The Shatkarmas - Ancient techniques for the modern age

Swami Ajnananda Saraswati

The word health is derived from wholeness. It is fair to say that, up until the last decade, the general orthodox idea of health has been the absence of illness. Occidental medicine has been approaching the question from an increasingly compartmentalised viewpoint. There has been a great increase in the knowledge of bodily function (physiology) and of the gross and finer structures (anatomy) particularly concerning the brain, nervous and endocrine systems. There have been increasingly detailed investigations of the multitude of disease processes (pathology) to which people are subject. However, except perhaps in the field of endocrinology, there has been little attempt made to relate all of this physical research to the mental processes. In the area of psychology and psychiatry, the mental processes have been subjected to similar intensive investigation, but largely without consideration of the bodily processes. The whole emphasis has been wrong - we have been studying illness, disease, what can go wrong with the body/mind, instead of directing our efforts to the investigation of healthy people. We should be studying living bodies instead of dying ones and free minds instead of limited and obstructed ones. It is in the redirection along positive lines of enquiry that yoga has a magnificent part to play.

Many thousands of years ago, the yogis, devoting themselves to a process of self-investigation, a spiritual quest for meaning in life and the unfoldment of the full human potential, realised that the very foundation of that quest was a state of radiant health - not just the absence of dis-ease, but an abundance, an overflowing of vitality and energy. They evolved techniques of self-treatment and disease prevention in order to proceed with their quest, un-distracted by pain and illness. The heart of these techniques is that group of practices which constitute the essential hatha yoga shatkarmas or purification methods. Together with asana, pranayama, creative meditative and relaxation techniques, these practices are the core of the comprehensive system coming to be known as yoga therapy.

Jala neti

The practice of jala neti, or nasal irrigation, is so simple and has such a tremendous range of therapeutic effects that it must be considered foremost among the tools in the chest of the yoga therapist. A flow of warm, slightly saline water is introduced into the nostril by means of a suitable container (traditional neti lota or small teapot) and allowed to flow through the nasal pharynx and out the opposite nostril. The procedure is then reversed.

The flow of warm, saline solution over nerve endings connected with the olfactory bulb, a structure in the cranial floor just above the nasal pharynx, has a reflex soothing and relaxing action on the centres of emotion in the limbic system of the brain. It aids in improving concentration and in harmonising the interaction between the reasoning, thinking cerebral cortex and the feeling limbic system. This same soothing relaxing effect is responsible for the benefits to headache sufferers. Because of the direct connection between the limbic system and the medulla oblongata (the area in the brain stem at the top of the spinal cord responsible for the unconscious functions - autonomic nervous system, control of blood pressure, heart rate, breathing etc.), neti is an essential part of the yoga therapeutic program for conditions ranging from hypertension to carcinoma. By its action on the trigeminal nerve, it has a soothing effect on the whole facial area and may be used to alleviate tired eyes, nervous twitching and facial pain. Classically, neti is a preparation for pranayama, and it is in its cleansing action that it finds particular application in the polluted environments of people living or working in industrial areas. It removes the accumulation of toxic airborne residues, helping to prevent the build up and concentration of these cumulative poisons in the system.

It is an essential part of the treatment of asthma, sinusitis, hay fever and colds. In the case of colds, one drop of pure eucalyptus or peppermint oil may be added to the water - the unpleasant symptoms of the cold are almost miraculously relieved without any interference in the cleansing process which is going on even more effectively than before.

Its capacity to balance mental and emotional states through physiological and pranic pathways is profound. Where there is anxiety, tension or hyper-manic condition, the water is used as warm as can be comfortably tolerated, and where there is depression or withdrawal, cold water, often without salt is used instead.

This is the yogic equivalent of shock therapy without any of the unpleasant side effects. In the case of depression, the relief is, again, symptomatic but the patient is brought to a state where he/she may be able to begin to do something about the cause. This is impossible while still immersed in the depression. Physically, the effect of neti is primarily upon ajna chakra.


Nauli, the isolation and rotation of the abdominal rectus muscles, and its preparatory practice of uddiyana bandha, have such a wide range of therapeutic effects that they deserve much more attention from yoga instructors everywhere. Stomach, small intestine, colon, liver, spleen, pancreas, kidneys and uro-genital system are all given a massage of such quality that it cannot be duplicated by any external masseur, and these large muscles of the abdomen, upon which so much of our physical movement depends, are toned and strengthened. There is a condition which is becoming increasingly common, called dropped or prolapsed transverse colon. That part of the large intestine which goes across the abdomen from right to left, gradually sags further and further down into the abdominal cavity. This condition affects literally millions of people and is the result of lifestyle factors such as largely sedentary occupations, lack of exercise and poor diet. The dangers inherent to the whole organism can be appreciated by an examination of the function and structure of the colon and by understanding how the function is affected when the structure is altered in the above manner.

When the transverse colon sags down, two corners or bends in the colon are narrowed or partially closed off - these are called the splenic and hepatic flexures. This makes it increasingly difficult for waste matter to pass through and results in a build up of toxic, decaying waste. If one considers that this colon is not just a hollow tube, but has as one of its main functions the absorption of water into the blood from the waste matter, the implications become apparent. Through the build up and back pressure created by this condition, distensions and pockets full of highly poisonous material form in the colon and this poison is constantly being absorbed into the blood. The kidneys and liver, organs vitally concerned with our body's resistance to disease, are severely affected, as are all organs of the abdominal cavity.

The accumulation of toxic matter can be dealt with by the cleansing practice of shankhaprakshalana, but to positively alter the condition of the colon and indeed, to prevent the condition occurring in the first place, there is no more effective method than the practice of uddiyana and nauli.

Although hernia is given in most texts as a condition with which uddiyana and nauli should not be performed, the author has had outstanding results in the treatment of hiatus hernia with the very gentle and gradual practice of uddiyana. Students suffering from this condition reported unanimously that, within a few weeks, most of the unpleasant symptoms of the condition had disappeared.


Kunjal kriya, the most readily learned and applied practice of dhauti, in which six or more glasses of warm, salted water is first swallowed and then vomited out, is a superb therapeutic and preventative technique. By its strong, contracting action on the abdominal muscles and diaphragm, and its cleansing action on the stomach and oesophagus, it has particular benefits in the treatment of digestive and respiratory disorders. It is an absolute necessity in any program of treatment of asthma, bronchial disorders, indigestion and hyperacidity. The strong contraction induces copious elimination of phlegm and mucus and subsequent relief.

The author has used it to treat the severe condition of bronchiectasis with good effect.

It is said that there are only three occasions when the mental processes are naturally and completely suspended- during sexual orgasm, sneezing and vomiting. If, as is so often the case with diseases like asthma, the cause is mental tension, the technique acts as a psycho - physiological short circuit providing a respite from the circular, repetitive, mental self-harassment of the anxiety - beset patient, and allowing a positive orientation and outlook to develop. During the early stages of practice, many people experience a sort of psychological block or barrier as a result of negative social conditioning about the process of vomiting. With perseverance, this is transcended and the student benefits greatly from the ensuing acceptance of bodily function, experiencing a parallel mental and emotional catharsis as energy is released on all levels.

The author has personally practised all three of these techniques on a daily basis for the last thirteen years, and they are chosen here to be discussed because of the relative ease with which they may be assimilated into a daily routine by people living in today's polluted, competitive, high pressure and time - conscious society. Neti, nauli, and kunjal can all be completed in less than fifteen minutes.