The thought of washing the internal linings of the body with warm salty water, wiping them with cloth, inducing vomiting, or placing catheters in the nose, stomach, urethra, and so on, terrifies many new yogic practitioners and even frightens a few of the more timid away. Indeed these seemingly strange practices were held secret for many centuries and were handed on to aspirants and disciples when the master considered the time correct. They were revered by yogis as precious teachings, capable of removing disease, endowing the body with strength and vitality, making one shine inside out.
The hatha yoga shatkarmas were an essential preparatory step on the path of awakening. At the most gross level, practices such as neti, dhauti and basti wash accumulated secretions from the inner cavities much as an enema does. The difference between a simple enema and a yogic kriya lies at the more subtle levels:
The overall effect of the shatkarma is far greater than simply washing the body because, when it is performed under yogic conditions, in an ashram or an atmosphere of sadhana, with the awareness directed towards higher goals, it purifies the physical, pranic and mental bodies. When the channels for the flow of prana (pingala) and awareness (ida) are opened and clean, the channel for awakening the spiritual faculties (sushumna) functions.
Shankhaprakshalana is one of the most powerful of shatkarmas. Unlike neti, kunjal, trataka and nauli, which can be continued daily until the desired effect is attained, shankhaprakshalana can only be performed regularly in its minor, or laghoo, form. In its full form, Once or twice a year around the change of season is enough.
The continual movement of water through the stomach and intestines empties the abdomen of all faecal contents and strips off the mucus lining, which is usually encrusted with faeces. This unblocks the channels of flow, for example, the sphincter of odi, where the liver joins the duodenum, or the channels for the secretion of acids, enzymes and hormones, or the channels for mucus, which prevents the body from digesting itself in its own acid secretions (the cause of peptic ulcers).
Cleansing the thirty odd feet of internal digestive tubing allows the absorption, assimilation and excretion processes to work optimally. This is what yogis mean when they state that the nadis have to be cleansed and the obstructions removed. In our constipated society this effect is especially important.
The effects of shankhaprakshalana are various, and we find that in a clinical setting it is useful for such diverse conditions as diabetes, boils, acne, worms, indigestion, chronic dysentery, constipation, epilepsy, cancer, muscular dystrophy, and so forth. Its action on the bowel is much more powerful than laxatives and purgatives which require more time to take effect and have deleterious side effects, not to mention their habituating and addictive properties. Shankhaprakshalana is less time consuming, gives a much cleaner result and is harmless when performed under expert guidance.
If we examine only the ability of shankhaprakshalana to clean the digestive tract and leave out the aspects of neurological control, pranic energies and awareness, we find that no technique comes even close to it for removing faecal matter.
To highlight this point we should examine the research of H. S. Shukla, A. K. Singh and Y. P. Naithani.*1 They compared the normal methods of preparing bowel for surgery, which include dietary restrictions, cathartics (laxatives), large doses of various antibiotics and six enemas (in a control group), with total gut irrigation (TGI group), a modified form of shankhaprakshalana.
TGI involves flushing the whole gut, from the mouth to the anus, with 0.9% saline water on the night before operation (conventional cleaning requires 3-4 days preoperative preparation). After 40 minutes of running the water via a nasogastric tube, the first bowel motion was achieved and the water was continued until the effluent per rectum was clear. Only 10% of the TGI group found the process unpleasant. It should be noted at this point that the asanas used in shankhaprakshalana actively speed up the passive passage of water through the gut by 4 to 5 times as they act to open the sphincters of the bowel and put the abdomen under pressure. The first stool in shankhaprakshalana usually occurs after 5 to 10 minutes of commencing the practice. TGI was found to be superior to the usual preoperative preparation as the bowel was completely empty and collapsed, the ideal situation for surgery. The absence of faeces in the TGI group led to less infection, less wound breakdown and less time required in hospital than for the control group. The TGI group reported no deaths postoperatively while one person died in the control group due to infection. The surgeons themselves were, on the whole, more satisfied with TGI.
Cleanliness by itself allows the body to function better and is a healthier state. 'Cleanliness is next to godliness.' When we add the effects of asanas and yogic awareness we have a technique which can revolutionise medical therapy and rejuvenate the body, preparing us for a long and healthy lifetime of yogic sadhana.
*1. Shukla H. S., et al., 'A Clinical Comparison of Total Gut Irrigation with Conventional Bowel Preparation for Colorectal Surgery', J. Indian Med. Assoc, vol. 76, no. 10, May 16, 1981.