It makes sense that if Ayurveda means the "science of life," then it would describe not only how to live your life, but also how to make it last as long as possible. When we speak of longevity in the West, we are usually talking about adding a few good years to one's life. In ancient India, they were talking about extending life spans by fifty to a hundred years plus! During my training in India, I was always fascinated when the topic of longevity and life extension came up.
My Ayurvedic teachers spoke of ancient rejuvenative techniques that could totally transform the body of a withered ninety-year-old, to that of a vibrant thirty-year-old. To them, these outrageous claims seemed strangely matter of fact. Neighboring countries also reported such life extension miracles. From a remote region in Tibet, a set of exercises called the five rites of rejuvenation, (yoga exercises), have staked a recent claim to the fountain of youth. Stories about a British naval officer taking thirty or forty years of age off his body with these Tibetan techniques, have made headlines here in the West.
Magic or Myth?
I have heard stories of life extension ranging from one hundred to five hundred years using ancient Ayurvedic techniques. In India, this notion of immortality, although somewhat hard to swallow by the skeptical West, seems alive and well. My favorite story is that of a Mahatma who reportedly lived to be 185 years old. Tapasviji Maharaj went through certain Ayurvedic rejuvenative therapies three times in order to extend his youth to the ripe old age of 185. These life extension treatments are called kaya kalpa, where the body is kept in isolation for three months. Aspirants would eat only herbs and medicated milk and receive a series of panchakarma longevity treatments each day. Panchakarma means "five actions," specifying the five methods of cleansing and renewing the body. These treatments are hands-on rejuvenative techniques that purge the physiological stress and age out of the body's deep tissues.
During the kaya kalpa process, which is a form of cellular transformation, it is said that one's teeth and hair would fall out and grow back new. The old skin would peel like a snake's, unveiling a new layer of supple and youthful skin. Eyesight, clarity of mind, and the strength and vigor of a thirty-year-old, would be the result on the ninety-first day of treatment. Of course, none of these reports have ever been documented to the satisfaction of western science. However, the theories behind these practices make sense, and could, in fact, provide us with a practical understanding of this very long sought after fountain of youth.
Lost But Not Forgotten
In India, there are still many Ayurvedic hospitals that give these panchakarma therapies for the treatment of disease. Over the years, these treatments have become known for physiological cleansing, rather than for achieving longevity. No doubt they serve this purpose well, but when you are after the results of kaya kalpa (life extension), cleansing alone will not serve your purpose. I have had these treatments in India on many occasions and have administered them for nine years as the co-director of an Ayurvedic clinic here in the US. But only during my more recent trips to India, have the missing pieces to this puzzle begun to fall into place. In all the reports of these extreme kaya kalpa experiences, there were always similar prerequisites for the aspirant. A few essential requirements stood out.
- One had to have the ability to maintain a state of transcendental consciousness and meditation for extremely long periods of time.
- One had to be in control of the senses, all of them.
- One had to be strong enough of body, mind, and spirit to endure the process.
Although extreme, this didn't seem so much to ask considering a life extension benefit of fifty or sixty years. Even so, it was for this reason that the secrets of kaya kalpa had been privy to only sages and monks, who were capable of living these requirements as a way of life.
If these prerequisites seem just beyond your personal reach, or you are just not interested in having your hair and teeth fall out and skin peel, there is a slow and steady approach that is said to accomplish the elusive goal of life extension. In ancient times the kings and queens were given seasonal panchakarma treatments as a means to extend life and safeguard fair and just thinking.
A one-week series of panchakarma would actually instill the kaya kalpa prerequisites for a time and, with successive treatments, the benefits would be made permanent. In a way, they would transform the mind and awaken the spirit by Ayurvedically manipulating the body.
The Eye of the Hurricane
The actual experience of these three prerequisites were, in a sense, the source, course, and the goal of an effective life extension treatment. In other words, the kaya kalpa itself would establish the experience of these prerequisites during the treatment, and maintain that experience long after the process ended. The actual transformation of each aged cell, which resulted in the life extension itself, depended on these experiences as the source of its success.
For this to happen, a certain internal environment had to be established to empower this transformation. This environment had to support the co-existence of two extremely opposite forces. First, an incredible state of calm had to be established in the midst of this complete physiological overhaul. The best analogies for this are readily available when we analyze the awesome power and longevity of nature itself. A hurricane, for example, is a combination of gale force winds swirling around a silent center.
The bigger this silent eye of the hurricane, the more powerful the winds. This is a law of nature that we see as tiny electrons spin around silent nuclei, and planets around a silent sun. For us to harness this power of nature and longevity, we must be able to reproduce its environment inside of us. This is the goal of the kaya kalpa and panchakarma treatments. If a state of the deepest transcendental calm was established and maintained, it would act as a hub of silence around which the dynamic forcefulness of the medicines, and cleansings would transform old toxic cells into vital productive ones. This state of deep and heightened internal awareness would trigger a cascade of spontaneous healings on a deep cellular level, where we bury our stress, fears, and emotions.
