Yoga is inherently a cleansing practice. Committing to a regular meditation and asana practice purges our bodies of toxins: physical, spiritual and emotional. The agni, or fire, of our practice, is created by breath and awareness, and helps us to let go of burdens that weigh us down and stand in the way of our quest for growth and change. The sweat (like the breath) pulls from our bodies the internal rubbish we accumulate physically and mentally.
Shatkarma are six internal purifications and cleansing practices enumerated in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika used to enhance one’s yoga experience. These practices are incredibly powerful, and each address a different system in the body: the digestive, respiratory, circulatory and nervous systems. After trying the purifications, some practitioners even begin to feel as if their practice is incomplete without them. The purificatory techniques include:
- Neti: The cleansing of the nasal passage, including jala neti and sutra neti. Practicing neti scours out the breathing passageway, clearing the mucus membranes.
- Dhauti: The cleansing of the digestive tract, typically with a gauze. The practitioner literally swallows the gauze, which cleanses the throat and top digestive track.
- Nauli: This is essentially a rigorous internal abdominal self-massage using a pumping action. If you’ve ever seen it done, you know it looks like a wave of the stomach. This is used to push stale content out of your system.
- Basti: The yoga world’s equivalent to the enema or colonic, used to cleanse the lower digestive tract.
- Kapalbhati: This breathing purification technique includes an active exhale and passive inhale, intended to vitalize the brain. If you’ve practiced it before, you know that it often produces a tingling sensation in the head, thus its name (kapal means head or skull and bhati is shining or light).
- Trataka: The practice of blinkless gazing, softly gazing on a single point or a candle flame.
Don’t be misled to think the practices are easy. All require great concentration, and some, quite a bit of muscle control. The upside? They are powerful. And even better: many of them are also easily accessible.
“All of these can be [done] at home,” says Gail Boorstein Grossman, owner of Om Sweet Om Yoga in Long Island, N.Y., and author of Restorative Yoga for Life. “I always think yoga is so much more than what you do in a class…. We are meant to do these things so that we are more clear in everything that we do in life, that it isn’t just a physical practice of yoga.”
Shatkarmas are best done with the rhythm of the day. “Think about it, you wake up, you want to get things moving,” Grossman said. “What better way to do that than to do nauli?” Another optimal morning practice is done with the neti pot. This purifies the nasal cavities and clears out the breathing passages.
Grossman admits she is not a big fan of dhauti, and cautions yogis to observe strict hygiene standards if they do (yes, there are stories out there about yogis sharing the gauze!)
As is the case when mastering a new technique or pose, proceed slowly and begin with something simple. “You are not going to do something if you are not comfortable doing it,” says Grossman. “Pick one thing and practice it and really master it.”
At the same time, take care not to overdo things. The cleansing-detox thing can spell danger if taken to an extreme. “There are a lot of people who really believe that yoga people are taking these ancient techniques and taking it to another level,” Grossman said. “There are people who have developed eating disorders and other issues. You have to be careful.”
Before you try these practices at home, we recommend seeking the guidance of a trained teacher. Shatkarmas are precise practices and when performed incorrectly, offer little benefit. But there are other practices you can try on your own. For instance, instead of swallowing the cloth or engaging in basti, consider alternative purification techniques, such as detoxing your system with lemon water spiked with cayenne pepper (which helps remove mucus) and cinnamon (which reduces swelling).
At first, you will notice the effect shatkarma has on the body. In time, shatkarma will imbue a powerful and magical effect on body, mind and spirit. The practices can begin to heal chronic conditions and disorders. They are that powerful. Shatkarma prepares us for the higher practices of yoga.