A Relaxed Approach to Cleansing
How Releasing Stress Elevates the Cleansing Process
I grew up with pretty health-conscious parents, so my first exposure to “cleansing” came at a very young age. Unfortunately, it was also synced up with my perfectionist tendencies from the get-go.
I remember doing cleanses as a teenager that were so beyond strict and unforgiving—at least in the way that I interpreted them—that I mostly felt deprived, and couldn’t wait to complete it (which usually meant that there was no such thing as a slow, gradual transition back to normal routines at the end).
I continued to view cleansing in rather strict terms for at least a couple of decades. Truth be told, it’s only been in the past couple of years that I’ve begun to soften my approach to cleansing in any sort of meaningful way.
But doing so has turned all of my previous assumptions on their heads. I thought it would be worth sharing something about my journey with cleansing, because I very much like this new relationship with it that I am cultivating.
It’s Best Not to Mix Cleansing with Perfectionism
As a pitta-predominant human with a strong inclination toward perfectionism, it has always been incredibly easy for me to see (and pursue) the ideal. At the same time, it has been very difficult for me to value an effort that in any way seems careless or an outcome that appears mediocre.
Of course, falling short of the ideal is inevitable in life, and I often did. What I can tell you is that when I did fall short, I always felt an incredible sense of failure and I was always extraordinarily hard on myself about it.
While this level of all-or-nothing thinking is not the focus of this piece (for one that is, see The Myth of Perfect Ayurveda), it is relevant to this conversation. So often, we tend to see the world in such black-and-white terms. This attitude absolutely defined my relationship with cleansing (among other things) for most of my life. And looking back, I’m fairly convinced that my perspective did more harm than good.
My Wake-Up Call
I remember clearly the moment when it started to occur to me that my perception of things might be a bit overly rigid.
I was guiding my brother and sister-in-law through an Ayurvedic pre-conception cleanse, and my brother just hit a wall. He was so agitated by the incredible limitations of the protocol I was having them follow, which was intense, very traditional, and quite strict and limiting—and rather lengthy. He didn’t know if he could continue.
At the time, it never occurred to me that perhaps it would be appropriate to coach him through relaxing the expectations or guidelines in a way that would have worked better for him. Looking back, that’s precisely what I should have done.
But instead, I tried to reassure him that his resistance was normal (possibly even a result of the cleansing process), and that the final desired outcome—a healthy baby (my now five-year-old niece)—was totally worth the struggle. And maybe it was. But I see things differently today.
And while there is certainly value in the desired depth of a pure and traditional cleansing protocol, I find that it’s not something that most people can embrace in the context of their day-to-day lives, at least not well. This is why residential panchakarma clinics and other deeply supported cleansing methods exist. But meaningful, deeply beneficial cleansing can still happen from home—even when we relax the protocol.
I wish I had had the wisdom to offer this understanding to my brother and his wife then, but I didn’t. So I’m offering it to you now. And honestly, this was something I had to learn the hard way.
My Journey with Cleansing
I understood the value of cleansing early on. I did a couple of different types of cleanses as a teenager and young adult that were truly profound and beneficial.
Then, at the ripe old age of twenty-two, I had my first experience with Ayurveda’s signature cleanse, panchakarma. To this day, that remains the deepest experience I have ever had with a cleanse, and I can tell you why—it was an intensely supported process.
It’s worth noting that, at the time, I was in between studies and completely free of any work or school responsibilities, so I could focus all of my attention on the cleanse itself. I had just returned from a year abroad, and I was living with my parents. There were no bills, no work hours, and no school expectations to tend to. I literally had nothing but time on my hands.
For the period of active cleansing (which, if memory serves, was ten days) I spent about four hours each day receiving all of my treatments and being held and guided through the process by very caring, loving practitioners. It was the closest thing to a residential panchakarma experience that I could have had without actually being in a residential clinic or facility.
Of course, I had my moments of resisting yet another day of kitchari (the traditional Ayurvedic cleansing food of mung dal and rice), craving more variety or flavor in my diet, or feeling beat down by the depth of detoxification that was occurring in my tissues. But I had hours of contact every day with practitioners who knew the process intimately and who were there to skillfully guide me through it.
If I ever had an inclination to forget why I was doing all of this, they were there to remind me, to help me re-establish my focus on my one and only project at that time: me.
This all happened long before I became interested in studying Ayurveda myself, but it became my reference point. As I matured, I believed that my cleanses needed to match the level of intensity I experienced with that first panchakarma.
I still tried to do home cleanses with some regularity—at least once, though I always aimed for twice, annually. But by this time, my responsibilities were different. I had bills to pay, jobs to hold down, a partner to involve in the process, and for several years, I was a full-time student again.
I couldn’t afford to take two, three, or four weeks “off” to cleanse. But I somehow imagined that I could do a home panchakarma without changing much about my daily routines and commitments. I tried to schedule my cleanses during windows where I wasn’t traveling so that I could follow the strict protocols, give myself home treatments, and basically still keep up with everything my day-to-day life demanded of me, whether it was work, school, or later, parenting.
