The Shatkarma or the six purification techniques in Hatha Yoga are designed to make the body strong and healthy. ‘Shat’ means six and ‘Karma’ here means a method or technique. Shatkarmas are considered preparatory steps towards higher practices of pranayama and meditation. The ancient Rishis recognized the importance of a healthy body for all activities.
Hatha Yoga, as described in the early Yoga Upanishads, was made up of the shatkarmas and is a very precise and systematic science.
The Shatkarmas consist of six techniques. It can make the body clean and strong, free of diseases, remove toxins and improve concentration. It can also improve the flow of prana into the organs and the pranic meridians or nadis. The six techniques are – Neti, Dhauti, Nauli, Bhasti, Kapalabhati and Trataka.
The aim of hatha yoga and, therefore, of the shatkarmas is to create harmony between the two major pranic flows, ida and pingala, thereby, attaining physical and mental purification and balance.
The shatkarmas are also used to balance the three doshas or humours in the body: kapha, mucus; pitta, bile; and vata, wind. According to both ayurveda and hatha yoga, an imbalance in the doshas will result in illness. These practices are also used before pranayama and other higher yoga practices in order to purify the body of toxins and to ensure safe and successful progression along the spiritual path.
These powerful techniques should never be learned from books or taught by inexperienced people. According to the tradition, only those instructed by a guru may teach others. It is essential to be personally instructed as to how and when to perform the shatkarmas, according to individual limitations and needs.
These kriyas (processes) clean the eyes, respiratory system, food pipes, and tone up abdominal viscera and the small intestine.
The body works like a machine and has to be continuously cleaned and maintained. The body releases toxins in the form of mucus, gas, acid, sweat, urine and stool. It is these toxins that have to be removed and cleaned for the proper functioning of the body.
Earlier, these practices were undertaken by yogis to prepare their bodies for advanced practices of yoga. They were not designed for therapy alone, but to create harmony of body and mind. As shatkarmas detoxify the body, resulting in many benefits, they are very relevant to us today and make a lot of sense if we learn and follow them.
The six techniques are – Neti, Dhauti, Nauli, Bhasti, Kapalabhati and Trataka
Neti is the process of nasal cleaning done using a small pot called Neti pot. It has a long spout on one side. It is filled with warm salt water. Then the spout is inserted into the left nostril. The practitioner bends his head to right side and lets the water from the left nostril into the nasal cavity, which then comes out of the right nostril. The pot is again filled with salt water and the process is repeated by inserting the spout in the right nostril and tilting the head to the left. This process cleans the nose and the sinus cavities, thus, helping in relieving allergies, sinusitis, mild headaches and migraine. Neti can also be done using a rubber catheter. It is called Sutra Neti, where the catheter is inserted into one nostril and pulled out from the throat and out of the mouth. Then using gentle to and fro motion of the catheter tube, the nostril passage is cleaned. This it is repeated for the other nostril. Both forms of Neti have a de-sensitizing effect on the membranes inside the nose, thus, relieving allergies, rhinitis, etc. It is said that Neti also stimulates certain nerve centers in the upper nasal passage.
Dhauti is the practice of cleaning the stomach. It is done on an empty stomach in the early morning. It is a method of removing undigested particles of food from the previous day’s meal, which continue to stick to the stomach lining and cause problems with digestion. The practitioner drinks about 1 – 1 ½ litres of warm saline water (roughly one table spoon of salt to be added to 1 litre of water). Then he vomits the whole water out. To vomit, the best position is to bend over and put two fingers at the root of the tongue. By stimulating the root of the tongue, the vomiting reflux is induced, which throws the salt water out of the stomach along with the impurities. Continue till all the water is removed. There is another practice called Vastra Dhauti. Here, a 30 feet long cotton cloth is first dipped in saline water and then swallowed carefully. Then it is pulled out slowly, thereby cleaning the inner linings of the stomach and food pipe. This has to be learned under an expert.
Nauli is the practice of churning the abdominal muscles to the left and right repeatedly. Rotation of the muscles, clockwise as well as anti-clockwise is also practiced. This tones up all the organs in the abdomen and removes digestive disorders. It is a difficult practice in the beginning and may take a few months to master. The process involves isolating the ‘Abs’ muscles (also called the rectus abdominus muscle) on both sides of the abdomen and then using it to move and churn the internal organs. This improves the functioning of all organs in the abdomen. The four forms of Nauli practiced are Vama Nauli (using left Abs muscles), Dakshina Nauli (using right Abs muscles), Madhya Nauli (using both Abs muscles) and churning (rotation – clockwise as well as anti-clock wise) of the Abs muscles.
Bhasti is the cleaning of the bowels. In this practice, traditionally water is drawn in from the anus into the colon by contacting the abdominal muscles. A rubber tube can also be used to aid the process. Then the water is thrown out of the anus, thus cleaning the colon of particles that might have been stuck in the large intestine for a long period of time. This is a yogi’s method of enema. Today, easier methods are available for cleaning the intestines. Taking an enema at home does the job. All you need is an enema kit. There is another technique in yoga to clean the intestines. It is called ‘Sankha Prakshalana’. It involves drinking about 5 litres of slightly warm saline water. The saline water does not get absorbed by the intestine. Instead it pulls out waste and toxins from the intestinal walls and throws it out through the rectum. A common practice today is to do the smaller version of Shanka Prakshalana called Laghu Shanka Prakshalana where only 2 litres of saline water is used. One has to go to the toilet multiple times (say 3 – 5 times) till plain water comes out of the rectum. This gives a complete cleaning of the intestinal tract.
Though many include Kapalabhati as a type of pranayama, in the Hatha Yoga texts, it is classified under the Shatkarmas. It is a powerful cleaning process where the air is forcefully expelled from the lungs, removing any stagnant carbon dioxide accumulated in the lower parts of the lungs. In kapalabhati, the exhalation is forceful while the inhalation is normal. This process is repeated few rounds. It is said to be a cure for many diseases.
Trataka develops concentration and removes mental disturbances. It involves gazing steadily at a point. Gazing on a steady candle flame is also practiced without blinking the eyes. This practice also improves eyesight and gives steadiness of mind.
Although there are six shatkarmas, each one consists of a variety of practices. In this chapter only the most commonly used practices are described in detail.
Advice, precautions and contra-indications are given for each practice individually and should be carefully observed. During pregnancy, only jala neti and trataka are recommended.
Although the cleansing and strengthening effects of shatkarmas may be beneficial therapeutically, this is not their purpose. Shatkarmas are practices to promote the health of yoga practitioners and to awaken and direct the energies in the body, mind and deeper psyche.
Precautions to be taken for cleansing processes:
These practices activate almost all vital systems in the body, especially the digestive, respiratory, circulatory and nervous systems. These purificatory processes are both - preventive and curative.