Shatkarma: 6 Yoga Cleansing Practices and Their Benefits
By: Steph Ball-Mitchell, E-RYT-500, RPYT, RCYT, YACEP
Shatkarma includes six yoga cleansing practices. These six cleansing kriyas or practices are all laid out for us in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika. These are all very vigorous, potent practices and each of the kriyas effects a different bodily system. The body systems that are covered from Shatkarma include respiratory, digestive, circulatory and nervous systems. Many yoga practitioners come to rely on these practices once they are introduced to them. These purification kriyas can become part of your regular practice.
Yoga is a purifying practice as a whole. Everything we do from our pranayama practices, asana practices and meditation practices aim to purify the mind and body. We want our yoga practices to cleanse us mentally, physically and spiritually of toxins. Our tapas or internal discipline fires us up to get on the mat and the fruits of our practice create agni or fire that helps us to burn away the toxins and impurities that burden us. We are able to create this through our dedicated practice, asana practice and breathwork.
Shatkarma is all part of Saucha, our first Niyama as laid out for us in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Saucha is all about purification and cleansing. Saucha tells us that as yoga practitioners are must practice purification of our physical bodies, physical spaces, mind, and spirit. Shatkarma practices are ancient practices that yoga practitioners have been doing for thousands of years.
Neti is purifying the nasal passage. This can include sutra neti and jala neti. Neti purifies the breathing pathways and clears out all mucus.
Jala Neti is a Shatkarma technique that was used by yogis to stay free of diseases. It was also used for clear breath. To practice Jala Neti, you need a Jalneti pot, a little salt and some lukewarm water. Jal Neti pots are small and they have a long and thin spout that goes very softly into the nostril.
Sutra Neti is a Shatkarma technique for purifying the nasal passages. This purification kriya helps to clear the airways for pranayama. In Sutra Neti, a wet string or a very thing string of surgical tubing is inserted into the nostril and exits out of the mouth. The practitioner holds onto both ends of the string and pulls it very gently in and out of the nasal pathways to purify and remove any mucus.
Dhauti is the purification kriya of the digestive tract. Normally, this Shatkarma practice is performed with a gauze. The practitioner would swallow the gauze and that would clean the throat and the upper digestive track.
Nauli is a vigorous internal self-massage of the abdominal region using a churning action. When you see someone practicing Nauli, it looks like waves moving through the stomach. It is helpful in pushing toxins out of the system.
Nauli is a powerful massage technique that massages every one of the organs in the abdomen, including the liver, stomach, spleen, urinary bladder, pancreas, gall bladder and intestines. It is useful in maintaining digestive health for these organs.
Basti is similar to a colon cleanse or an enema. It is used to clean the lower digestive tract. There are two forms of Basti, Sushka Basti (also referred to as Sthala Basti or Vata Basti) and Jala Basti.
Kapalabhati is a pranayama that is purifying. With this breathing technique, the practitioner takes active exhales with passive inhales. This purifying pranayama is meant to stimulate the brain. After practicing Kapalabhati, you often get a head rush. In Sanskrit, kapal means skull and bhati means shining, which makes total sense once you've tried this breathing practice, often known as breath of fire.
Trataka is the purifying meditation practice of gazing without blinking. It involves softly gazing towards a single point, often the flame of a candle. Meditating in this way energizes the third eye, ajna chakra.
Practicing Shatkarmas may sound a bit intimidating, but the good news is you are able to practice most of these purification kriyas from the comfort of your own home. We recommend easing into it and choosing one at a time to slowly introduce into your regular practice. If you have an experienced teacher or ayurvedic professional to help, it could be very helpful for you.
My ayurvedic teacher always said that Neti should be done first thing in the morning. Clearing out the nasal passages to start the day makes sense, and it's one of the easier and more natural Shatkarma practices to incorporate into your daily routine. This opens you up for clear breathing before you even get on the mat to start your daily asana or pranayama practice.
When practicing Dhauti, you want to be very careful. You may even want to try alternative methods for clearing the digestive track before you go the traditional Dhauti route of swallowing a gauze. One of my favorite cleanses is the lemon cleanse. You just use lemon, cayenne pepper and honey and you're off to a safe and easy cleanse.
If you're interested in learning more about purification practices, you want to first learn the basics of ayurveda. Join us in our Ayurveda Specialist Certification course online.