Shat Karma, or Shat Kriya as they are often known, are six yogic cleansing processes used by yoga practitioners to help purify the physical body.
The body has an incredible natural tendency towards homeostasis i.e. the body will always try to heal itself and achieve good health even when we treat it badly. Cut yourself and the body will repair the damage. Eat unhealthy food and the body will still keep going. In yoga we try to protect ourselves from injury and attempt to avoid harming ourselves by overindulging in unhealthy foods. This is part of the practice of ahimsa – avoiding harmful or injuring behaviour either towards oneself or any other beings.
Despite all our best intentions and efforts our body sometimes needs a little extra boost to reach a state of optimum health. With the rise of industrialization, mass urbanization and financially driven agriculture, the air we breathe, the food available, even the water we drink may not be as pure and unpolluted as we would wish them to be. The Shat Kriyas come to our aid to help us remove built up toxins from our body, with particular emphasis on the respiratory and digestive systems.
Shat is the Sanskrit word for six, however each of the six kriyas may involve several different cleansing techniques or practices.
The six Kriyas are:
- 1. Neti
- 2. Dhauti
- 3. Nauli
- 4. Basti
- 5. Kapalabhati
- 6. Tratak
We will now attempt to examine each of these kriyas in a little more detail; however, these are only brief descriptions and should not be taken as instructions. The kriyas should be learned from an experience teacher and should not be attempted on your own.
1 - Neti kriya has two component practices named Jala neti & Sutra neti.
Jala neti involves the use of a neti pot or lota. The neti pot is filled with warm salty water and the contents of the pot are poured into one nostril and allowed to flow out of the opposite nostril. This helps cleanse the nasal passages of particles of dust or pollution and stimulates the mucous glands.
Sutra neti is done by inserting a string in one of the nostrils and gently pushing that string through the nasal passage and letting it come down to the back of the throat. Then the string is grasped between two fingers and drawn out of the mouth. The ends of the string can be attached together and the circle thus formed is drawn through the nostrils several times. This practice strongly stimulates the mucous glands and also activates the tear ducts which in turn naturally cleanse the eyes. Traditionally a thin string with waxed ends is used though nowadays it is common to use a rubber surgical catheter.
2 - Dhauti kriya can be divided into five different practices: Kunjal kriya, vastra dhauti, danta dhauti, vatsara dhauti and agni sara all of which are best practiced on an empty stomach.
Kunjal Kriya, also known as vaman dhauti, cleanses the upper digestive tract of excess mucous. The practitioner drinks a large quantity of warm salty water and then vomits. The vomiting can either be induced by vigourously rubbing the back of the tongue or may occur spontaneously.
The food one chooses to eat after this practice is very important as the lining of the digestive tract needs to be re-established. Traditionally kedgeree, a mixture of rice and moong dal, is eaten within the hour after practicing kunjal kriya.
Vastra dhauti is done by swallowing a long thin strip of cloth. The cloth can be up to 3 metres long and needs to be soaked in salty water first. This rather intense practice removes excess mucous from the digestive tract.
Danta dhauti simply means cleaning the teeth. The gums are also massaged to strengthen them and improve the blood circulation.
Vatsara dhauti involves swallowing air and belching (or alternatively letting the air pass through the lower intestine). The digestive system is stimulated and excess gas is removed.
Agni Sara is performed by exhaling while leaning forward and then holding the breath while pumping the abdomen. It helps to improve digestion and strengthens the abdominal region. Practicing regularly will improve over all energy levels and remove lethargy.
3 - Nauli is a technique whereby the abdominal muscles are contracted in a specific manner and moved about in order to massage the digestive tract.
4 - Basti is essentially the same as an enema and is used to cleanse the lower digestive tract. Water is taken in to the lower digestive tract via the anus and then expelled. Traditionally yogis practiced this by standing in a fast flowing river and using a hollow reed to take in the water.
5 - Kapalabhati is often considered as a Pranayama breathing technique, but it is also an important kriya. The breath is expelled through the nose by a strong contraction of the abdominal muscles. Then the abdomen is relaxed completely which automatically lowers the position of the diaphragm creating a passive inhalation. The abdomen is contracted and relaxed in this way for a series of pumpings. The air sharply expelled helps to remove dust particles from the respiratory tract and strengthens the lungs. The increase in air inhaled raises the oxygen levels in the blood stream and helps regulate the metabolic rate. Kapalabhati is useful to practice before meditation as it induces a calm state of mind.
6 - Tratak cleanses the eyes and is used as an approach to meditation. Sitting comfortably you stare at the wick of a lit candle for a minute or so. Then close the eyes and observe the afterimage left on the retina. Try to keep this image of the flame steady by keeping the eyes very calm.
The candle flame should be at eye level and about arms length away from the eyes. When the after image fades the eyes can be covered with the hands and the image may be rediscovered. Then the practice is repeated. This deceptively simple exercise affects the mind on many levels and is excellent for improving concentration, alleviating sleep disorders and quietening the mind, which is after all the definition Patanjali gave to yoga.