Shatkarma, Saucha, Yogic Purification Techniques and Gut Health
Updated: Dec 22, 2019
How well do you tend to the cleanliness of your home, your workspace, or your vehicle? How much does it matter to you how clean are the places you eat at when you're out, or how pristine the public restrooms, locker rooms, and other facilities you may shower in or use when not at home?
It is a well-known fact that cleanliness is one of the main parameters to take note of when it comes to assessing a population's overall quality of life; but cleanliness is also fundamental to guarantee a greater quantity of life too. In this regard, it is no coincidence that those countries with higher standards of public and private cleanliness are, simultaneously, those with higher less hazards to health, greater safety, higher productivity rates, greater rates of schooling, and, overall, better welfare systems too. The opposite is unfortunately quite true as well.
Seeing how 'staying clean' can determine such a big part of our lives and our health, this entry today looks into the matter of saucha or Yogic purification techniques and dives right into the topic by means of the six main purificatory exercises (shatkarma) of traditional Hatha Yoga to ensure optimal health. On the plus side: modern-day hype on 'gut health' is not that far off from the respect that good 'ol yogis use to place on our intestines!
The Gheranda Samhita, one of Yoga's oldest texts, tells us already that the seven great exercises whereby (wo)man trains the body are "[p]urificatory, strengthening, steadying, calming, and those leading to lightness, perception, and isolation" (1979, S. 9), and that they must bee seen to in exactly that order. According to this source, then, purification comes in first and is attained by practicing the six main exercises or shatkarmas we'll recount below. The rest of the items in that list can only be properly attained after purification has been taken care of.
The shatkarmas are specific cleansing techniques targeting the inner channels of the body –particularly our gastrointestinal tract (GI) and the nasal passages and sinuses– precisely because these can significantly affect and alter the flow of energy (or life force) throughout the entire body. Shatkarmas also refer to other more habitual routines such as bathing, or cleaning the eyes, ears, and mouth, but for the sake of discussion, we will center on the not so familiar ones for now.
What's important to note, though, is that purificatory practices are given priority both in this ancient text as well as in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika and the reasons for this are fairly easy to spot. Just think about your own life: where do you feel, think, and work best? In a crowded and dirty space or in an organized and clean one? Now think about yourself. How do you feel best? After a comforting, nice-smelling shower, having brushed your teeth, or after days of sweating in a dusty place? While a certain level of 'messy' can sometimes enhance one's creative outbursts or even be considered 'sexy,' cleanliness without paranoia is not to be undervalued –particularly when it comes to the 'little things' that can help us feel, think, and work at our best. In fact, this is so much a thing, that even the most so-called 'primitive' tribes around the globe, in the poorest of regions, make sure to tend to the cleanliness of their homes and communal spaces as best they can.
The Importance of Saucha
For the Yogis, purity of mind, speech, and body is fundamental. So much so, that saucha, for that is the Sanskrit term for this, was erected as one of the main yogic Yamas and Niyamas –the yogic do's and dont's as it were. Old time yogis believed that, in order for students of Yoga to perform their best and properly enter into samadhi or super-concentration, a certain level of purification and cleanliness was necessary in a physical, mental, and spiritual sense. They thus came up with the six main shatkarma exercises: the Neti Pot, Nauli, Trataka, Kapa-labhati, Basti, and Dhauti. The goal was to make sure that students of Yoga would have all energetic pathways clean and open for awakened energy to lead the way.
These six techniques, however, can sound somewhat weird for us today, mainly because, when it comes to hygiene and sanitation, we have fortunately come a long way! Still, occasional or even regular practice of some of these techniques can help us feel better and maintain health throughout the year –not to mention that these techniques here are in agreement with some modern science findings about the importance of our guts and what they contain.
Neti Pot, Tongue Scraping and Oil Pulling
In our case, for example, use of the Neti Pot (a device for nasal irrigation with salted water), oil pulling, and a very simple and easy to use tongue scraper are something of a staple. We use these three purificatory techniques first thing in the morning, particularly during the winter months, to get rid of stagnant mucus and bacteria accumulated overnight (and daily) in our nasopharyngeal cavities and this way start the day breathing and tasting life to its fullest.
Still, not everybody has the time (or the desire) to commit to all three daily. But just a simple thing like scraping your tongue every morning before you drink or eat the first meal of the day can have benefits to your overall (gut) health.
Nauli is the name of the yogic method for 'stomach churning.' It is a technique whereby one massages her own internal organs without the use of the hands, merely by exerting controlled contractions of the muscles in the abdomen. With nauli you basically learn to move the air trapped inside your stomach in a undulating motion, from left to right and then in and out, in a way not all that different from doing static belly-dancing! The benefits of nauli, however, go beyond greater control over your musculature and, therefore, greater body awareness. Because nauli helps a great deal with things like constipation, digestion, or the overall good state and rhythm of our digestive tract. And funny fact: modern-day research has sufficiently demonstrated that how well and regularly we digest the items we ingest is key to determine our overall health.