As you can imagine, this didn’t work very well at all. And even if I did manage to get all the way through a cleanse without completely falling off the wagon (which happened occasionally), it was, without fail, a rather stressful undertaking—so much so that I usually resented the process by the end of it.
And I was reliably unsuccessful at making any sort of slow, gradual transition from the cleanse back to normal day-to-day eating, which is actually rather important.
At any rate, I still wholeheartedly believed in the benefits of cleansing, so I always found myself wanting to return to it eventually, even if, on some level, I dreaded the intensity and deprivation of it all.
Looking back, and mostly because I don’t feel that way any more, I can see how clearly this signaled a rather unhealthy relationship with cleansing.
Discovering a More Relaxed Approach
It was Dr. John Douillard who inspired me to change my ways. In his book, Colorado Cleanse, he writes, “I am challenging you to let go. Let go of the need to do it perfectly, of the desire to do the most austere meal option right away…Here is your mantra: Relax. Do the best you can. The rest will come.”1
This was completely counterintuitive to me. Weren’t all the benefits in the austerity itself? How could I relax during a cleanse? I had always suffered through them in pursuit of better health in the long run.
And truthfully, it took me several tries before I even began to understand what Dr. Douillard was talking about, because it was just that hard for me to let go of the idea that I had to do it all perfectly. I thought, “Yeah, yeah. That’s great advice for the masses, but I’m an Ayurvedic practitioner, and I’ve done this a bunch of times before. Surely, I need to go for the deepest experience possible.”
But my context had changed. I didn’t have the bandwidth, the time, or the proper support, for the deepest experience possible. Even now, I’m a working mom with a strong sense of purpose, and I’m already tasked with trying to create a balanced life for myself and my family.
And if I’m honest with myself, it’s rather unlikely that I will have that kind of space any time soon. A residential cleanse is the only possible way I could consider succeeding with the kind of depth and intensity that I experienced with my first panchakarma. And that’s a great option. For me, a home cleanse feels much more accessible, but I had to redefine the parameters of what healthy cleansing looks like.
To be honest, I have my husband to thank for my eventual change of heart. Last spring, he wanted to do a cleanse, but I knew he wasn’t up for something super strict. Like my brother, he had had too many experiences suffering through cleanses I was guiding, and he was clear that he would not cleanse, unless it was absolutely doable.
So reluctantly—and, at first mostly for his sake—I relinquished my attachment to doing the most austere cleanse possible.
We did it differently. We made it easier on ourselves. We followed guidelines that included a much more diverse array of cleansing foods with the option to embrace a monodiet of kitchari, only if that felt super easy.
Well, it never did. And I never forced that expectation on either of us. This was a complete revelation for me, and something amazing happened. I discovered that this wasn’t just for my husband but that this was the best possible approach for me to be taking as well.
My relationship with food is complicated (for more about that aspect of my story, you might enjoy reading Why We Use Food as an Energetic Buffer). But here I was. For the first time—maybe ever—I had made it through an entire cleanse without feeling seriously deprived.
I had experienced no desire to “cheat.” I hadn’t once craved the things I had eliminated from my diet. And throughout the experience, I was gentle with myself, even if I didn’t do everything perfectly. When the active cleansing was complete, I was able to gently (and slowly) transition back to my normal diet.
Even more exciting, it was obvious to me throughout the process that my body was reaping deep benefits. In fact, I would argue that the benefits were likely deeper than all the times I had tried to force something upon myself that I hadn’t really made space for. When all was said and done, doing this type of a cleanse once or twice a year felt absolutely inviting.
To my utter delight, my husband had a similar experience. He wasn’t ready to commit to cleansing twice a year just yet, but it was the first time he’d completed a cleanse without feeling like he’d just run a marathon, struggling through the entire thing.
As I reflected on the experience, I realized that despite my attraction to cleansing, it had also always felt like a big fat should—something that I should do for my health but that wasn’t particularly easy or enjoyable. This felt different. It felt like I was cooperating with my body rather than forcing myself into something that wasn’t compatible with my day-to-day life.
Less Is Often More
If you are considering a cleanse this spring—or at any time—please consider thinking about it differently than you may have in the past. Our culture tends to believe that harder work always yields greater results. It’s that whole “no pain, no gain” mentality—that bigger and deeper is always better. In my experience, it’s not.
If you plan to continue with “business as usual,” to cleanse while you work, or parent, or do whatever you do most of the time (without making radical changes to your routines), chances are that doing something shorter and less limiting will serve you best.
Listen to your body and respect your own boundaries as far as what feels manageable, even delightful.
Spring is nature’s natural cleansing season, so if a cleanse is calling to you, take a moment to check in with your mind, your body, your heart, your spirit. How can you cleanse in a way that is both self-honoring and revitalizing, relaxed and beneficial?
Our cleansing department has a number of different cleansing options outlined, but if you’re new to cleansing or want to rethink your approach with all of this in mind, An Introduction to Ayurvedic Cleansing is a good place to start.
Happy, healthy, relaxed cleansing to each of you! I know I’ll be doing one of my own within the next month or so. And I intend to make it as easy on myself as possible.