Seasonal cleanses are an important part of an Ayurvedic lifestyle. They can take place at every seasonal juncture, but they’re traditionally performed at the onset of spring and fall. The primary goal of a cleanse is to rid the body of ama (the product of incomplete digestion) and increase the strength of agni (digestive strength).
But a cleanse also provides a number of other benefits. It can restore one’s energy, help to reestablish balance, bring more clarity in one’s life, calm the mind and nervous system, and support regular stool elimination. By clearing the channels of digestion and elimination, a cleanse resets the body and prepares it for the coming season.
Why Cleanse in Autumn?
Autumn has arrived for those of us in the Northern hemisphere. It’s a time to gather one’s harvest, observe nature’s palette melt from green to yellow, and begin the transition from outdoor to indoor celebrations and hobbies.
For those who live an Ayurvedic lifestyle, it’s also time to cleanse the body of excess ama and excess pitta and prepare it for vata season, the season of fall. Cleansing during this time of year focuses on flushing accumulated toxins in the system while also addressing accumulated pitta.
In the Ayurvedic system of health, each season is correlated with a dosha or set of elemental qualities (Vata is late fall to early winter, Kapha is mid winter to early Spring, and Pitta is late Spring into early fall). The doshas govern our individual, physical makeup as well as everything in the external environment. (If you don’t yet know your constitution, take this quiz.)
A fall cleanse also helps balance your digestive fire (agni) and prevent sickness heading into the winter months. Like our homes, when the body doesn’t have an opportunity to “clean house,” there’s an accumulation of junk (ama) that gets lodged in the tissues and cells and can lead to issues later on.
General Cleanse Guidelines
- Allow space between meals (4-6 hours is ideal) by reducing or eliminating snacks.
- Avoid drinking a lot of liquid around meal time.
- Make space in your day for relaxing activities: meditation, yin yoga, pranayama, being with plants or animals, spending time with family, getting lost in a book, and other self care practices.
- Eat a mono-diet using warm, well-cooked foods. This typically involves Kitchari. (See below.)
- Drink plenty of warm water or herbal tea throughout the day. CCF tea (cumin, coriander, fennel) and Pukka detox tea are great options.
- Minimize exposure to stressful environments and situations and rest as much as possible.
- Freshly prepared meals are best, so try to avoid eating leftovers.
- Cook with spices that are especially good for cleansing, including: ginger, turmeric, coriander, fennel, fenugreek. These all help to flush toxins from the body.
- Use plenty of warming oils while cooking, like sesame oil, almond oil, and ghee.
- Perform regular abhyanga (self massage) throughout the cleanse. This practice counteracts vata and also supports the detoxification process by releasing toxins stored in the deep tissues.
- Ayurveda encourages using herbs at this time if it feels appropriate, like Triphala to aid in elimination.
Ayurvedic cleanses can last from a few days to several weeks. The cleanse is typically divided into three parts: preparation (eliminating toxins), the heart of the cleanse (breaking down toxins), and after the cleanse (building your digestive powers).
What to Expect During a Cleanse
Every individual will require different treatment during an Ayurvedic cleanse, especially depending on one’s doshic constitution. Therefore, each person’s experience during a cleanse will be different. Not everyone will follow the exact same daily routine or eating habits. That’s why it can be helpful to participate in a guided cleanse or a group cleanse that is facilitated by an Ayurvedic Health Practitioner who can address individual needs. But in general, here’s what you can expect during an Ayurvedic cleanse:
The first portion of the cleanse is a time to reduce or eliminate processed foods, fast foods, caffeine, tobacco products, alcohol, and recreational drugs. You might find it supportive to also reduce or eliminate other ama-producing foods and products. These include dairy and soy (except ghee; cow’s milk or goat’s milk can also be added), meat, deep fried foods, sugar, non-organic foods, and yeasted breads. This is also a great time to start practicing abhyanga (self massage). Take time in the mornings or evenings to bathe yourself in oil and encourage the body to loosen deeply rooted toxins.
The majority of the detoxification process occurs during the heart of the cleanse. It involves eating a mono-diet of grains, kitchari (see below), cooked vegetables, and plenty of water. Oatmeal with stewed apples in the morning with kitchari in the afternoon and evening is especially beneficial.
If it’s easier, prepare all your food in the morning so that you won’t have to worry about finding time throughout the day. You’ll want to continue to reduce or eliminate processed foods, caffeine, alcohol, and other ama-producing foods and products. You may also choose to add in specific habits that support cleansing, like early rising (before the sunrise), gentle yoga, self-massage, and meditation.
Herbs can also be supportive during this time, like Triphala for elimination. You’re encouraged during this time to only drink warm water or tea (detox or herbal) between meals and avoid snacking. This gives the body space between meals for proper digestion.
This is a time to ease out of all the amazing work you did during the cleanse. It’s important to slowly reintegrate certain foods and activities into your life during this time so you don’t overload your system following a period of restoration. Similarly, you wouldn’t immediately dirty your home after taking the time to clean and restore every corner of its space. The benefits of your cleanse will be better sustained by slowly transitioning back to a diverse diet and into your normal routine.
