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What’s An Ayurvedic Cleanse? One Editor Finds Out The Hard Way

Above photo: Getty Images

What Is Ayurveda

Ayurveda—essentially a holistic approach to health—is known by many as the sister science to yoga, and its origins date back thousands of years in India. In Ayurvedic tradition, everything we know and experience is made up of five elements: earth, wind, fire, air and space. Each human being has a unique composition of these five things, known as their dosha, and according to Ayurveda, keeping them balanced is what keeps us healthy. Ayurvedic practitioners believe that anything natural can be medicinal—as all matter contains the five elements—but that nothing is more healing than food. Gwyneth Paltrow has been known to embrace it as a means of detox—and that's about the best endorsement any centuries-old practice can get here in the 21st.

Photo: Getty Images

The specific take on Ayurveda I've decided to try is called The Layer, a 10-day program hosted by one of my favorite fitness movements of all time, The Class by Taryn Toomey. Simply put, the goal is to reset: to eliminate common irritants from my diet, cut out bad habits and optimize the whole mind-body package for best health.

Preparation For The Cleanse

To gear up, I join my brave fellow Layer initiates, all women, all in their 30s to 50s, at the home of instructor Natalie Kuhn. She gives us each a box of goodies that contains the following: Minerals de Mer Body Soak, a tongue scraper, Moon Juice probiotics, turmeric, cayenne pepper, magnesium supplements, vitamin D supplements, chlorophyll supplements, a body scrubbing glove and Aloha Protect Tea. It also contains a booklet with a day-by-day breakdown of the program—what to eat and when to eat it, recipes for suggested meals and instructions on when and how to tongue-scrape, bathe, do belly rolls and take supplements.

I'm immediately overwhelmed. I had thought this would be easy, but the recipes look intense (I can't even cook macaroni and cheese!), and I recognize almost none of the ingredients. All are alcohol-, gluten-, caffeine-, meat- and refined-sugar-free for the first half of the cleanse, at which point fish and eggs join the list of verboten items. Natalie senses my discomfort (read: panic) and tells me I can find almost everything on the list at Trader Joe's, and that I don't have to make every recipe. I can pick the ones that seem easiest and stick to them. Still, she insists that cooking aids in the mindful self-care portion of the program, so I commit. 

After the meeting, I head straight to the grocery store, determined to start by making four or five of the recipes in preparation for the week. TJ's indeed has a lot of the ingredients, but not all of them, so I move on to Sprouts, where I wander around like the lost KFC-eater I am, all the while feeling as if I'm being punked by Portlandia. By the time I finish foraging, it's 6pm and I've been to Trader Joe’s, Sprouts, Whole Foods and Target—twice.

Photo: Getty Images Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images Photo: Getty Images

The Cleanse, Days 1-5

Natalie is right. I love the cooking, even if it's incredibly time-consuming. I put on Fleabag and haphazardly chop vegetables for hours, slicing my finger only once in the process. However, nothing I make turns out as I think it's supposed to—my seed bread doesn't in any way resemble actual bread, my chia pudding is a milky mess and my sweet potato soup is chunky due to a blender breakdown. Still, I'm not deterred. I'm determined to do this—it's my personal, small-scale Everest.

Each day is meant to begin with tongue-scraping, a busy-girl's dry brushing (with the glove, while showering), a hot water, lemon, turmeric and cayenne drink, the vitamin D supplements, the chlorophyll supplements and a belly roll. I do well with all of these except the belly roll, which I forget the first day and never remember thereafter. (Note: This is a mistake, as the belly roll is meant to relieve you of—ahem—excess air, of which you have plenty when on a diet of mostly vegetables.)

Now, I have a confession to make: I survive only three hours without coffee for the entire program, which makes me feel like a failure, but I have to get through my workday somehow and I'm not yet enlightened enough to do so without my morning caffeine. For the first eight days it's my only setback—the rest of the time, I exist on my hardcore, home-cooked foods and I'm able to (oddly easily) shun office sweets.


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The Cleanse, Days 6-10

At this point, I believe you're supposed to feel better than ever. I do not. My brain is foggy, even with my cup of coffee in the morning, and particularly in the afternoon. My theory is that it takes longer than five days to detox from sugar and all the unhealthy chemicals our bodies are addicted to, so I press forward.

Here's the kicker, though. My stomach is the flattest it's ever been (flatulence aside). Or, to rephrase for accuracy, my stomach is now flat and it has never before been so. I didn't embark on the cleanse to lose weight, and I don't think that's what's happening. Rather, I have a highly irritable digestive system, and for the first time in my life, it's calmed by the gentle, whole foods I am consuming.

For most of the program, I've been staying in at night to avoid temptation, but by day eight I need to get out. Once I've broken free of my monastic existence, the glasses of wine my companions are drinking look like a mirage in the middle of a desert, and with their enabling I break down and order one—my second setback. Apparently, it's easier for me to give up sugar, meat and processed foods than it is for me to give up caffeine and alcohol. I don't know how to feel about this, but meh. Gwyneth I am not.

Photo: Getty Images Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images Photo: Getty Images

The Aftermath

To be honest, I'm relieved the cleanse is over for one major reason: ease of life. Cooking complex recipes for three meals a day is exhausting. Also, the brain fog made writing tough, and writing is, you know, how I make my living. I do sense that this is the way I'm supposed to be eating all the time, which makes it feel like a strange thing to abandon in favor of a return to the poisons I regularly ingest.

To that end, what I take away from the cleanse is more life-changing than what I've gleaned from any similar program. After 30-some-odd years of never cooking for myself, I now do so several times a week and I love it. I have a whole pantry full of healthy ingredients I didn't know existed before, and while I still can't pull off anything from Amanda Chantal Bacon's cookbook (who can?), I've mastered quite a few soups, curries and other vegetable-based dishes. For someone like me, I'd say that setting yourself a home-cooked-meal challenge is the thing to do, with bonus points for the healthful and detoxifying qualities of the food.

To aid you in this endeavor, try the Forks Over Knives app or, for cheaters, Purple Carrot meal delivery (which qualifies as cooking, the busy-girl way). I also highly recommend The Layer—the support group and guidelines are immensely helpful, educational and inspiring. Plus, Natalie tops my list of the best people on the planet, and her energy is healing, infectious and energizing, all of which you'll need as you embark on this 10-day journey. Check back here for details on upcoming cleanses.

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