This morning I experienced yogic cleansing- or shatkarma- for the first time (which literally translates to ‘six actions’). The shatkarmas consist of six groups of purification practices that aim to create harmony in the body by balancing the three doshas: kapha (mucus); pitta (bile); and vala (wind). According to both ayurveda and hatha yoga, an imbalance in the doshas will result in illness, so practicing shatkarma is said to help to purify the body of toxins to ensure a safe and successful yoga practice.
Before this week I had never even heard of this practice. It’s probably the most bizarre and mind-boggling part of the programme so far and I’m not convinced that it has a place in modern day yoga practice. Saying that, I am here to learn about an ancient tradition, so I took an open-mind to my 6am shatkarma class on the grass and mentally prepared myself for the rather unusual challenges that lay ahead…
We started off with neti, the process of cleansing and purifying the nasal passages. We were eased in with a relatively simple practice called jala neti, which involves cleansing the nostrils with water. A special neti pot (which looks like a mini-watering can) is filled with warm salt water and plugs one of the nostrils (don’t worry, we didn’t have to share pots!) Leaning forward and tilting to one side allows the water to run up one nostril and out the other… bringing with it whole heap of mucus! Yum. Once you have repeated this on both sides the process gets even prettier: you close one nostril and breathe in and out through the other ten times, to release trapped water from the sinus cavities and even more snot! I actually blew my nose in preparation for this practice and still so much crap came out of my nose! However my rookie error was blowing my nose too hard after the practice (and with a tissue tut tut!) as this caused a very unpleasant ear pop, pushing the remaining water into my ears. But ear drums aside my nostrils do feel pretty fresh. Rachel (one of our asana teachers) describes this as a ‘nasal spa’, although I can’t say I’d choose it over a facial!
Trying out jala neti with the neti pot!
Level 2 was a big step up: rubber neti- cleansing the nostrils with a thin rubber tube (thankfully we didn’t have to share these either!) This practice involves passing a rubber tube up one of the nostrils and down through the back of the throat. When the tube reaches the back of the throat you have to catch the end with your fingers and then pull it out slowly and gently through the mouth (an action which often causes retching!) This would obviously be a pretty cool party trick and so I was eager to try it out. But just inserting the rubber tube into my nose caused a nauseating tickle. And the further you go the worse it gets. On my third attempt I managed to get to the U-bend bit at the top of my nose, where the tube starts to go back on itself and down into the throat. This was quite unpleasant as on top of the sickening sneeze sensation, I was gagging too. Another student actually fainted during this exercise, possibly because he touched a sensitive nerve in his nostril, which caused his body to shut down. So after seeing this, I happily admitted defeat. I’m usually pretty competitive but this uncomfortable practice felt impractical and outdated (although it supposedly helps air flow freely through the nostrils because the friction from the rubber neti is said to remove obstructions). For the advanced yogis there was another level to this challenge: sutri neti. This is exactly the same except the student uses a thick piece of cotton thread instead of a rubber tube. I took a pass on this one!
Alex was a bit of a pro and managed it on her first attempt!
The second phase of shatkama is dhauti: cleansing of the stomach and the intestine. When I first heard about this I was sure that someone was pulling my leg because it seems far too ridiculous to be true. But no, dhauti is an integral part of yogic cleansing and yesterday we tried out vaman dhauti: regurgitative cleansing (a.k.a making yourself sick!) I was both repulsed and frustrated by the suggestion because I couldn’t shake the association of being ‘sick’ with ‘sickness’. Having spent the last week in bed trying to make myself well it seemed counterproductive to wake up, drink 4-6 glasses of salt water and then vomit it back up. It also seemed to encourage a behaviour that is commonly associated with people suffering from an eating disorder. Whilst I tired to keep an open mind throughout the exercise, it is undeniable that my Western perspective shaped my experience and therefore it is probably fair to say that my account is biased, stemming from my Western ideals. So before I share my experience with you I am going to give you the ‘text book’ benefits: it is said to tone and stimulate the abdominal organs by inducing strong muscular contractions in the stomach walls, whilst simultaneously removing excess mucus.
The image for vaman dhauti taken from my text book:
For me, the hardest part about vaman dhauti was downing the salt water. My digestive system is very sensitive at the moment and whilst the recommendation is 4-6 glasses, I was gagging after one. The next part- the making yourself sick bit- was incredibly unpleasant, as I’m sure you will know if you have ever had to have a ‘tactical chunder’ on a night out. And for the rest of the day the majority of people felt lethargic and heavy. Which is why this made no sense. We were making ourselves sick on empty stomachs, following a two-week detox from alcohol, caffeine and sugar. My body is a temple right now, so why would I want to make it sick? The practice didn’t sit well with me at all, particularly when it claims to help people ‘release pent up emotions and feelings of heaviness in the heart caused by inner and external conflict and pressures’ (Saraswasti). In my opinion, it is an unhealthy and archaic practice that should only be discussed (as a means of understanding the history of yoga), but never practiced. On the other hand, we were never forced to try anything and whilst the school encouraged us to give it a go, it is not compulsory for our teacher training. So whilst I disagree with the need for shatkarma on the syllabus (at least at a practical level), I was impressed with the school’s sensitivity on the subject matter. With hindsight I can see that shatkarma is just another part of yoga, a practice that was created thousands of years ago before we had a full understanding of the physiological make up of the body. So it is up to you whether you want to put your faith in science or spirituality. Until now, science and spirituality have aligned in many aspects of my studies: this has been the first time where they have been in conflict.
Thankfully we didn’t have the time (or energy) to try ‘level 2’ of dhauti: vastra dhaurti. This is where you ingest a long piece of damp cloth (up to 3 metres long and 2 ½ cm wide) by gradually feeding it into your mouth, down the oesophagus and into the stomach. After 3-10 minutes (no more, as the intestine might start to digest your cloth!) you slowly remove the cloth, being very careful as the cloth can cause damage to the delicate walls of the stomach and oesophagus! You can call me a spoilsport but there is no way in hell that I am trying this one!!
The image for vastra dhaurti taken from my text book:
Notes on Shatkarma:
-Whist I would not recommend shatkarma it is important to note that these are very powerful practices which should never be learned from books or taught by inexperienced people (e.g. my blog). So if you are intrigued please don’t DIY any of these, as they can be extremely dangerous!
For 'Shatkarma part 2: crying and digestive cleansing', please click here!
-More information about Shatkarma: http://www.yogamag.net/archives/1991/cmay91/shat.shtml
-Chandra Yoga: https://www.sushilyoga.com/
-"Asana Pranayama Mudra Bandha" by Satyananda Saraswati- http://www.amazon.in/Asana-Pranayama-Bandha-Satyananda-Saraswati/dp/0949551147
-Yogic Cleansing Techniques- "To overcome initial resistance to the shatkarmas one needs to develop both detachment, and the desire to cleanse the koshas and balance the doshas: in fact there is no difficulty with the techniques of Yoga once the mind accepts the idea. This psychological aspect of the training should not be underestimated." http://www.seraph.ie/Shatkarma%20v2_0.htm