Hatha yoga, as described in the early Yoga Upanishads, was made up of the shatkarmas and is a very precise and systematic science.
Shat means ‘six’ and karma means ‘action’; the shatkarmas consist of six groups of purification practices. The aim of hatha yoga and, therefore, of the shatkarmas is to create harmony between the two major pranic flows, ida and pingala, thereby attaining physical and mental purification and balance.
The shatkarmas are also used to balance the three doshas or humours in the body: kapha, mucus; piua, bile; and vata, wind. According to both ayurveda and hatha yoga, an imbalance in the doshas will result in illness. These practices are also used before pranayama and other higher yoga practices in order to purify the body of toxins and to ensure safe and successful progression along the spiritual path.
These powerful techniques should never be learned from books or taught by inexperienced people. According to the tradition, only those instructed by a guru may teach others. It is essential to be personally instructed as to how and when to perform the shatkarmas, according to individual limitations and needs.
The six shatkarmas are as follows
- Neti: A process of cleansing and purifying the nasal pas sages. Practices included in this category are: jala neti and sutra neti.
- Dhauti: A series of cleansing techniques which are divided into three main groups: antar dhauti or internal cleansing, sirsha dhauti or head cleansing, and hrid dhauti or thoracic cleansing. The dhauti techniques which are given in this section clean the entire alimentary canal from the mouth to the anus. There are four practices:
- Shankhaprakshalana (varisara dhauti) and laghoo shankha prakshalana, cleansing of the intestines
- Agnisar kriya (vahnisara dhauti), activating the digestive fire
- Kunjal (vaman dhauti), cleansing the stomach with water
- Vatsara dhauti, cleansing the intestines with air.
All of these practices require the guidance of a competent teacher
- Nauli: A method of massaging and strengthening the abdominal organs.
- Basti: Techniques for washing and toning the large intestine.
- Kapalbhati: A breathing technique for purifying the frontal region of the brain.
- Trataka: The practice of intense gazing at one point or object which develops the power of concentration.
Although there are six shatkarmas, each one consists of a variety of practices. Advice, precautions and Contra-indications are given for each practice individually and should be carefully observed. During pregnancy, only jala neti and trataka are recommended.
Although the cleansing and strengthening effects of shatkarmas may be beneficial therapeutically, this is not their purpose. Shatkarmas are practices to promote the health of yoga practitioners and to awaken and direct the energies in the body, mind and deeper psyche. People suffering from any medical condition, who wish to utilize any of these practices, should seek the advice of a competent teacher.
The water used in these practices should be pure. If necessary, use an ultraviolet filter or boil the water for several minutes and then allow it to cool to the desired temperature.