The concept of detoxifying the body has become popular in the modern era. But if we take a closer look, we’ll find that Ayurvedic vaidyas have been touting the benefits detoxification for thousands of years. Unlike modern detoxification goals, however, the Ayurvedic view is not limited to the digestive system and body — to function smoothly, effectively, and without impairment, the body, mind, and spirit must all be in harmony.
If we look at digestion through an Ayurvedic lens, we would understand that finding balance through the right kinds of foods, a centered lifestyle, and de-stressing techniques would all contribute to good health. The Sanskrit word for this harmonious state is Agni, the first word written in the Vedas. Its antithesis is Ama, which points to a toxic buildup.
Ama results not only from dietary issues, but also from emotional, mental, and spiritual imbalances. Fortunately, Ayurveda has a prescription that has stood the test of time.
The Flow of Life
All Indian philosophy is predicated on consciousness, which is the indivisible totality of all that is. In order to know whether the body is well or ill, Ayurvedic healers regard their entire system in accordance with its state of balance, rather than the actions of its individual parts, because nothing exists in isolation.
Agni is the cosmic solar principle linked to light, fire, and transformation within the universe.
The American Institute of Vedic Studies explains that Agni is granted a position of utmost esteem because it has a number of important cosmic functions. Agni refers not only to the metabolism of the digestive system of the individual, but of the entire universe, echoing the concept of “As Above, So Below.” In this sense, it refers to all changes, and it stands as a beacon for smooth and unobstructed existence.
Soma: Agni’s Sustaining Fuel
A discussion of Agni and Ama would be incomplete without an understanding of Soma. Ayurvedic therapist Joey Bujold explained that Agni is the cosmic solar principle linked to light, fire, and transformation within the universe. The application of heat leads to purification, cleansing, and transformation.
Conversely, an Agni deficiency leads to the accumulation of undigested substance (Ama). Soma is the cosmic lunar principle characterized by coolness, calmness, and rejuvenation in the universe. It is a restorative energy that builds, expands, and sustains. It is said that an insufficiency of Soma manifests in poor tissue growth, lack of calmness, and ungroundedness.
Importance of Digestion
Ayurvedic practitioner Mike Dhaliwal notes that traditional Indian healing arts regard the body through a qualitative lens, meaning that the quality of the body’s systems are related to their characteristics, metaphors, relativity, symbols, and descriptions. Thus, when a body is sick or presents symptoms, it is said to be out of balance relative to a state of harmony.
The Upanishads teach that we are all food bodies. Digestion is at the center of life, health, and reproduction throughout the universe. Life feeds on life. From an Ayurvedic perspective, Dhaliwal noted, “You’re only as healthy as your Agni, the digestive fire, or the digestive capacity, within the body. Five thousand years ago they didn’t mention hydrochloric acid, but they were able to describe the qualities of Agni within the stomach and the digestive system.”
Mike Dhaliwal notes that fire represents the qualities of hot, sharp, light, dry, and subtle. Eating food that has the basic nature of Agni promotes the optimal function of that fire. On the other hand, eating foods that oppose the qualities of Agni impairs the function of the digestive system. Ama is undigested food material with the qualities of sticky, heavy, wet, slimy, and cold. He notes, “Ama impairs the adequate absorption of food particles needed to feed the cells of the body. And, Ama itself becomes absorbed through the intestines and circulated into the body. This is a root cause of disease from the Ayurvedic perspective.”
Instructors at the Kerala Ayurveda school teach that “When we talk about detoxification in Ayurveda, we are referring to the loosening and elimination of these toxins…in the body. Removing the Ama is the first step of the healing process, though Ayurveda also recognizes the importance of rejuvenating the systems and bringing them back into balance.”
Ayurvedic Approach to Detoxification
There are various means of detoxifying the body and getting rid of Ama. One of these is Panchakarma, which comprises five therapeutic actions that can be taken without damaging or weakening the system. The goal of Panchakarma is not just to remove physical toxins, but to also restore the mind-body system to a healthy state of balance on all levels – including the mind and emotions.
Another means of dealing with Ama is through Purvakarma, beginning with Snehana (oleation). This process, according to the Kerala Ayurveda school, consists of saturating the body with herbal or medicated oils, or ingesting ghee or medicated oil. One can also receive vigorous massage over the whole body with herbalized oils. These practices help loosen Ama and move it from deeper tissues into the GI tract, where Panchakarma therapies can eliminate it.
After the massage, Swedana (sweating) is performed to dilate the channels and thus remove Ama. Sweating can be induced by localized application of steam, along with herbal decoctions and oils, or steam may be applied evenly to the whole body (except the head) in a sweat box. This method is often followed by herbal plasters and poultices, called upon to help draw toxins out of the pores of the skin.
Purvakarma involves Shirodhara, a deep relaxation method to restore harmony of the doshas. Shirodhara consists of pouring warm oil in a slow, steady stream on the forehead. It pacifies Vata, calms and nourishes the central nervous system, promotes relaxation and tranquility, and improves mental clarity and comprehension.
Other Methods of Natural Detoxification
Other Ayurvedic detox modalities include starting the day off with a glass of lukewarm water flavored with a fresh slice of lemon or lime. According to Catherine Guthrie, Yoga Journal, warm water stimulates the gastrointestinal tract and peristalsis — muscle contractions of the intestinal walls of the bowels. Second, lemons and limes are high in minerals and vitamins and help loosen Ama.
Using a tongue-scraper in the morning is also beneficial. Ayurveda interprets “tongue fuzz” as a sign of undigested Ama. Scraping the tongue not only rids it of accumulated Ama, but also unearths the taste buds, awakening the gastric fire for another day of eating and nourishment.
Lastly, there’s meditation, the timeless practice that settles the mind and clarifies thoughts. Meditation clears the Ama of the mind and spirit, from which the body springs forth. There are various ways to practice meditation, and all have their specific benefits, depending upon what you wish to achieve.
While Ama can present a challenge, and detoxification may be a helpful way to boost health, it’s best to do so under the instruction of a qualified Ayurvedic practitioner. With professional help, you’ll find what’s right for your dosha and particular symptoms, rather than rely on guesswork.