As a science of longevity, Ayurveda offers several techniques and approaches to not only extending and preserving the years in a life, but also enhancing the quality of life itself.
Transcendental Awareness and Meditation
The first prerequisite of maintaining a transcendental awareness, is established by a spontaneous lowering of the basal metabolic rate, as a result of each successive treatment. If the body were a lake, it would become totally calm and crystal clear. In this state, the body could experience itself more deeply as a unified field of consciousness, rather than thousands of physical parts. Ayurveda identifies the cause of all disease as the "mistake of the intellect." The intellect chooses to think of itself, and bodily parts, as separate from an underlying field of consciousness. Once the memory of consciousness is restored on a cellular level, the body will spontaneously heal itself with its own awareness.
Each treatment provides a deep relaxation, as well as an experience of total luxury. This luxury would provide the calm that would deeply relax the body, and give access to the well-protected storage sites of deep and toxic tissues of the body. The cumulative effect of two and a half hours of such treatments for a week or more, would establish a kind of internal calm that would remain as a hub of silence for all activity. By removing stores of cellular toxins, the body would settle down deeper and deeper each day. This deep immersion of inner silence, would allow the experience of consciousness to pervade every cell, and become a way of life. Remember the bigger the eye of the hurricane, the more forceful the winds. This was the goal of the panchakarma and message of the vedas, (ancient texts), this experience was to be lived as a means to full human potential.
Control of the Senses
The second prerequisite required complete control, or the refinement of all the senses. It seems throughout the course of evolution, our senses have been sold a slightly bogus bill of goods. We have traded a world of unlimited human potential, for a glitzier, and sexier world full of sensual pleasure. Originally, as infants, we did not have access to our senses as we know them. They developed over time, and as they did, we all became intoxicated with new sounds, tastes, colors, and shapes. In Ayurveda, the senses are considered avenues of consciousness, that as infants would bring all the experiences of the outside world through the filter of the mind, and directly to the heart as feelings. This is how mothers communicate with their babies without words, for the first two years of life. It is a heart-to-heart level of communication based on feelings, and it doesn't get more direct. Even as adults, the senses still make us feel.
When you hear a favorite song, you feel good. When you smell a flower, you feel good. These feelings are heartfelt and are accessed via the five senses. Typically, our senses are so overloaded with external stimuli, that it keeps us from having a real experience of ourselves. The heart, which is the source of our feelings and in Ayurveda it is the source of all our thoughts, actions, and desires, is the ultimate eye of the hurricane. That calm center that supports all our mental, emotional, and physical activity.
The panchakarma treatments turn the senses inside out and make us feel deeper parts of ourselves. It is human nature to protect oneself from getting hurt feelings, so we wall off those deep and delicate feelings of the heart, making a mind over matter approach to life the norm.
Certain Ayurvedic treatments which utilize all the five senses, transport awareness in the form of consciousness to the heart, and then to every cell in the body. The heart, which is the source of both feelings and consciousness, is bombarded with this awareness, infusing both feelings, consciousness, and healing into every cell. With this heightened state of self-awareness, there is nothing that the body cannot fix. Instead of seeking happiness in the unreliable world of the relative, the senses provide access to the source of life and longevity itself. This is our own consciousness, which we hold so very dear to our heart.
Strength and Endurance
The third prerequisite, is to have the strength and endurance to handle the kaya kalpa treatments. The traditional ninety day kaya kalpa treatments were very depleting, but when the panchakarma aspect of kaya kalpa is performed correctly, it promises an experience of total rejuvenation. As I previously described, the senses make us aware of the ultimate eye of the hurricane located in the heart, while the lowering of the metabolic rate acts as a kind of calm lake, where the body can see deeply and clearly into itself. The result is that the human eye of the hurricane becomes quite big.
Once again, the bigger the eye of the hurricane, the more powerful its wind; thus, the more energy available to heal and rejuvenate the body from inside out. The experience of a series of panchakarma treatments, establishes this rejuvenative calm on the level of each and every cell.
There are many in a series of the Ayurvedic panchakarma treatments. The following descriptions are the actual treatments used in the ancient art of life extension. Many of them are performed by two Ayurvedic therapists, working in perfect synchrony. Two, three, and sometimes four of these therapies are linked together during the course of one day’s treatment.
- Garshana treatments consist of a dry lymphatic skin brushing, with either a wool or a silk glove. This enhances circulation, and cleans the skin, so subsequent oil and herbal treatments can penetrate deeply into freshly cleaned pores of the skin.
- Abhyanga is an individually prepared herbal-oil massage, designed to deeply penetrate the skin, relax the mind-body, break up impurities, and stimulate both arterial and lymphatic circulation. This effect enhances the ability for nutrients to reach starved cells, and for the removal of stagnant waste. The desired result is a heightened state of awareness, that will direct the internal healing system of the body.
