Panchakarma: The Ayurvedic Treatment That’s A Favorite Of Gwyneth Paltrow & Kourtney Kardashian

Healing from the inside out.

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panchakarma treatment surya spa

Near the tail end of this winter, I found myself feeling run down for no reason I could explain. My muscles were slightly achy, I was always a little tired no matter how much I slept, and I’d been having low-grade sinus issues for months. I wasn’t sick with flu, COVID, or any other type of seasonal illness. I was simply run down, in a way that no trip to a traditional doctor could have solved with anything other than orders to get even more rest than I was already giving myself. What was I supposed to do?

Just when I was about to give up and simply hope for better days come spring, I caught wind of a spa nestled in the Santa Monica Proper Hotel in Los Angeles that offered an alternative solution. Surya Spa's approach to wellness is based on the ancient principles of Ayurveda, a system of medicine from India that emphasizes the importance of maintaining balance in the body, mind, and spirit. I was particularly intrigued by a service series the spa offers called panchakarma, which is “a treatment program for the body, mind, and consciousness that cleanses and rejuvenates,” according to The Ayurvedic Institute.

Surya is helmed by internationally recognized Ayurvedic expert Martha Soffer — who has led panchakarmas for everyone from Gwyneth Paltrow to Kourtney Kardashian — who was kind enough to invite me in to learn all about the facility’s treatments firsthand. Spoiler: I left the spa after only one day feeling reborn and restored, no spring weather required. Read on to learn all about the buzzy Eastern treatment that was a game changer for my mood and energy levels.

What Is Panchakarma?

First things first. Panchakarma was developed as a part of the Ayurvedic system of medicine, which is based on the idea that each individual is unique and has a specific set of physical and mental characteristics determined by their doshas or energy types. There are three doshas in Ayurveda: Vata (air and space), Pitta (fire and water), and Kapha (earth and water). According to Ayurvedic principles, disease and illness occur when there is an imbalance in the doshas, which can be caused by a variety of factors including stress, poor diet, lack of sleep, and environmental factors. Treatments aim to restore balance and harmony to the body and mind through a combination of diet, lifestyle changes, herbal remedies, and other therapies.

Panchakarma is one of said therapies within the over-3000-year-old healing system. It is a Sanskrit term that means "five actions" or "five treatments" and refers to a set of cleansing procedures that are designed to balance the three doshas and remove toxins from the body, taking place over anywhere from three to 30 days. Traditional panchakarmas are slightly more intense than those you’ll find at Surya — although the spa’s are certainly effective — and include bloodletting, vomiting, and enemas. This takes place under the direction and guidance of a highly trained expert and is tailored to everyone’s unique constitution and physical state. What you’ll find at Surya is a more comfortable, luxurious, and modern version of the ancient treatment.

Ahead, my experience with the celebrity-loved panchakarma service, and the benefits I reaped from my day at Surya.

What Happens During A Panchakarma Course?

No matter the timeframe you choose for treatment, a panchakarma begins before you arrive at the spa, and ideally continues long after you’ve left. This is because it is meant to be a holistic lifestyle shift that gets you back in balance and sets you on a path of continual vitality, as opposed to a temporary response to a few days of treatment.

Before your course starts, you’ll be spending about a week at home doing a gentle cleanse to prepare. This cleanse involves eating a simple and nutritious diet rooted in Ayurveda, taking a mild laxative to detox the system, and abstaining from anything too taxing, including heavy exercise and sex.

When you arrive at Surya, you’ll have a consultation in which your pulse is recorded and a series of additional quick and gentle holistic tests are run to gauge the state of your body and dosha imbalances. This will help determine the best course of treatment. My consultation revealed that my hormones were a little off, and that there was a lot of stress that was staying stuck in my body, which was causing me to feel run down, no matter how much rest I got. Normal sleep and time off wasn’t providing an adequate outlet for all of my emotions and stress to be released. So, it was off to Surya to address these issues.

