Shatkarma: Cleansing Practices
By removing the impurities… the divine sound is awakened, and the body becomes healthy.
-- Hatha Yoga Pradīpikā
The ancient yogis found that impurities in the body had negative effects on the mind and were an obstacle to spiritual development. Through the cleansing effects of āsana, prānayāma, and shatkarma, they discovered that the mind became clear and ready for meditation and spiritual liberation
Shatkarma is a Sanskrit word that refers to the yogic practices of purifying the body as a foundation for meditation. Shat means ‘six’ and karma means ‘action.’ Shatkarma is made up of six purification practices which are detailed in a number of ancient Sanskrit texts on Hatha Yoga, including the Gheranda Samhitā and Hathayoga Pradīpikā.
The Hathayoga Pradīpikā states the practices are to be done "as taught by his Guru," and BKS Iyengar suggests that most of these techniques are “not recommended for the average practitioner." They suggest the yogi be personally guided by one who is qualified and who understands how and when to perform the techniques, according to individual needs. A practice may be good for some, and not good for others.
According to Āyurvēdic medicine – one of the world’s oldest medical systems which originated in India and evolved over thousands of years – each person’s constitution is a unique combination of three types of mind/body types or doshas. The doshas are subtle energies made up of space, air, earth, fire, and water.
- Vata - a combination of air and space
- Pitta – mostly fire with some water elements
- Kapha – mostly water with some earth elements
The goal of the Shatkarmas is to get rid of excess vata, pitta or kapha and bring the three doshas into balance.
The six practices are:
- Nēti – nasal irrigation
- Dhauti – cleansing of the digestive tract
- Basti – colon cleaning
- Kapālabhāti - purification and vitalization of the lungs
- Trātaka - blinkless gazing
- Nauli – abdominal massage
There are many approaches to each of these practices. Below are some of the most common:
- Nēti - Nasal Irrigation. In jala nēti, salt water is directed to flow from one nostril to another. A special “nēti pot” with a small spout is inserted into one nostril and the position of the head and pot are adjusted so that the water flows out and into the other nostril. The procedure then switches to the other nostril. The water flushes out the nasal passages fully. Afterward, kapālbhāti is suggested, to dry the nostrils. Many say that jala nēti works well for colds and sinusitis and can be done daily until one is rid of the problem.
- Dhauti – Cleansing the digestive tract. In vāmana dhauti, one gets up early in the morning, and before food, drinks about six glasses of salt water, one glass at a time. Wait 30 seconds, push the abdomen in and vomit out the water. Many use this cleansing when suffering from indigestion, cold and acidity. It thoroughly cleanses the stomach. Wait 3 – 4 hours before eating.
- Basti – Colon cleansing. Basti is colon cleansing, done by use of an enema kit. The best times for basti is the early morning or evening. The stomach should be empty. It is most often administered in two stages, one using sesame oil, another using a mix of sesame oil and an herbal decoction. Afterward, there is a feeling of lightness in the abdomen and general clarity.
- Kapālabhāti - Purification and vitalization of the lungs. Though this is one of the six purification exercises, it is also a variety of prānāyāma, similar to bhastrikā, bellows breath. The breathing is abdominal, controlling movements of the diaphragm, without use of the chest; the breathing is short, rapid and strong. Caution is suggested as there is a danger of causing tension in the breath and becoming dizzy, and slow breaths always conclude the practice. Asthma sufferers are said to find this technique very helpful. Carbon dioxide gases are eliminated and intake of oxygen makes the blood richer and renews the body tissues. The constant movements of the diaphragm up and down act as a stimulant to the stomach, liver and pancreas.
- Trātaka - Blinkless gazing. This is a meditation technique also called fixed-eye gazing. It is used to relieve conditions such as eye strain, headaches, and eye problems, as well as heighten concentration. Those without eye problems are often able to see more clearly afterward. There are two popular techniques. One is to fix attention on a symbol placed at eye level, such as the aum, a dot, or a mandala, letting the mind be completely absorbed in the symbol while observing any thoughts or feelings that arise. The yogi continues until the eyes water, then closes and relaxes the eyes. A second technique is to stare at the wick tip of a flaming candle until the eyes water. Then close the eyes and concentrate on the after-image, holding it as long as possible. First, it will be a real after-image, later it will exist only in the mind’s eye. Caution is suggested as doing continuously for more than a month or two potentially could lead to damage of the retina. Trātaka is said to be the technique which yogis use to develop the power of intuition.
- Nauli – abdominal massage. Nauli stimulates the digestive fire, removing toxins, indigestion and constipation. It tones the abdominals and massages internal organs. The Gheranda Samhitā describes the exercise as such: "With great force move the stomach and intestines from one side to the other." For the practice of Nauli the yogi should know the Uddīyāna Bandha (pulling the abdominal organs into an upward lock, creating a hollow belly.) Uddīyāna can be done seated, but Nauli is generally done while standing. Nauli is considered difficult and takes much perseverance and patience. There are four variations, and one is learned gradually after the other: isolated contractions of the central abdominal muscles, isolated contractions of the left part of the central abdominal muscles, isolated contractions of the right part of the central abdominal muscles, circular movement of the central abdominal muscles. Uddīyāna should not be repeated for more than eight times at a stretch during a 24-hour period. It is not suggested for those with heart disease, hypertension, or ulcers.
If the doshas are already in balance, the Hathayoga Pradīpikā states “if there be excess of fat or phlegm in the body, the six kinds of kriyas (duties) should be performed.... But others, not suffering from the excess of these, should not perform them.” There are easier, gentler and more accessible ways of balancing the doshas, for example, through the healing techniques of Āyurvēda.
If the shatkarmas are done in the right way, under proper supervision and with the right mental attitude – for the ultimate purpose of meditation – they are said to help on the path of spiritual growth.
- Georg Feuerstein, The Deeper Dimension of Yoga, (Boston, MA: Shambala Publications, 2003)
- Ayurveda.com, The Ayurvedic Institute, Albuquerque, NM
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