- Vishesh is a deep muscular Ayurvedic massage that breaks up adhesions and compromised circulation, deep within the muscle spindles. When certain channels are blocked, then neither awareness nor blood can access deeply seated tissues. For certain body types and imbalances, this is an essential therapeutic approach.
- Swedna is an individually herbalized steam bath. The Ayurvedic swedna is unique because the head and the heart are kept very cool during the steam bath, while the body is heated to remove mental, emotional, and physical toxins lodged deeply within the tissues. The cool head and heart provides a sense of calm and openness, while the therapeutic steam over the entire body can penetrate and cleanse deeply, without the body becoming overheated and stressed.
- Shirodhara is administered by gently, and methodically, pouring warm herbalized oil over the forehead. This procedure synchronizes brain waves and profoundly coordinates and calms the mind, body, and spirit.
- Pizichili is a continuous steam of warm, herbalized oil, soothingly poured over the body by two Ayurvedic therapists, as they massage the body in perfect unison. The warmth of the oil, and synchronicity of the massage, combine for a deep tissue cleansing, while supporting a heightened state of awareness hard to describe until you've had the experience.
- Udvartina is a deeply penetrating, herbal paste lymphatic massage. This powerful exfoliating treatment magically conditions the skin, while pressing stagnant lymphatic toxins out of the body.
- Nasya consists of individually prescribed herbs and oil drops, that are inhaled through the nose, which clear the sinuses of excessive mucous. It is also a very important therapy when supporting the central nervous system. This treatment combats the deep dryness that exists at the root of many respiratory and allergic conditions.
- Shiro-Abhyanga-Nasya is a luxurious combination of a deep head, neck, and shoulder massage, a facial lymphatic massage, followed by deep inhalation of therapeutic, aromatic steam, and a nasal and sinus nasya with herbalized nose drops. This popular treatment is an invaluable tool balancing most head, neck, and respiratory challenges.
- Pinda Swedna is a deep cleansing treatment, where rice boiled in milk and herbs is massaged deeply into the tissues and joints. The treatment is deeply relaxing and rejuvenating, as well as powerfully detoxing.
- Vamana, which is emesis therapy, and Rakta Moksha, or bloodletting, are traditional aspects of panchakarma, but seem rarely used as a part of the kaya kalpa, or life extension, treatments.
- Five Senses Therapy treatments, combine the therapeutic effect of all five senses working in concert. Sound therapy consists of specific vedic hymns and mantras, recommended for each imbalance. Touch therapy enlivens specific vital points on the body, called marma points. Taste therapy uses certain herbal medicines. Sight uses Ayurvedic color therapy, and smell is accessed with combinations of rare aromatics. The effect is to use the senses in concert to bring one's awareness to the source of thought and feeling in the heart.
- Basti is an herbal enema, specially prepared to pull toxins out of the colon. This is the final stage of each daily panchakarma treatment. The freshly loosened impurities from each day of treatment, are flushed out of the body via the effects of the basti. The basti is also utilized to transport Ayurvedic medicines into the blood and tissues needed to transform the memory of damaged and toxic cells. It is considered one of the most important, and most powerful, aspects of the treatment.
In Ayurvedic medicine, the kaya kalpa treatments that claimed to transform every cell in the body into youthful and vital cells, were best performed at key junctures in one's life. There are certain turning points in one's life that are acceptable as such, even here in the West.
Soon after delivering a baby is one very special time, puberty, menopause, and losing one’s virginity are some of the other periods mentioned. The panchakarma treatments are valued as a cumulative approach toward life extension, and not as extreme as the kaya kalpa. There are, as well, certain times of year that are better for panchakarma than others.
Every change of season provides an opportune time to cleanse the body and anytime during the winter is said to be good. At the end of each season, there is a natural accumulation of the qualities of that season. For example, towards the end of winter, there is an accumulation of cold and dry in the body, while at the end of summer, there is a the accumulation of heat. At the end of spring, the wet and dampness of spring also accumulates. If these seasonal accumulations are properly dealt with each season, then wellness is said to be the natural result. This idea of seasonal cleansing has been pretty much lost in the West as a means for preventative care.
In Ayurveda, with the guidance of a qualified practitioner, there is one very practical recommendation for such a cleansing that could be done at home. It is called oleation and virechana. This is a combination of four sequential days of drinking ghee, (clarified butter), or oil first thing in the morning, as a means of loosening up impurities from the deeply seated tissues, and toxic storehouses. At the end of these four days, a laxative purgation is recommended to flush all the loosened impurities out of the body. It is simple and effective, and is a general recommendation for everyone, unless there is a fat handling intolerance, or debility. During these five days a light diet is recommended, along with drinking eight to ten cups of plain hot water each day.