The ancient healing art and science of Ayurveda seems like it would be immune to many of the present-day gimmicks of the wellness industry, the biggest crime of which might be the cult of cleansing that many people, including myself, have succumbed to over the past decade. Also known as “detoxing” or “fasting” or “lose a bunch of weight before your/your friends/your ex’s wedding,” a cleanse presumes that there is something impure or harmful about us that we need to exorcise through restrictive behaviors, namely eating less and “cleaner,” and sweating/burning calories. It’s also a great way for people to make money, by selling you seemingly special food that is either anything but nourishing (chock full of chemicals and preservatives) or so basic (ie, whole foods) you could do it yourself for a fraction of the price.
Imagine this reformed-cleanser’s surprise when I came upon the ritual and treatment of a “kitchari cleanse” in my Ayurvedic texts. Ayurveda teaches that we are whole and beautiful beings always, so why and what should I be “cleansing”? Thankfully, I quickly realized that the word had a whole other meaning in this context, one that’s less about purifying (tapas) and more about simplifying; less about judgment and punishment and more about acceptance and reflecting. It’s less of a cleanse, and more of a reset—a chance to come back to the state of health and energy that is our true baseline.
This past week, I endeavored on a four-day kitchari reset as part of my Ayurvedic Health Counselor training at Kripalu. The experience taught me a lot about my existing tendencies around eating and my overall lifestyle, and its benefits have been rippling out even days after it’s ended.
Traditionally, a kitchari reset is recommended as part of a panchakarma, a deeply therapeutic program of supervised practices (pancha means five, and karma means action) designed to address an individual’s imbalances. Panchakarma should not be undertaken at home, but kitchari can be part of a gentler, at-home reset whenever you’ve been exposed to an abundance of stress or fall out of a natural rhythm (missing meals, skimping on sleep, working late, etc.). These external factors, in addition to food, all impact our health because we’re not just digesting food: We’re digesting everything, all the time, through our senses, our skin, our minds, and, yes, our mouths.
A good time to reset is at the juncture of the seasons, a practice known as ritucharya, where the changes in weather and energy can make us vulnerable to illness. If there’s another transition happening in your life—you’re between jobs, homes, relationships, etc.—a reset might also be appropriate. Signs that you might benefit from a reset include digestive upset (constipation, bloating, diarrhea, indigestion), skin irritations/rashes, usual tastes in the mouth, irritability, inability to concentrate, or generally feeling “off” or not like yourself for a prolonged period of time.
On the surface, kitchari might not seem like anything special. A humble dish of rice and split yellow moong dahl, plus varieties of spices and vegetables, it lacks the sexiness of juicing or asceticism of a raw diet. And that’s exactly what makes it work so well: Kitchari is not meant to be restrictive, but rather restorative. Whole-food macronutrients—carbohydrates, proteins, and fats—and healing spices and herbs cook together in one pot, letting their nourishing properties synergize and enhance each other. The ingredients in kitchari soothe inflammation, reduce bloating and gas, and are extremely easy to digest, which allows the GI tract to get a break from the aforementioned stressors and encourage healthy bowels.
Eating just one serving of kitchari will immediately deliver these incredible benefits, but a monodiet of kitchari—eating only kitchari for every meal for one or several days—is what makes this cleanse a cleanse. By decreasing the diversity of food-information the gut receives during the day, the digestive system is able to restore from its daily assault of processing different kinds of foods, which may or may not be consumed in the most healthful ways in our busy lifestyles. Think of a monodiet like a capsule wardrobe: fewer decisions clears mental space so you can focus on other things.
Since we also digest lots of other things besides food, the reset may include monodiet-like practices that aren’t food: i.e., abstaining from devices/social media, spending time in nature, silent meditation and reflection, enjoying wholesome company, and generally resting from work and other obligations. In effect, we are giving ourselves an opportunity to step back from our busyness and get quiet. Although it may seem small, the simple act of not having to decide what to eat at each meal for a few days relieves such a mental burden, and can help us see other areas of our lives that we’re overcomplicating to our detriment.
