Purification (shaucha) is a central aim of all the yogic practices, and is the first principle of self-discipline (niyama) in Patanjali’s eight-limbed approach. The yogis have discovered that impurities in our internal body adversely affect our state of mind, and prevent the attainment of real wisdom and spiritual liberation. Through the yogic practices of asana, pranayama, tapas and shatkarma, the body and the mind become cleansed and our spiritual development is accelerated.
The physical postures of yoga purify the body through movements that increase and improve the flow of blood, oxygen and prana (life force energy) in the tissues, muscles and organs. The yoga poses squeeze and massage the muscles and organs to move out old stagnant blood and bring in fresh blood full of nutrients and oxygen. In the more dynamic postures, heat is created and sweat is produced to facilitate the release toxins through the pores of the skin.
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The breathing techniques of pranayama purify the mind and body through the balance and cultivation of energy throughout the whole body. Different pranayamas have different actions on the body and thus different purifying effects. Kapalabhati (breath of fire) is warming and energizing, purifying the body through the creation of heat and the movement of energy. Nadi Sodhana (alternate nostril breath) is calming and cleansing, purifying the body through reducing stress and removing blockages in the nadis (energy channels).
The intensive self-discipline of Tapas purifies the mind and spirit through the “burning up” of the desires in our mind. Basically, Tapas is engaging the will to do some action you do not want to do or not doing some action you want to do. This creates a conflict between our will and the desire of our mind producing an internal “fire” which illuminates and burns up our mental and physical impurities.
The six cleansing practices of shatkarma purify the body by physically removing excesses of mucus or phlegm. These are primarily esoteric practices that must be learned and performed with the supervision of a qualified teacher. The shatkarmas are described as six groups of yogic cleansing techniques: Neti: nasal cleaning and irrigation, Dhauti: cleansing of the digestive tract, Nauli: abdominal massage, Basti: colon cleaning, Kapalbhati: purification and vitalization of the brain, and Trataka: blinkless gazing. The goal of these practices is to purge out excesses in order to bring the three doshas (physical constitutions) into balance. If the doshas are already in balance, then it is recommended to not practice these intense cleansing practices. There are easier, gentler and more accessible ways of balancing the doshas through the healing techniques of Ayurveda that can be utilized as an alternative of the shatkarmas.
When the mind, body and spirit have been purified through the various practices of yoga, the overall result is an increase in the flow of prana through the whole body, improving our capacity to work, think, digest, taste, feel, and experience life. And not only do these practices make us feel more alive, they also foster our spiritual development, inner awareness and equanimity.