Purva Karma

For the past week, my husband and I have been on type of Ayurvedic cleanse called Purva Karma.  Traditionally, Purva Karma is a preparation for main Ayurvedic cleansing actions, called Pancha Karma.  While Pancha Karma often requires stay in a retreat setting and daily care from Ayurvedic practitioners, Purva Karma is fairly simple to do at home under the guidance of an Ayurvedic practitioner.

Ayurveda believes that there is a force in our body that helps us in the digestion of food.  This digestive force is made of the fire element, and is called jataragni, or simply, agni.  You can think of agni like any other fire — it needs fuel to burn.  If the fire has just enough fuel, it will burn through all of it and leave nothing behind.  If the fuel load is too much for the strength of the fire, there will some fuel that is left unburned.  The same theory is true of our digestion — if our agni is working properly, all of our food will be digested and we will remain healthy.  However, if our agni is weakened and/or we take in too much food for the strength of our agni, some food will remain undigested and turn into a “toxic sludge” in our bodies.  Ayurveda calls this toxin ama.

The goal of Purva Karma is to liquify the ama that is stuck throughout the tissues of our bodies and move it back into the digestive system where it can be more easily removed from the body.  This is done through internal and external oleation, or application of oils, and through a light mono-diet to allow the digestive system to rest.  For internal oleation, I took one teaspoon of ghee (clarified butter) in a glass of hot water on day one.  On day two, I took two teaspoons, on day three, three, and so on.  Additionally, each day I performed self oil massage — rubbing warm, organic oils onto my skin and then rinsing in a warm shower.  For meals, I enjoyed the classical Ayurvedic food of kitcheri, a dish of rice and split mung beans (similar to lentils) cooked with vegetables and spices.

I thought I would get really bored with a mono-diet, but I actually enjoyed not having to think about what food I was eating.  This allowed my brain more freedom to think of other things.  During Purva karma, I felt more tired than normal and my body felt sluggish.  I also felt like my brain was very foggy.  I started getting little headaches and lightning pains in my back near my injury, which were fleeting.  One morning, I literally had to pull myself out of bed I was so tired, even though I’d slept for nine hours — my body felt so heavy and almost like I was hungover.  At the end of that day I developed a migraine that lasted into the night and through the first part the morning.  However, at about 9:30 am it went away, and took the mental fog with it.  After that, my thoughts became very clear and I was able to work through the problems plaguing my brain without difficulty.

As the week proceeded, my body still felt weaker than normal from the light eating, but I was able to stay fairly active, slacklining, going for walks and light bike rides, and teaching yoga. I tried to avoid TV, especially the news, to allow the ama to release from my mind and head.  Interesting things came out of just about every body orifice, so I won’t get into that here, but I didn’t experience anything that was unpleasant.  In fact, this week has taught me a lot about what kinds of things my body was hanging on to.

Today is the last day of my Purva Karma; we finish with some purgative herbs to cleanse out the digestive tract.  For the next few days, we’ll continue to eat lightly, eating rice gruel and kitcheri with lots of digestive spices to help us rekindle our digestive fire, which is largely lost during Purva Karma.  Then we’ll slowly add other foods back into our diet.

Purva Karma is a safe and gentle cleanse appropriate for most individuals.  However, I am not here to give medical advice and would always recommend speaking to your doctor or Ayurvedic practitioner first.  But eating a light meal of kitcheri for a day or a meal is something anyone can do!  Kitcheri is oh-so-yummy and is designed to be as highly digestible as possible, so it’s a great choice if you want to give your digestion a break for a day without feeling hungry.  Here’s my favorite recipe; always feel free to change the seasonings according to your dosha or your tastes!

Kitcheri for 2 people:
2 Tbsp ghee or olive oil
1/2 tsp each: fennel, cumin, and coriander seeds
1 Tbsp fresh ginger
1 cinnamon stick
1/2 tsp turmeric
1 or 2 cups fresh, seasonal veggies, cut up
1/3 cup basmati rise, rinsed until water runs clear
1/3 cup slit mung beans (aka split mung dhal)
1 1/2 cups water (for a pilaf-like consistency; 2 cups for a softer kitcheri)

Melt ghee in a pot over medium heat; add fennel, cumin, coriander and ginger and saute for a couple minutes, until seeds are hot and popping.  Add vegetables and saute for a few minutes, until softened.  Add basmati rice, mung beans and turmeric and saute for 30 seconds or so.  Add the cinnamon stick and water.  Bring to a boil, then turn to low heat and simmer, covered, for 20 minutes.  Serve warm and season with Braggs.  Optional seasonings include: roasted sunflower seeds, yoghurt, lemon or lime, and fresh herbs.  Enjoy!

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