For many people who come to a yoga class, what happens in the class is yoga. This is no more than a statement of fact, it is not meant to be a judgment. Many will come to a class or maybe even two, every week, and will be happy with what they learn; they may even apply some of it in their daily lives.
Others may decide that they want to know more and these articles attempt to provide the curious with a little more information.
I am writing this month about the ‘shatkarmas’ (translation, shat, six and karma, action) which are six groups of purification practices. The aim of the shatkarmas is to help us to achieve harmony and balance in the body. They do this through the complete purification of the body.
I will declare my hand now. I do not practice most of these cleansing techniques; as you will see some of them seem extreme to our western way of doing things, indeed even esoteric, but I do find it interesting to read about them.
They are practiced in order to achieve progress down a spiritual path which most of us have neither the time nor the inclination to follow. Anyone following this path however would have a guru, or teacher, who would guide them through these practices. It is believed that these practices have great therapeutic effects although this is not why they are used, rather it is for their spiritual benefits. In the past the shatkarmas would often be taught before any other yoga practices, as it was believed that there are blockages in the body and mind which have to be overcome before progress can be made down the spiritual path.
There are six practices and each of them has several different activities which can be carried out. One activity is described per shatkarma to give you an idea of what is involved.
The six practices are as follows:
Neti is a process of cleansing and purifying the nasal passages. One of the ways that you can do this (as you probably do not want to know about the thread technique!) is with water. A neti pot is used (which looks a bit like a teapot with a long spout) with salted water and the spout is placed in the uppermost nostril and the water fed through to flow from the lower nostril.
So, why would we want to do this? It helps to remove pollutants and any build up of mucus in the nostrils and sinuses helping to maintain healthy ears, nose and throat. It is also claimed that it has a calming effect on the brain, helps with anxiety and anger and generally makes the head feel fresher.
Dhauti is a series of cleansing techniques, sub-divided into three groups: internal cleansing, head cleansing and thoracic cleansing. Any of the practices in this group should be done with the guidance of someone who knows what they are doing.
The example given here is Laghoo Shankhaprakshalana (short intestinal wash).
This involves drinking two glasses of warm salty water as quickly as possible and then a series of asanas (postures) is then carried out. The process is then repeated immediately. You should then attempt to empty the bowels.
The practice should be carried out in the morning when the stomach is empty, before eating or drinking and should take about an hour. 30 minutes rest is recommended before eating or drinking.
This practice is to help the intestines function effectively. It is considered to be therapeutic for digestive disorders and flushes out the kidneys.
Nauli is designed to massage and strengthen the abdominal muscles. The abdominal massaging is done by sucking in the lower abdomen and contracting the muscles running down the middle of the abdomen. This should be done five times and first thing in the morning when the stomach is empty.
This practice is great for toning the abdominal muscles and helps to keep the digestive system working effectively.
Basti translates as yoga enema. Jala basti involves using water to clean the colon. In the past a flowing river was used and the practitioner using certain yoga practices, expanded the anal sphincter so that water was drawn into and held in the bowels for some time. The water was then expelled through the anus. These days a bath tub would be more commonly used! There are ‘dry’ alternatives to this.
Kapalbhati (frontal brain cleansing breath) is a pranayama, or breath control practice. It involves completing ten rapid breaths in succession for five rounds. This practice has the effect of cleansing the lungs and so is good for respiratory problems. I have seen it described as being good for blowing away the cobwebs and certainly is an effective way to wake up in the morning and for preparing you for mental work.
Trataka is concentrated gazing. A lit candle is used and the practitioner gazes steadily at it until the eyes become tired or water. This should help to make the eyes clear and it is believed can relieve nervous tension in the body. It is also recommended for helping with improved concentration and memory.
All these practices have a strong effect on the body and have contra-indications which is why that it is essential to practice with an experienced teacher.
However some of the more basic practices can be learned on your own and it is believed that they can help us more quickly along the path to samadhi (enlightenment/union with the divine) augmenting the practices set out in the eight-limbs of yoga: yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana, all leading to samadhi.