thaw, melt and flow in the spring with warmer temperatures & longer days…our body channels want to do the same! Oh, THAT explains the spring mucous and congestion, right? 😉
The 3 Phases of Ayurvedic Cleansing
Below, you will find everything you need to implement a simple, food-based cleanse at home this spring. However, even a gentle cleanse like this one is not appropriate for pregnant or breastfeeding women, or anyone who is extremely weak or debilitated.
Ayurvedic cleanses involve 3 distinct phases, each critically important to success, as they build on each other.
- Preparation (3-7 days)
For a few days leading up to your cleanse, focus on cleaning up your diet to prepare the body for an effective cleanse. You will want to eliminate (or at least dramatically reduce) your use of coffee, caffeine, tobacco products, alcohol, and any recreational drugs. At the same time, eliminate processed foods, meat, refined sugars, and sweets.
During this time, eat as many simple, whole foods as possible (fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds).
- Active Cleansing (7 days)
This is the heart of the cleanse. During this time, you will eat a very simplified mono-diet of kitchari (basmati rice cooked with split mung beans, vegetables & spices). This diet is substantive enough that you can maintain your essential responsibilities, but it simultaneously resets the digestive system, supports the elimination of toxins, and balances vata, pitta, and kapha.
During this seven day period, other cleansing practices such as garshana (dry brushing), abhyanga (self oil massage), neti & nasya, gentle exercise, and detoxifying herbs can enhance the efficacy of the cleanse.
- Reintroduction (3-5 days)
This is similar to phase 1—back to clean eating and a continued focus on hydration. During this time, you may be tempted to eat everything at once, excited re-enter the exciting world of food indulgences and varieties… however, it is important to gradually reintroduce foods; you don’t want to shock or overwhelm your system. Continue to avoid caffeine, alcohol, processed foods, meat, and sugar during this time.
Please Note: This timeframe is ideal, but if you can’t dedicate 2 weeks to cleansisng, even a shorter version is beneficial.. For example, you might do 1–2 days of preparation, 3–4 days of cleansing & 1–2 days of reintroduction.
Ayurvedic cleansing and kitchari mono-diets can be done by individuals with a variety of medical conditions; however, check with your primary health care provider before if you are unsure. Note that even a gentle cleanse like this is not appropriate for pregnant or breastfeeding women, or anyone who is extremely weak or debilitated.
A menstruating woman should schedule her cleanse around her cycle to ensure that she is not bleeding during the 7 days of active cleansing. (If the period arrives while cleansing, continue with the kitchari diet, but should suspend all other cleansing practices until menstruation has ceased.
How to do an Ayurvedic Cleanse:
The 3 Phases of Cleansing
The more you can clear your schedule for this process, the better. At a minimum, eliminate any unnecessary obligations and give yourself as much unscheduled time to rest as possible. Creating time and space for mental cleansing & rejuvenation is important!
Phase 1: Preparation (3-7 days)
The first phase is focused on preparing the digestive system by hydrating and eating a clean diet. A clean diet is defined here as one that fosters minimal gut residue or “ama.” During this time, you will want to focus on warm, cooked, simple/whole foods and avoid the following:
- Alcohol & recreational drugs
- Processed, packaged, or manufactured foods
- Cold or raw foods (harder to digest)
- Meat & fish
- Sugar (small amounts of fresh or cooked fruit okay-not dried, but no dates or bananas)
You will also want to incorporate plenty of cooked green vegetables, especially leafy greens (cooked nettles, dandelion greens, arugula, kales) broccoli, asparagus and beets, as these are cleansing for the digestive and lymphatic systems.
To further ignite and support the digestive fire, mix equal amounts of cumin, coriander and fennel powders. (CCFtea). Drink 1 tsp of this spice blend with 3-4 ounces warm water before eating meals.
Menu Ideas for Preparation Phase:
- Oatmeal cooked with chopped apples, walnuts, cinnamon & cardamom
- Savory oats: oatmeal with ghee, salt, turmeric, cumin, and wilted arugula
- Pan fried egg in ghee with tortilla and wilted microgreens with shredded beets
Lunch or dinner:
- Vegetable soup topped with shredded beets, small bowl of rice or dahl
- Red or green vegetable curry served over quinoa, rice, amaranth or barley with steamed greens
- Cooked grain topped with roasted vegetables and tahini sauce
- Warm tortilla with roasted beets, chopped asparagus, hummus and pistachios
- Lentil pasta with pesto, collard greens & cannelli beans
Drinking plenty of water is key during the preparation stage. By hydrating well, you ensure that the mucosal lining of your stomach is lubricated for healthy digestion, and that lymph fluid (bodies immunity fluid) is optimally thinned. Lymph flows through channels, pumped only by your physical motion or manipulation (like massaging, exercising or stretching). Lymph contains white blood cells that surround and move foreign invaders like bacteria or mutated cells (ex: pre-cancerous cells or cells with infection) into lymph nodes so they can be eliminated. Dehydration decreases lymph movement and elimination processes.