This can be done by gradually reintroducing the foods you eliminated (dairy, wheat, soy, meat, nightshades) – specifically one every 24-36 hours. Each day you bring in a new food, observe how your body feels and watch for signs of indigestion: bloating, gurgling, gas, burping, heartburn, cramping. As with food, be sure to also take your time reintroducing activities that you took a break from during your cleanse, like strenuous activity and intense workloads.
Daily Cleanse Routine
Allow your daily routine to cater toward your individual needs. What are you needing most right now? Tune into your body. Use the cleanse as an opportunity to practice listening to your body and asking what would be most supportive for you. Here are a few ideas of supportive practices during a cleanse:
- Wake early, just before the sunrise.
- Practice oil pulling and tongue scraping upon waking for optimal oral health.
- Drink a cup of warm lemon in the water to encourage elimination.
- Incorporate slow, gentle movements (like restorative or yin yoga) into your morning routine.
- Practice meditation or simply relaxing into the moment.
- After, take time to prepare your breakfast and meals for the rest of the day (oatmeal between 6-9am, kitchari lunch between 12-2pm, and kitchari dinner between 5-7pm).
- Sip on warm water or detoxifying herbal teas throughout the day.
- Be mindful of your screen time. This time can also be an opportunity to cleanse from the over-stimulation of screens and social media. Practice shutting down your screens at least an hour before bedtime. This will likely improve your quality of sleep as well.
- Take Triphala before bed to support elimination in the morning.
- Lay down for bed around 9 or 10pm so you can begin the next day before the sunrise.
The heart of an Ayurvedic cleanse typically involves a mono-diet of an Indian cuisine called Kitchari, a staple Ayurvedic healing food that balances all three doshas. It’s typically composed of basmati rice, split mung beans, and spices that support digestion.
With rice and beans, Kitchari forms a complete protein and contains all the amino acids the body needs. Not only is Kitchari highly nutritious, it’s also easy for the body to digest. This is particularly important during a cleanse because it alleviates any digestive burden on the body.
Unlike many other cleanses that send the body into starvation mode, Kitchari provides enough protein to stabilize blood sugar in the body. This allows it to burn fat and remove toxins without undue stress. It also helps the digestive tract to take a break from constantly processing different foods, especially processed and toxic foods that are often found in the American diet. It does all this without depriving your body of any essential nutrients.
If Kitchari is not a favorite, you can substitute it with other warm, cooked, and easy-to-digest meals like vegetable soup or red lentil soup. The primary goal here is to eat meals that are simple, well-cooked, well-spiced, and easy to digest. The best spices to incorporate are turmeric, ginger, fennel, cumin, black pepper, and fenugreek.
Serving size: 4
- 1 cup White Basmati Rice
- 1/2 cup Mung Dal (split yellow mung beans)
- 2 tbsp. Ghee
- 1/4 tsp. Mustard Seeds
- 1/2 tsp. Cumin seeds (or powder)
- 1/2 tsp. Turmeric powder
- 1/2 tsp. Coriander powder
- 1/2 tsp. Fennel powder (or seeds)
- 1 pinch Asafoetida (hing)
- 7 cups water
- Salt to taste
- Seasonal vegetables, chopped (optional; only use one or two)
- Chopped fresh cilantro or mint, unsweetened shredded coconut, and a wedge of lime (optional, to garnish)
- Pick over rice and dal to remove any stones, then wash them separately
- Soak rice and dal for three hours or overnight; drain soak water
- Optional: Prepare any vegetables that suit your constitution, cut them into smallish pieces.
- Saute the seeds in the ghee (or other oil) over medium heat until they pop. Then add the other spices.
- Add the rice and mung dal, and saute for 1 or 2 minutes.
- Add any vegetables you prepared earlier; stir.
- Add water, bring to a boil, then cover and simmer for 30-45 minutes or until everything is tender.
- If you need to add more water to prevent scorching, please do. Keep in mind that you’ll want a slightly soupy consistency, but not too much.
- Optional: garnish with unsweetened shredded coconut, fresh cilantro (or you could use fresh mint), and lime juice.
One of the most important things to remember when participating in an Ayurvedic cleanse is that the primary intention is to support the body by creating opportunity for it to thrive. Part of an Ayurvedic cleanse is approaching it with this mindset rather than punishing yourself by “taking away” pleasurable foods or experiences.
The human body is an extraordinary, self-healing system that we often take for granted. Participating in Ayurvedic cleanses is an act of embracing the body with love and care. It’s an opportunity to support the incredible work the body naturally does on its journey of healing. It’s a moment to pause and tend to your body with compassion.
Wherever you’re at in your exploration of Ayurveda, be gentle and understanding of your needs and know that you have plenty of time to work toward optimal health. Small steps ultimately lead to massive change. Happy cleansing!