Yoga as it has been popularized in western culture is primarily characterized by asana or the practice of physical postures. There are many people who become more involved in the practice by learning about yoga philosophy and the eight limbs of Ashtanga Yoga. From pranayama (breathing practices) to Dhyana (meditation), people have started to become more aware of the deeper meanings and related rituals and practices involved in yoga. When we think about the second limb, the Niyama, the first is sauca. Sauca refers to the purification of the body both internally and externally. As Chip Hartranft comments in his version of ‘The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali’, sauca extends both to the corporeal sphere of proper diet and cleanliness, on the one hand, and to mental purity”. This leaves much for us to do as yoga practitioners both physically and within our minds to become closer to the blissful state of Samadhi, the eighth and final limb of Yoga.
What are the Shat Kriyas?
According to another prominent yogic text, the Hatha Pradipika, these are internal bodily cleansing processes. I am sharing these with you because I have personally practiced them, learning them from my first yoga training teacher, Paul Dallaghan, on my first 1 month intensive in Thailand. We do pranayama and asana to purify he body as well. The primary series of Ashtanga yoga or the Yoga Chikitsa is meant to purify and detoxify the body. The shat kriya should be practiced in conjunction with the asana and pranayama practice to obtain more effective body purification. When I begin to describe these kriyas, I know some may sound rather extreme, but like anything, with practice they will become easy and routine if you wish to do them.
The Shat Kriyas:
1. Neti- jala and sutra – nasal cleansing
2. Nauli – abdominal organ cleaning
3. Vaman (dhauti) – stomach cleaning
4. Kapalabhati– respiratory tract cleansing
5. Basti– colon cleansing
6. Tratak– clearing the mind through candle staring
1. Jala Neti
Jala neti is nasal irrigation and has gained much recognition in western cultures as of late. Doctors even prescribe for their patients to use a nasal irrigation bottle for allergies to post nasal drip conditions. My husband has a deviated septum and a permanent opening in his upper nasal cavity for which he has been recommended to do this activity. Jala neti uses a small tea pot like container with a salt/water solution poured through one nostril and let to flow out of the other nostril. There is a particular technique so that the water drains properly. It is to cleanse the nasal passageway and I do this technique on a daily basis. It is important, especially if pranayama or even asana are practiced so that deep breathing is completed with a clean airway.
Photo: Neti pot and salt
Sutra neti is something which I have practiced, but it has not remained a daily practice for me because I find it invasive. It is meant to more intricately clean the nasal passageway and I understand it’s purpose, but it is not comfortable for me to do regularly. It uses a rubber tubing which is slowly fed through one nostril until it comes into the back of the throat. This end is retrieved there and it is slowly pulled back and forth from the nostril to the mouth to clean the passage. At first, I gagged on the cord, but with practice it can be accomplished more easily than one might imagine. However, I do agree that it is not pleasant to do. Afterwards though, I do feel more of an awareness of this area of my body and like flossing, it becomes like necessary evil.
I do this one maybe twice a year, not very often. I do floss daily though, lol. After being a dental hygienist for many years, I have a healthy flossing habit.
Photo: A sutra neti cord
The starting point for this practice is to do uddiyana bandha. On an empty stomach, preferably in the morning, a deep breath is taken in. It is then exhaled and you bend over and place the hands on the thighs close to the hips. Pressing down on this place and without drawing any air in, the abdominal area is drawn up and under the ribcage. It creates heat in the body and helps to identify where the power and strength of this bandha comes from for the Ashtanga asana practice. After this is a place you can find, nauli is practiced. First the rectus abdominus muscle is isolated. This is not an easy feat. With continued practice it can be pulled forward and then nauli is done when it is rhythmically moved from right to left and then in the opposite direction. I am not a master of this process, but I do practice it. I find that on days where my motivation and energy are low, it is most beneficial because it creates an energy and focus of its own that helps to invigorate my desire to practice. I usually do 5 rounds of uddiyana bandha and then 5 rounds of nauli when I feel this way and I’m good to go!
Video- a small clip of the current state of my nauli practice
3. Vaman (Dhauti)
This kriya was most disturbing to me. I really dislike the feeling of vomiting and that is basically what you do in this practice. The purpose is to cleanse the stomach. A large bottle of water, lukewarm 1 litre to 2 tsp of salt, is drank quickly. The right hand is then used to induce vomiting so that the water is thrown out. I did this practice 1x week after returning from Thailand but have since lost its practice because I find it so disturbing. I dislike the feeling of vomiting and do not feel that it is necessary to subject myself to this practice regularly. Perhaps I should, but I do not. Neti should be performed following vaman to clear the passageways of the remaining water which comes up from the stomach. I have dhauti in brackets next to my subtitle because vaman is actually one form of the stomach cleaning practices of which there are more. They are increasingly invasive, as I recall, one involves swallowing a large length of cloth. I will not discuss them further here as I have not done these myself.
If you have ever been to a moksha yoga class, you have probably experienced this pranayama. It is completed by taking a deep inhale and then doing shallow, audible exhales very quickly through the nose. It is to help remove any leftover water from jala neti and vaman and should be practiced after these. Kapalabhati is also an internal heat generating pranayama and caution should be taken in its practice. Any practice which involves extra internal heating should be under the guidance of an experienced teacher. In fact, all of these kriyas should be practiced first by the instruction of an experienced teacher. I found that in my constitution, some of them did not suit me well. I wish to write a post about aryurvedic body constitution soon. I am strongly pitta which is already a heat generating constitution and so this practice is to be completed in a limited way for me.
Ok, this colon cleansing practice is more than I am willing to do. Luckily on my stay in Thailand, there was a colonic machine available so it was a bit more accessible for me. Cleaning the colon has several practices which I will not discuss here because I have not done them personally. I have only done the colonic method where I helped guide a lubricated tube into the anus and then water was pumped into the colon and then later ejected. The idea of these practices is again to purify and cleanse the colon. I do understand the purpose and need for these practices because it is possible nowadays more than ever for food stuffs to become lodged within due to the preservatives and simulated products we have available in this day and age. It is important to have a healthy and clean colon for regular bowel movements and toxin removal, especially for the practice of yoga asana!
This is a practice that also helps the practitioner become closer to Dharana or concentration which is the 6th limb of yoga. Dharana means to fix the mind’s gaze or consciousness onto a single point. Tratak is when a candle flame is lit in the dark and placed at eye level about 3 feet away. The practitioner should be seated in a comfortable position such as sukhasana (cross-legged) or padmasana (lotus). The flame is stared upon until the eyes become dry and then the practitioner lies down and rests in savasana for 5-10 mins. Tratak is to clear the mind, create focus and bring consciousness within. I do this one about 1 a month and really I could do it much more frequently. It does remind me when I was a kid, my best friend and I would go into the closet and stare at each other in the dim light of a flashlight shining at the opposite wall. We would stare at each other’s faces until we could see nothing except the others eyes. Tratak is a very focusing practice and I enjoy this one. It can be completed daily because it doesn’t take that much time really at all.
Photo: Tratak or candle staring
So you see, Yoga is such a complex practice and there is so much more involved than just doing poses and breathing. While these aspects on there own are capable of serious transformation, the kriyas are the next step of creating a body and mind which are clear and very sensitive to the stimuli in our complex world. I hope you have found this information interesting and useful. It doesn’t hurt to try some of these practices to see the depth of their healing. I recommend finding a teacher to help you in your practice of the kriyas and yoga asana in general, as it will be most beneficial to you mentally and physiologically. Wishing you the best as always, namaste.
Love to you,