Shatkarma: A Complete Guide to Yogic Cleansing Techniques

The Shatkarmas are a set of purification techniques. Hatha Yogis use them to prepare their body and mind for the higher practices of asana, pranayama, and meditation. Literally translated, the word means “six actions” because there are six techniques for cleansing different parts of the body. The Shatkarmas were first outlined in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, one of the most important surviving texts on Haṭha Yoga.

It’s important to note that although the Shatkarmas are “preparatory techniques,” their execution requires experience, skill, and awareness. Therefore, you should always learn from and practice under the supervision of a trusted teacher. This article provides a brief overview of these yogic cleansing techniques to help you on your path.

Neti

Neti is a method for purifying the nostrils and sinuses. Yogis perform it in two ways: Most people use a neti pot to cleanse the passages with saline solution. This method is called jala neti. Advanced practitioners can use a special thread, called sutra, which is passed through the nostrils.

Neti can be practiced regularly and has many health benefits. It removes mucus from the nasal passages, therefore it helps manage respiratory diseases and allergies. In general, it is crucial to cleanse the nasal cavities because they are the pathway for prana, the life force, to enter the body.

Neti also creates a balance between the right and left nostrils, and the corresponding left and right brain hemispheres, thus it induces a state of mental clarity and balance. As a result, neti may also be useful in managing conditions like stress. Most importantly for spiritual purposes, neti stimulates the eyebrow center. The ajna chakra controls some of the major endocrine glands — the pituitary, pineal, and hypothalamus glands — therefore neti can have a positive impact on hormone balance. 

Dhauti

Dhauti is a cleansing process for the entire alimentary canal, from the mouth, esophagus, stomach, and intestines to the rectum. There are many types to cleanse different parts of the gut. You can distinguish three main groups: sirsha dhauti for cleansing the head, hridaya dhauti for cleansing the chest area, and antara dhauti for internal cleansing. One of the most common types is called vamana dhauti. It involves drinking a large quantity of warm water and then vomiting it out. This process removes mucus from the esophagus.

Nauli

The third Shatkarma is an abdominal massage, performed by contracting the muscles of the abdominal wall. Yogis perform nauli in four stages: First, the practitioner draws in the central abdominal muscles. Next, they isolate the muscles on the left and right sides. Finally, the practitioner churns their abdomen by rotating the muscles from side to side. This practice takes a lot of abdominal control, therefore it takes time and effort to master.

Nauli massages and tones the entire abdominal area, including the muscles, nerves, intestines, digestive, reproductive, urinary, and excretory organs. Nauli generates heat in the body and stimulates appetite, digestion, assimilation, absorption, and excretion.

Basti

Basti is a method for purifying the large intestine. Also called yogic enema, it cleanses the colon from old stool and gas. There are two ways to perform basti: In the first method, jala basti, the practitioner sits immersed in water. Through the practice of uddiyana bandha and nauli kriya, they draw water into their rectum. Then, they release it. The second technique, sthal basti, cleanses the colon by sucking air into the bowels.

Kapalbhati

You might know kapalbhati as a breathing technique. In this practice, the yogi exhales through the nostrils with a forceful contraction of the abdominal muscles, followed by a relaxation of the core that allows the body to inhale on its own. Repeat this multiple times in quick, rhythmic succession. Click here for detailed instructions!

The literal translation of kapalbhati is “shining skull” because it improves the functioning of the brain. Since it energizes the mind and removes sleepiness, it’s great before meditation. Physically, Kapalbhati has a cleansing effect on the lungs and sinuses. Hence, it is a good practice for respiratory disorders. It balances and strengthens the nervous system, and tones the digestive organs. It also purifies the energy channels.

Trataka

Trataka is a purification technique mainly for the eyes and mind. Also called the blinkless stare, it involves gazing at a fixed point like a candle flame or black dot — for as long as you can, steadily, without blinking. It increases blood circulation to the eyes, balances the nervous system, improves mental focus, develops willpower, and activates the eyebrow center. For this reason, trataka is an excellent preparation for meditation. 

Why is Cleansing Important?

Your internal organs regularly come into contact with external matters, for example through your food intake. Even though your might lead a healthy lifestyle, you accumulate toxins and impurities from your diet, your interactions with others, and even from your thoughts and emotions. These toxins block the flow of prana through the energy channels and lead to imbalances. As a result, your internal bodily systems need cleansing. Exactly like you take a shower to wash your outer body, you can practice Shatkarmas to purify your internal body and your mind.

Many yogis recommend doing at least some of the Shatkarmas every three to six months. They remove accumulated toxins and anything blocking the flow of life force (prana) in the body. Physically, the Shatkarmas may help you manage certain diseases and maintain good health. Spiritually, they prepare your body and mind for higher yogic techniques. Therefore, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika recommends doing the Shatkarmas before practicing asana, pranayama, and meditation. 

Shatkarma vs. Panchakarma

If you are familiar with yoga’s sister science Ayurveda, you might have heard the term Panchakarma. Translating as “five actions,” panchakarma is an intensive treatment for purifying body and mind. While some practices like neti and basti are part of both the panchakarma and shatkarma regimen, others are completely different.

The main difference: A panchakarma can only be done at a specialized Ayurvedic clinic and takes multiple days or weeks to complete. It is recommended for a full “reset” or the management of specific diseases. The yogic cleansing techniques, however, can be done from home. On a regular basis, they keep the body strong, clean, and healthy.

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