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Pancha Karma – A first hand look at Surya Spa

Like many of you in this industry, we often put off our own care and neglect our own best advice. But for us, we were presented with a window of opportunity. We were going to receive two days of pancha karma, the Ayurvedic process of deep detoxification and rejuvenation at Surya Spa, where they understand the necessity to keep classical Ayurveda alive and, at the same time, make it relevant and practical for Westerners.

Preparing the body

Normally, pancha karma is done for five to seven days, although for medical purposes, pancha karma masters will suggest as long as five to six weeks of treatments. Here, they only had two days to work with us! But, in the hands of the right practitioners, even a couple of days can create dramatic results.

Surya Spa was our destination. It’s an exclusively Ayurvedic spa and health center owned by Martha Soffer, an Ayurvedic therapist trained in the tradition of Maharishi Ayurveda. It’s nestled in the hills of Pacific Palisades, CA. A week prior to our appointments, Martha contacted and instructed us that we should begin the required dietary preparations. We were to begin each day with a tablespoon of ghee or clarified butter; eat a cooked, vegetarian diet; and then, two days before the treatment, take two tablespoons of castor oil before bed in order to “purge” the following day. This would get our bodies in the right state to receive the pancha karma regimen. Just being more aware of our diets put us into the right frame of mind and we could feel our bodies getting poised for change.

The Ayurvedic evaluation

When we arrived at Surya Spa, earthly smells of cooking herbs surrounded us. We sat comfortably and chatted in a relaxed, yet focused way.  Martha spends 30 minutes with each client to feel the subtle energies in their pulses, check their tongues and ask questions. Her goal is to find the origin of the deepest disturbances in the subtle energies of the body (vata, pitta, and kapha), follow the pathways these disturbances take and determine how they come to the surface as noted symptoms. This provides her the information needed to perfectly customize treatments with the appropriate herbal oils for the full-body massage or snehan, the herbs for the steam bath or swedan, and the oil most useful for shirodhara. After each of our examinations, we were then directed to a changing room. In this situation, modesty cannot be a factor. Of course, when necessary, one is draped during portions of various treatments in the pancha karma process.

We were transformed. Even our thinking was different. This is not the usual state people call bliss from a spa treatment. It is more, much more and should be honored as such.


The hands-on

Our treatments lasted three-and-a-half hours. Pancha karma and many Ayurvedic treatments can be offered by one or more therapists. Many spas offer abhyanga or full-body Ayurvedic oleation message employing two therapists. This does not have to be the case, but at Surya Spa, Martha and her assistants work together as a well-coordinated team. Their touch and timing is well practiced. They began with the oleation message or snehan. Massage in pancha karma is less focused on deep-tissue issues and more focused on effectively driving in the medicinal oil that suits the client best. Here, product plays a role equal to technique. With the oil worked into the large muscle groups and joints, both of them began to rub the body with rice and herbal boluses that had cooked overnight. Called pinda swedana, these warm herbal boluses were rubbed over every muscle, crease and fold of the body, driving the oil and herbs deeper. In my (Robert’s) case, as I was experiencing a bit of low back pain, they prepared a lepa or poultice of herbs that was laid over my lower back, then strapped onto me when I needed to turn over.

Once on our backs, then oleation and pinda swedana continued. As the process progressed, we were more and more deeply moved by the degree of intention and the sheer amount of physical work involved. This couple had been working round the clock to make all the products from scratch. They had personally gathered a number of herbs from the deserts and open spaces around Los Angeles. And during all this preparation, they chanted sacred sounds to awaken the stronger healing energy in the oils they were preparing. As they touched each marma (vital energy pint) they whispered its name to call it to awaken and open. You could feel their dedication, this whole process felt sacred and powerfully grounded. When it came to our faces, Martha was the primary therapist, not only doing a beautiful face massage, but also offering us nasya or nasal cleansing with a “medicated” ghee she made herself. It had been decocted 20 times over a period of days. Here, we were experiencing the alchemical, the deeply transformational mystery and “magic” of this ancient science.


With our bodies fully oiled from head to toe, we were then directed to an herbal steam bath. In pancha karma, it is best to receive a steam sitting up, to keep the client alert and their head cool. For some, especially those of a more fiery or pitta nature, a cool cloth on the head is often useful. It certainly was in my (Robert’s) case as we remained in the steam box for close to 20 minutes on the porch that overlooked a ravine surrounded by lush green. There was no rush and I (Melaine), for once, lost all sense of time.