During my kitchari reset, I found the most benefits from these periods of silence and uncluttered thinking. On one of the days, I was able to not engage with technology—no phone, no computer, no social media—which made me remember life before my phone all those eons ago . . . The days where I didn’t have to “check in” constantly with the world, or make myself appear busy/cool/productive. I had some of the most productive moments of insight about my current projects, my relationships, and my self-worth during the extended yoga practices, long walks in the park, and warm oil massage (called abhyanga) I indulged in. By the end of the four days, I felt refreshed and energized—the exact opposite of the depleted and exhausted feeling I had after previous cleanses I’d done. I also realized how much of my stress was self-imposed, and asked myself hard questions about why I value being productive and what that even means. It’s something I’m still working through, and will be sharing more about here.
The kitchari itself played a big role in setting the foundation for this inquiry. I myself have no problem eating the same thing every day, since my normal rotation of meals largely consists of the same handful of ingredients with slight variations in sauces and spices. That said, I had fun experimenting with my kitchari, making a new variety each day. Check out my recipe for a Kabocha Squash and Kale Kitchari, and Kate O’Donnell’s cookbooks for sweet and savory varieties I highly recommend.
If you’re interested in trying a kitchari cleanse this January, or any time of year, remember these key steps:
- Prepare! Choose a period of time when you can truly disengage from work and other responsibilities—the days before big deadline or a wedding are not optimal. Shop for a few days’ worth of kitchari ingredients, even if you just do a one-day reset. The grains and spices will keep for a while, and you can repurpose any fresh produce for other meals. The main ingredients (available at Banyan Botanicals if you don’t have a wide variety at your local market) are:
- White basmati rice
- Moong dahl
- Spices: cumin, coriander, fennel, cinnamon, cardamom, turmeric, ginger (fresh or ground), mineral salt, fresh ground pepper, hing/asafoetida
- Garlic and onion (optional)
- Vegetables (optional/according to preference): greens (kale, spinach, Swiss chard), winter squash, sweet potato, carrots, broccoli, cauliflower
- Tahini or ghee (clarified butter)
- Parsley and/or cilantro
- Lemon and/or lime
- Do a trial run. If you’re new to kitchari you might want to make it a few times in advance of your cleanse so you can figure out how you like it. You can also try easing into a reset by eating kitchari for one meal over a few days, or twice a day, or start with one of the other reset practices (like no phones).
- Be flexible. Evaluate how intense of a cleanse you need, but be flexible and realistic. If you start off with one day and can’t take it, don’t beat yourself up. There’s always next season to try again,
- Establish a morning culinary practice. You might prepare by getting in the habit of cooking fresh breakfast every day for a few days, or having a morning ritual with turmeric milk, cacao, or another morning drink. (This is in addition to any mindfulness practice you are doing or want to try, like meditation or yoga.) For your reset, you will start the day by making the kitchari, then you can just leave it in the pot and serve yourself out of it all day. If you have an Instant Pot or rice cooker, they can make the whole process way easier (though slightly less mindful), since you can put it on to cook and go about your business.
- Live how you eat: simple. Decisions about what to eat are made for you today, so why not clear out other distractions as well? Consider what other simplifying practices you can do to accompany your kitchari. Can you unplug completely, or spend time in nature without your phone for an hour, or take a nap? Can you spend time with someone you love, or just by yourself? Is there a book you’ve been meaning to read (I highly recommend this, or this), or perhaps you take time to journal? Pick just one to start, and watch how your desire to “do something” changes over the course of the day.
No matter what you wind up doing for your cleanse, remember that your intention is what matters most. If you are able to build more periods of rest and restoration into your life on a daily or weekly basis, you’ll avoid a build-up of toxins in your system and make next season even smoother! I loved the idea of a monodiet so much I’m going to incorporate it into my week—soups and grain porridges are great monodiet comfort foods. Share your kitchari combos and experiences with a reset in the comments or on Instagram.