Trataka is be third Yogic purificatory exercise, a technique targeting our focus through the eyes. It essentially consists on intense or steady gazing, the type of still and thorough unblinking observation of an object –the flame of a candle, a symbol, a wall– where most of our attention is absorbed into the action of looking. The gazing is done for a period of time, after which we close our eyes and try to maintain the image of whatever it was we were looking at in our inner eye. Trataka was traditionally used as a means of building up an aspirant's ability for concentration, so that the practice of first external and then internal Shambavi Mudra (or Third Eye Gazing) and spinal Kriya breathing would be easier. These were all methods used as a way to build up the ability of the student of Yoga for sustained concentration during meditation.
Trataka may not look like much for us 'modern individuals' yet, its effects over our ability to focus and increase attention levels are real!
Kapa-labhati, Basti, and Dhauti
The final three shatkarmas are a bit more elaborate and powerful as well, thus requiring a certain level of commitment and care. Kapa-labhati is a pranayama technique that involves rapid breathing. The practitioner is expected to seat down and take a series of rapid inhalations followed by sudden exhalations. Both the in-breath and the out-breath are normally done through the nose, unless there is nasal obstruction.
Kapa-labhati is used as a technique to increase air pressure in short bursts in our nasal pharynx and sinuses to stimulate the forward part of the brain. This provides a so-called 'brain cleansing effect,' as its action is mainly circumscribed to the chest and the head. Because of the rapid breathing, this technique can make us feel energized, even high, full of prana and more alive thus being a great technique to enliven us and 'wake us up.'
Basti is the yogic equivalent of the modern-day enema, a colon cleansing technique. Not unlike modern research on gut health, Yogis believed that many of our diseases could be prevented simply by improving the flow and rhythm of our intestinal function. Basti is therefore a simple warm water enema applied, as usual, through the lower end of our intestinal tract. You know, that unnameable part! Since modern times have come up with plenty of pharmaceutical options to be used in this fashion, or even commercial chains particularly devoted to servicing colon cleansing to their customers, basti is very easy to put into practice pretty much anywhere. Still, it is not advisable to overdo it, nor to depend on it for bowel regularity.
Indeed, modern day research is somewhat inconclusive as to the value and benefits of so-called colonics, but the use of supervised colonics (sometimes more than once) for patients with conditions that require an effective elimination of excess toxins and bacteria in the digestive tract is sometimes prescribed by doctors to improve the course of disease. Yet, this does not mean that an indiscriminate use of colonics is advisable, nor that one should put this technique in practice for purely beauty-related reasons –and much less when there is no medical supervision.
The last of the shatkarmas is the practice of Varisara Dhauti (also known as Shakaprakshalana). Dhauti is a very thorough and somewhat taxing form of intestinal wash, so a measure of consideration and care is strongly advised. Though there are several possible techniques, the one most frequently practiced consists on drinking several liters of salted water (preferably organic Hymalayan salt) first thing in the morning, on an empty stomach. Alongside this, the Yoga student must practice a series of four main asanas to enhance bowel movement and lead to the rapid expulsion of the liquid through the anal sphincter. Hence, dhauti allows us to fully purify the entirety of our intestinal tract. It was practiced in combination with other stomach, esophageal and pharyngeal cleansing techniques, though that is increasingly less common nowadays.
We at ACEBE have done dhauti this very month of December and the results have been immediate. We do it once every year. But in general, it is not advisable to overdo it and practice it more than three or four times yearly. Not only does dhauti provide a very exhaustive cleanse of the large and small intestine, it also improves bowel regularity and appetite, making us feel more limber and energized in the days following the cleanse. Because of this we may also sleep better, think faster, and feel overall lighter and enlivened. Still, precisely because of the intensity of this method, dhauti is very exhausting, leaving you completely depleted of energy and minerals right after. This is why it is normally done on days where you have no other engagements and followed by a very mild diet for over a week (eating things like very clean kitchari, for example, or boiled rice and potatoes, no raw vegetables, or coffee, tea, artificial drinks, refined sugars, etc.).
Dhauti can be seen, in this regard, as a great technique for when a very strong type of cleanse is advised. It allows us to clean our slate of any potential bad bacterial overgrowth or parasites in our gut lining and have a second go at 'staying clean' when things have gone a bit south. Still, as in the case of Basti, let's use our common sense and consult a medical doctor if we suspect we may not be in top shape to undertake such an intense type of cleanse.
So, where to start?
Though all of the shatkarmas can be practiced on their own, yogis used to combine them for enhanced results. Our advice, however, is to be honest and realistic and practice those that we feel we may have a greater need for. Say, for example, that you're someone prone to regular respiratory infections and conditions, or that somewhat blocked sinuses are your everyday bread; then, the use of Neti Pot on its own may be a great place to start. Say, on the other hand, that you're someone regularly suffering from constipation, or issues of regularity; then, Basti, or even Dhauti, are two techniques to consider, though one should never underestimate the importance and role that other dietary and lifestyle routines and changes also play when it comes to our intestinal rhythm and health. What we put in, and how active we are in general are also key for health. In this regard, we promise a more thorough entry on gut health in the weeks to come. But until then, and as with everything else, let's just agree that exercising caution and common sense is key for shatkarmas to do their bit and contribute positively to our wellbeing.