A wide array of treatments are on offer to heal the body from the inside out. I was fortunate enough to experience several, the first being a type of massage called abhyanga, which is Surya’s signature four-handed technique. Customized herbal oil are dripped and rubbed all over your skin. In my case, this resulted not only in feeling muscles I didn’t even know I had relax, but also in lulling me into a state of profound relaxation. During my time on the table, I had flashbacks to happy childhood memories from 20 years prior which led to some crying and eventually a state of calm that felt more nourishing and impactful than sleep. The best way I can explain it is that the mental chatter that usually occupies my mind was completely absent, which allowed me to access deeper emotions.

According to Soffer, having an emotional response during treatment is normal, as the body, mind, and spirit are all connected. “Normally in the first two days, that’s when all the emotional stuff starts to come out,” she tells me. “When you look at the word disease, its roots are something that do not make you easy. Dis-ease. So, it’s embedded in there, in your body.” Surya has an energy healer they work with — the internationally renowned Howard Wills — and encourages people to lean in to the spiritual and emotional side of panchakarma. (Indeed, the meditation room where people wait for treatments comes with a prayer menu, one of which I’ve been saying every morning and night since my time at Surya.)

After my massage, I was treated to a treatment called nasya, which is a type of massage that focuses on purifying the face, neck, and shoulders. But before we got started, Soffer noted from my pulse that there was something going on with my reproductive system and asked me how long my last cycle had been. I told her it had been shorter than usual recently, and Soffer made me a ginger foot bath to rest my feet in during my nasya. FYI: Ginger foot baths are an Ayurvedic remedy for reproductive issues. This felt like a window into the kind of unique, specialized care I might receive during a longer panchakarma. The massage worked on my tense shoulders and neck, along with my face, and left my sinuses feeling clear for the first time in months. “Sinus problems can indicate there’s not enough fire in your digestive system,” Soffer told me. “So, when the nose is congested, what I'm actually going to work is the digestive system, because that's where it starts.” Again, this wasn’t the kind of advice that any primary care doctor would have likely given me, but when I left Surya and made Soffer’s digestive prescription involving slices of raw ginger and lime, lo and behold, my sinuses cleared almost immediately.

My final treatment at Surya was the shirodhara, in which oil was slowly and steadily dripped on to my forehead, which is a pressure point that can calm the nervous system. The relaxing effect on the nervous system from shirodhara is said to be profound, and this was indeed the case for me. My treatments for the day took about four hours total, which is a normal span of time for one day of services during a panchakarma. There is a vast range of potential remedial combinations that can occur during the experience, including an infrared room, energy sessions with Wills, yoga, body scrubs with herbal oils, breathwork, cacao and rose therapy, craniosacral therapy, a Medicine Buddha session involving deep sight and body scanning, qi gong and qi healing, Transcendental Meditation instruction, Ayurvedic astrology, and Ayurvedic cooking classes. One of the most specialized elements involves the herbal therapy oils that are customized for guests daily and cooked overnight before being used for sessions in the morning. Guests return for their specific treatments every day for however long of a course they have signed up for.

What Are the Results of Panchakarma?

Personally, I can say that even one day of panchakarma treatments left me feeling restored and revitalized in a way I had not experienced in months. My entire nervous system felt as though it had been reset, and things that would have easily stressed me out prior didn’t seem as important. Physically, the muscle tension and sinus issues that had been plaguing me lifted and following Soffer’s at-home instructions seems to be working in securing these benefits for the long haul.

One of the best things you can do after a treatment — or even without having had one — to begin exploring the benefits of Ayurvedic medicine is integrate the principles into your daily life. There’s a wealth of information available on Surya’s site about at-home best practices, including meditating upon waking up in the morning, utilizing a tongue scraper, oil pulling, giving yourself an herbal massage, practicing yoga, and dry brushing. So, until I can make it back to Surya for a longer, more intense panchakarma — an experience that is now at the very top of my self-care list — I’m committed to weaving these simple practices into my life, both before and after the spring season I’ve been waiting for.

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