Shirodhara was next in the regimen of treatments we received. Shirodhara is where a fine steam of warm oil flows over the forehead. Again, Martha used oil specially prepared fro each of us and designed to eliminate extra vata, quiet mental chatter and liberate nervous tension. Shirodhara is, at the very least, extremely relaxing. At best if feels to me (Melanie) like a rebirthing, a psychic cleansing, renourishing my nervous system and readjusting my emotional thermostat. Although in a medical setting, shirodhara can last as long as an hour, but Martha assess that 25 minutes of the treatment was sufficient. That was long enough for us to discover relaxation…and then deeper and deeper letting go, gently and easily.

Five actions

Three hours of being handled, rolled and steamed certainly takes care of a lot of mental and physical armoring and stress. The body becomes loose and open; the mind, quiet. One may think that there is nothing more to do but all the treatment up until now is purva karma, that is, pacifying actions–treatments designed to mobilize toxins and unbalance energies in the body and push them into the hollow organs from which they can be voided. Pancha karma is five cleansing actions that flush these toxins out of the system completely. These include purgatives (virechana), like the ones we did prior to arriving at Surya Spa; enemas (basti); and nasal cleansing (nasya), like the ones Martha offered us. These are what make pancha karma, pancha karma.

During the pancha karma process, clients are commonly instructed to do for themselves or receive a basti or herbal enema on a daily basis at the end of the massage and steaming. The herbal solution for each of us was different, but the amount was about a pint. The goal is basically, however, to hold the solution for at least one half hour. After such deep and relaxing treatments, this is not as difficult as it sounds.

Home care

Our treatment was then complete and we were directed back to the dressing room where we would shower, evacuate if we must, and get dressed. Instructions for the rest of the day were to rest, eat lightly, and get enough rest to do the same the following day. At the completion of our two days, they gave us jars of herbal tinctures to take home to continue the process of detoxification and rejuvenation.

The result?

It is one thing to feel great after a treatment and it is another thing when you distinctly feel as if someone has touched you down to your soul and reordered your molecules. We were transformed. Even our thinking was different. This is not the usual state people call bliss from a spa treatment. It is more, much more and should be honored as such. For years, we have been involved in teaching Ayurvedic bodywork methods to the spa and beauty industries. We have tried to select from the wide range of Ayurvedic treatments those that the most qualified and competent therapists can learn and practice in the spa setting. In our travels, we have heard of those spas that claim to do pancha karma, thinking that a massage and steam are all that’s to it. From what we have described of what we received at Surya Spa, it should be clear to the reader that very, very few spas do offer pancha karma. They may offer stellar Ayurvedic treatments and purva karma; however, unless a spa is offering or guiding clients through such treatments as enemas, purgatives, and emetics, they are not offering pancha karma. But Surya Spa is. And Martha Soffer is a master and pioneer.  They are offering a true, holistic “medi-spa” experience in the age-old tradition of the healing spas of antiquity.

About the spa

In this article, we have spent little describing Surya Spa’s décor, it’s treatment rooms, or the quality of its sheets or towels, etc. Suffice to say that Surya Spa is quiet, personal clean and a place to receive and experience a depth of treatment unlike any spa that we have had the opportunity to visit. It is a place for an inner journey that will prompt the body to heal.  Martha works with the rich, the famous as well as the average working person. They believe in the principles Gandhi set out regarding small, independent businesses that serve the community. They do not have lofty ambitions of growing into a “mega-spa.” If they grow in size, it will be organic, with intention backed by an ethic to serve. For our part, we were renewed and inspired by our experiences at Surya Spa.

Ayurveda’s place in the spa

Ayurveda is being offered in so many different ways, in many different settings. As we have said time and again in previous articles, we see it as the most appropriate and applicable holistic, health paradigm for the spa and beauty industry. But it is important to recognize the many levels and dimensions of Ayurveda. In any event, the goal is the same: to bring the benefits of this amazing system to America and serve people well. We look forward to more and deeper Ayurvedic treatments taking root and flowering in the beautiful garden of the spa industry.

Melanie Sachs, a certified Ayurvedic life counselor, healer and teacher, is sought after by some of the world’s leading spas and beauty schools. She has published Ayurvedic Beauty Care, and is recognized internationally for the application of ayurveda to the beauty world. Robert Sachs is a counselor, licensed massage therapist and educator. Robert is the author of Health Secrets from The Roof of The World. To reach them, call 1-(866)303-3321 or phone/fax (805)543-9291

Posted On April 14th, 2004

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