If you’re feeling stuck in your wellness journey, perhaps a bit weighed down by the grime of everyday life – both physical and metaphysical – then Shatkarma could be your missing puzzle piece.
These six ancient yogic purification techniques are a treasure trove of practices designed to cleanse your body, clarify your mind, and elevate your spirit.
Dive into the hidden gem of yogic wisdom that extends beyond and, at the same time, enriches the popular practices of asana and breathwork. Intrigued? Read on to unlock secrets that have been cherished by yogis for centuries and can be your catalyst for change.
What is Shatkarma?
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 Shatkarma 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. Read more in our blog post Introduction to Hatha Yoga. Dating back to the 15th century, this is a foundational scripture for all who seek the union of mind, body, and spirit through yoga.
It’s important to note that although the Shatkarmas are “preparatory techniques,” their execution requires experience, skill, and awareness. For this reason, you should always learn from and practice under the supervision of a trusted teacher.
Neti: The Pathway to Clear Nostrils and a Balanced Mind
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. Consequently, the corresponding left and right brain hemispheres harmonize, inducing 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: Achieving Internal Purity Through Alimentary Cleansing
Dhauti is a cornerstone among yogic cleansing techniques, specifically designed to purify the entire alimentary canal. This comprehensive method can be broken down into three distinct categories:
- Sirsha Dhauti: Focuses on cleansing the head and upper regions. It uses techniques that can clear the eyes, ears, teeth, palate, and tongue.
- Hrida Dhauti: Employs practices that cleanse the inner chest area using a soft stick, inducing vomit after drinking a large amount of warm salty water (Vamana Dhauti), or cleaning the esophagus and stomach by swallowing and removing a cloth strip.
- Antara Dhauti: focuses on internal cleansing through methods involving air swallowing, salty water, abdominal heat generation, and rectal cleansing.
Each group offers specific benefits for both physical and spiritual well-being. However, they require expert advice and supervision for effective and safe practice.
Nauli: The Art of Abdominal Mastery for Total Digestive Wellness
The third Shatkarma, known as Nauli, involves a specialized self-massage of the abdomen. If you’re thinking of a relaxing spa massage… well, it’s not! This one aims to tone the muscles and improve the function of internal organs. This yogic practice is broken down into three distinct stages:
- Central Isolation: Initially, the practitioner focuses on drawing in the central abdominal muscles, setting the stage for deeper work.
- Lateral Isolation: The next step isolates the muscles on either the left or right side of the abdomen. This emphasizes unilateral control.
- Abdominal Churning: Finally, the yogi engages in a rhythmic rotation of the abdominal muscles from side to side, effectively “churning” the area.
Through Nauli, not only are the abdominal muscles strengthened, but it also positively impacts the nerves, and digestive, reproductive, urinary, and excretory systems. It even stimulates appetite and enhances digestion, making it a comprehensive practice for holistic well-being.
Basti: A Guided Journey to Colon Purification Through Shatkarma
Basti is a specialized yogic cleansing technique aimed at purifying the large intestine, commonly referred to as a “yogic enema”. This Shatkarma is particularly important for detoxifying the colon by removing trapped gas and old stool.
There are two primary methods for executing Basti:
- Jala Basti: In this water-based technique, the practitioner sits submerged in water, usually up to the navel. Through the mastery of specific yogic maneuvers like Uddiyana Bandha and Nauli Kriya, water is drawn into the rectum. Following this, the practitioner releases the water, aiding in the flushing out of toxins.
- Sthal Basti: This air-based approach involves drawing air into the bowels, usually while sitting in a specific yoga posture. The air acts as an internal cleanser, helping to remove lingering impurities within the colon.
Both techniques are powerful tools for maintaining gastrointestinal health and require guided practice for safe and effective execution.
Kapalbhati: Breathing Your Way to a Radiant Mind and Healthy Respiratory System
You might know Kapalbhati as a breathing technique used in Pranayama. This practice doubles as a very effective cleansing technique. Here, the yogi exhales through the nostrils with a forceful contraction of the abdominal muscles. Then the practitioner relaxes the core to allow the body to inhale on its own.
This sequence is repeated multiple times in a quick, rhythmic succession. Read our article about Pranayama for detailed instructions and more context. Or, if you prefer video guidance, watch our expert teacher Lorraine practice Kapalbhati in Self Care Practices | Fire on Online Studio.
The literal translation of Kapalbhati is ‘shining skull’ because it improves the functioning of the brain. Since it energizes the mind and removes sleepiness, this Shatkarma is 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: The Blinkless Stare to Enhance Focus and Activate Spiritual Centers
Trataka is a focused gazing Shatkarma designed primarily to cleanse and rejuvenate the eyes, while also enhancing mental clarity. Often referred to as the ‘blinkless stare’, this ancient cleansing method involves directing your gaze at a single, unmoving object – whether it’s the flame of a candle or a simple black dot – without blinking for an extended period.
This practice not only improves ocular health by stimulating increased blood flow to the eyes but also serves to balance the nervous system.
More than just an eye exercise, Trataka enhances your mental focus, bolsters willpower, and helps to activate the “third eye”, the area between your eyebrows. As such, this Shatkarma serves as an excellent preparatory exercise for deeper meditation practices, aiding in stilling the mind and heightening awareness.
Why is Cleansing Important?
Your internal organs regularly come into contact with external matter, for example through your food intake. Even though you might lead a healthy lifestyle, you still accumulate toxins and impurities. These may come 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 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 regimens, others are completely different.
The main difference: a panchakarma treatment 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.
If Ayurveda intrigues you and you’re looking for a very hands-on approach, follow our course The Essentials of Ayurveda on Online Studio. Expert Ayurveda practitioner and therapist Nancy Huettig offers an excellent starting point for learning and understanding the wisdom of Ayurveda and its basic principles.
As we navigate the intricacies of our daily lives, the quest for purity – both bodily and spiritually – often remains an elusive goal. Shatkarmas offer an invaluable key to this enduring challenge, unveiling a wealth of ancient techniques that cleanse the body, calm the mind, and nourish the soul.
Rooted in time-honored wisdom, these practices are more than just preliminary steps; they’re the bedrock on which you can build a life of balance, clarity, and spiritual awakening. From the focused gaze of Trataka that enriches our mental acuity, to the cleansing effects of Basti on our digestive system, each Shatkarma serves as a cornerstone of holistic wellness.
If you’re looking to integrate deep cleansing practices into your routine, consider embracing the Shatkarmas as both a touchstone and a springboard for your ongoing journey. They can be your catalysts for change, fortifying your physical health while setting the stage for deeper, more impactful spiritual practices.
Take that leap, under the guidance of an adept teacher, and unlock an enduring sanctuary of well-being within yourself.