Aim for 3-4 liters of warm water (however, make sure not to overconsume water with meals, as this dilutes the digestive fire)
Drinking warm cumin coriander fennel (CCF) tea and/or ginger tea are great ways to encourage hydration & healthy digestion at the same time.
Phase 2: Active Cleanse (The Kitchari Stage) 5-7 days
Okay, the stomach has received a break from hard to digest foods while the lymph has thinned- now time to start fine-tuning your digestive fire, or agni. This phase utilizes a nourishing blend of kitchari meals and ghee oleation (the process of ingesting healthy oils).
Why oleation? Why ghee? Toxins are fat soluble- the ingestion of ghee helps to bind and eliminate toxins from the gastrointestinal tract. Ghee also helps to lubricate and soften the inside of the digestive tract, helping with nutrient absorption and regular bowel movements.
Why kitchari? Kitchari is a traditional Indian dish with split yellow mung dahl beans, basmati rice, ghee, and spices for flavor. Not only is it easy to digest and balancing for all 3 doshas, kitchari is considered a “perfect meal” in that it has all of the essential macronutrients: carbs, complete protein & healthy fat.
Menu During Active Cleansing:
Ideally, that day’s kitchari is made that morning, or the night before if that’s not possible. Try not to make the kitchari “all at once”; the longer food has been stored as leftovers, the more “prana” or vital life force it loses. The more freshly prepared the food is, the more subtle nutrition it has.
Try to eat three kitchari meals daily, with minimal snacking in between. To accomplish this, it is important to eat until you feel full and completely satisfied. This is not a time focus on denying yourself food! By eating until you are fully satiated, you will be able to minimize between meal snacking. (between meal snacking weakens the digestive fire.
More digestive energy is required to break down food if we are constantly consuming things and asking the stomach to secrete digestive enzymes to break matter down. It also taxes the digestive system when you have food undergoing different digestive stages in stomach & small intestines.) Remember, we are trying to nourish the body and enable it to do the self-repair and natural seasonal cleansing it is already trying to do- we can help immensely by making the digestion process as easy and seamless as possible.
Also a great time to drink the CCF tea from the first phase.
Morning Self-Care & Cleansing Practices
Active cleansing focuses on digestion—not just digestion of foods, but digestion of all of our experiences. Emotional turmoil, which is stored within you, can be just as harmful to your health and well-being as unhealthy eating. As your body works through its own healing process, may stir up some repressed emotions. This is actually a good thing!
Beginning your day with cleansing self-care rituals (Dinacharya) while focusing on health and wellness during this phase will help you release both physical and mental toxins throughout the process.
Skin brushing (Garshana): Like the gut, skin is surrounded by a layer of lymphatic fluid. Get the fluid moving by dry brushing & oil massaging! Using a stiff-bristled brush, brush your skin in the direction of your heart, allowing longer strokes on long bones and circular motions on joints. Perform before oil massage.
Oil Massage (Abhyanga): Perform self-massage with using warm oil before showering. Let the oil sit for 5-20 minutes before rinsing off.
Neti Pot: Use the Neti Pot daily to clear the nasal passageways.
Nasya: Moisten the sinuses by placing sesame oil into a dropper and dropping two to three drops into each nostril with the head tilted back. Allow the head to remain tilted back for a few seconds, sniffing to allow the oil to penetrate.
Exercise: Cleanses are the perfect time to go easy on your body. Incorporate gentle walks and light yoga into your daily routine; reduce or eliminate intense exercise- especially during the active cleansing phase.
Meditation: Create space for daily meditation. If this is not part of your daily practice already, have no fear. Just find five minutes daily to sit in a comfortable position (the couch is fine), close your eyes, and become completely aware and mindful of your breath. Afterwards, sit for a few more minutes in self-reflection. (in silence or journaling)
Consult an Ayurvedic Practitioner for a more personalized herbal regime to further enhance and support your bodies cleansing mechanisms. (some herbs are more appropriate than others, but this varies from person to person, depending on your individual constitution & current imbalances)
However, triphala is a gentle laxative that nourishes and tones the bowels. It encourages healthy and regular elimination of waste; it is non habit forming and safe for most people. Take 1/2 tsp with warm water before bed to ensure a thorough A.M bowel movement.
A Note about Cleansing
Any of the following symptoms of healing can arise during the first two phases:
- Emotional sensitivity, urges to cry
These symptoms can be difficult to deal with, but are signs that you are creating change within. Continue hydrating (encourages flushing & elimination) and self-care practices.
Phase 3: Reintroduction (3-5 days)
Even after you complete the last day of the cleanse, your body will still be processing the toxins that may have been stirred into circulation. Your digestive system will have become accustomed to a simple clean diet; you will likely be sensitive to processed or stimulating foods. Gradually transitioning back into your normal routine and food diversity helps buffer your system and rekindle or agni, or digestive fire and ensures you get the most benefits from the cleansing experience.