Shatkarma is a timeless practice of yoga that may sometimes make people cringe. The thought of doing some of the cleansing actions prescribed sounds a little uncomfortable, even for us in the 21st century.
However, it’s also safe to say that some of these techniques have evolved with the times as well, perhaps making them only slightly more comfortable and even simple.
The shatkarmas, also known as shat kriya, are six cleansing techniques or actions, that were first described in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika by Swami Swatmarama in the 15th Century. Today we would probably call most of these cleansing techniques part of a detoxification process.
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Some of them have even been turned into expanded detoxification methods where people go to centers for long wellness retreats to return to a state of good health.
Read: Panchakarma: How to Prepare for Ayurveda's Most Complete Cleansing and Detox System
According to yogic philosophy and science however, if these techniques are performed regularly good health will be constantly maintained, without the need to take an extended detox holiday.
The word shat means six and karma means action. The six actions can be thought of as purifications for the physical body, which needs to be cleansed on the path toward enlightenment.
Physical purification is just as necessary as purifying the mind and also often a necessary precursor because everything is interrelated. This also mirrors the eightfold path of Ashtanga.
The path (or Eight Limbs of Yoga) is laid out by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras which dictates the way toward samadhi, or enlightenment, from the external world (bahiranga yoga) to the internal (antaranga yoga).
So, what are these cleansing techniques known as the shatkarma exactly? Some of them you are probably already familiar with! They are outlined as follows:
- Neti- nasal rinse
- Dhauti- digestive cleansing
- Nauli- abdominal massage
- Basti- colon cleansing
- Kapalabhati- frontal lobe cleansing
- Trataka- candle gazing (or single spot gazing)
Although there are six categories of cleansing actions, within each one are specialized variations that range from basic to advanced.
The most common or popular form of these techniques is jala neti, which is a form of nasal irrigation where the user mixes warm, sterile water with non-iodized salt in a small neti pot and pours it through one nostril so that it drains out the other side. They are commercially sold as kits worldwide in the West at big-name supermarkets.
Jala neti is particularly useful for allergies, sinus congestion, minor colds, and other similar maladies. It is important to ensure all of the water exits the nose afterward via sharp, percussive breathing. Kapalabhati is often recommended for this.
Read: Better Than Coffee: Drink in the Benefits of This Yogic Brain-Boosting Cleansing Technique
A less common form of neti is called sutra neti. The word sutra means thread and, in this case, the practitioner passes a thread-like catheter down from one side of the nasal passage and out the throat, through the mouth. Then you gently rub the thread back and forth in a flossing motion, so it can also be called nasal flossing.
It’s often looked at with some raised eyebrows but it is also helpful for removing excess mucus from the nasal passages and is beneficial for those with a deviated septum. It is said to be able to remove nasal polyps.
Sutra neti is commonly taught on yoga teacher training courses in India and is best learned under supervision.
Dhauti is cleansing of the digestive tract. The practice of agnisara dhauti is commonly taught on Hatha yoga teacher training programs and is one of the safer versions to try or practice unsupervised. It is performed by quickly flapping the abdomen in and out to create heat in the digestive system with rhythmic, often panting breath.
Perhaps you are familiar with the image of a yogi swallowing a piece of fabric. This is called Vastra dhauti and is said to be cleansing for the entire stomach region. It is not as commonly practiced and should be learned under supervision for the risk of choking.
A more common practice is vamana dhauti, also known as kunjal kriya, which is performed by drinking several cups of warm salty water and then subsequently vomiting it out. This is to rid the body of bile and other impurities that lead to disease.
The practice of nauli is a bit more simplified in the sense you do not need to expel anything out of the body, although some people may look at it the first time and think it’s impossible.
It actually may even be mistaken to look like a form of belly dancing, except you may be watching a male Indian yoga teacher perform it, not a belly dancer.
Nauli is an abdominal massage and is performed by churning the abdomen, or rolling it, to massage and lift all of the organs of the abdomen. It is subdivided into the right, left, and central columns of the abdomen, which can be performed and mastered individually before performing the full roll between all three columns going clockwise and counterclockwise. Prior to performing nauli, one will usually practice Uddiyana bandha pose.
Read: Finding Center: An Exploration of the Bandhas
You can think of basti as the ancient version of an enema which evolved into what we would call colonic irrigation today in the 21st century.
While dhauti cleanses the upper abdomen, which is the digestive tract, basti cleanses the lower tract of the stomach, which is the elimination tract. It is said to relieve diseases of the colon, as well as symptoms of constipation and gas.
Traditionally, basti was performed by sucking water into the anus and letting it fill the large intestine. The water is then held for some time while full and then expelled completely until the bowels are cleansed.
The process is repeated several times until the practitioner is finished. The practices of ashvini mudra, mula bandha, Uddiyana bandha, and nauli kriya all greatly help this process.
Obviously, this method should be learned under a trained instructor and one can only imagine yogis in ancient times perhaps performing this in the rivers of India that were once cleaner and less populated than they are now. However, now in the 21st century, we’ve made the process of basti kriya much easier.
Today, you can use a tube to insert the water into the rectum. This is called an enema. A popular method for cleansing is a coffee enema. Cleansing the colon is important because toxins can build up along the walls of the intestine if not excreted properly.
It is particularly useful for people who are fasting as they will not have regular bowel movements and the toxins will remain stuck. The enema or colonic irrigation will help eliminate these impurities.
Colonic irrigation is a fancier system set up in medical and health detox centers. With this system, a supervisor will assist in the process with a machine that inserts the water into your anus and then subsequently sucks it out several times.
This is usually accompanied by abdominal massage clockwise in the direction of the colon until the colon is cleansed completely. It is popular at juice fasting retreats in countries like Thailand and Mexico.
Both a shatkarma and pranayama (breathing technique), kapalabhati translates to "skull shining". Not only does it cleanse the sinuses through its rapid, percussive exhales through the nose, it also cleanses the brain cells and stimulates the digestive system.
Along with the quick, rhythmic breathing through the nose, kapalabhati is accompanied by simultaneously pulling the abdomen back toward the spine which each exhale.
Additionally, with the eyes closed, the internal drishti, or gaze point, is at the third eye in the center of the eyebrows. This helps to raise the kundalini energy upward.
The word trataka means gaze point or to look. It is the deepest shatkarma on the journey inward of purification from the external world. Trataka is traditionally performed by staring at a candle and is thus known as candle gazing.
One can also practice trataka by staring at a single point, such as a black dot, the moon, or a photo of their guru. The point is to look at one thing in order to stop the processes of the mind.
The practice of trataka helps promote the concept of eka grata, or the single-pointed focus. In the state of eka grata, no thoughts will arise and thus yoga can be achieved. This lines up with Patanjali’s famous sutra yogash chitti vritti nirodah, which translates to "yoga is the stilling of the fluctuations of the mind."
Read: How to Practice Trataka, the Practice of Candle Gazing
In the end, there are many paths to achieve this stillness, and the journey to reach it is unique to each individual. Yoga outlines many ways to get there and the shatkarmas are just one step along the way.
They are useful to know whether you are a serious seasoned yogi or simply a health advocate desiring your best life. The evolution of the shatkarma from the 15th century to the 21st century can apply to anyone as a system for health, wellness, mindfulness, and spiritual evolution.
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