To coincide with the changing of the seasons and the ending of the monsoon in India, we have given special consideration in this issue to shankhaprakshalana, the yogic practice involving cleansing of the whole digestive tract.
The monsoon is notorious for its discomfort, a never-ceasing feeling of heat, stickiness and the inability to keep dry, as well as for 'the runs'. The combination of fire and water has always been deleterious in esoteric sciences and the monsoons are manifest proof of this. When body heat builds up, the sweating mechanism is unable to cool the body, hampered by the humidity which prevents evaporation. Heat excess causes disordered digestion, boils, infection, prickly heat and numerous other complaints. When rain falls, the temperature drops rapidly and only a healthy and flexible temperature regulating system in the brain can cope with the sudden exposure to extremes. Most people find that at some time during monsoon they experience reduced appetite, indigestion and other ailments. And then there are the insects.
There is a multitude of time honoured techniques for surviving and recovering from the monsoon. Fasting, combinations of cooling foods such as yoghurt (curd, dahee) and heating foods such as chilli, ginger, pepper are used to maintain an internal ecology harmonious with the environment. Yogis are more fortunate in that they have a wider range of techniques to choose from which aid the natural resistance of the body to nature's continual bombardment, for example, sheetali pranayama to cool and bhastrika and surya namaskara to heat.
In ashram life, the end of monsoon is traditionally the time for practising shankhaprakshalana. Each year, just after this crucial time, as an antidote for the effects of monsoon a special 'shankhaprakshalana party' is held to ensure the health of the community, and to resurrect the weakened digestive fire. This removes the negative effects of monsoon and prepares the body for the kinder seasons of the Indian year when food can be digested more easily and enjoyed more. However, its use is not limited to just an antidote. It has a wide application ranging from therapeutics to higher sadhana and has been known down through the ages in China, and by spiritual groups such as the Essenes.
The Essenes were a spiritual community in the Middle East around the time of Jesus. They seem to have practised several forms of yoga and wrote texts extolling the virtue of yogic kriyas similar to shankhaprakshalana. In the 'Essene Gospel of Peace', a first century Aramaic text, we are told that though we might clean ourselves outside, our internal state is 'full within of horrible uncleanness and abomination.'
To correct this state you are told to 'Let the water run out from your body and you will see with your eyes and smell with your nose all the abominations and wastes which defiled the temple of your soul; even all the sins which abode in your body, tormenting you with all manner of pains. Renew your baptism with water till you see that the water which flows out of you is as pure as the river's foam.'
In our modern day and age, just as in the time of the Essenes, we do not require the devastating power of three months of monsoon to disturb our digestion and health. Our modern lifestyle is enough by itself, incorporating as it does overeating, synthetic and artificial foods, a fast pace, worry, tension, lack of exercise and so on. It induces the same debilitating wear and tear in the body as a monsoon, however, without respite. The continual bombardment of unhealthy living and unhealthy thinking leads to body and mind breakdown and premature ageing.
Life is constantly demanding that we act and react. Our body has no choice in this, for unless we are flexible and able to adapt, we die. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna tells Arjuna that one cannot renounce karma, action. We breathe, move, adjust, regulate, assimilate, excrete. Nature, prakriti, is ever active and changing under the force of the gunas - rajas (dynamism), tamas (lethargy) and sattwa (balance). This life process constantly demands energy and requires a scientific lifestyle in accordance with the flow of internal and external pressures to maintain health. Without a yogic approach the gunas and body energies become obstructed, excessive or depleted.
The sattwic, balanced, natural state is very rarely predominant in this day and age due to the pressures of the kali yuga, the unscientific, un-yogic way that most people live. From a young age we begin to misuse our energies. Growth and development are not cultivated and a general decline in vitality and mental health occurs. It is not only the abuse of food which disorders manipura chakra, the centre of strength, will, and energy. A multitude of factors set the stage for such diseases as diabetes, cancer, heart disease, to name the best known.
From the yogic view point, diseases, mental tensions and pain and suffering in general can be relieved by the systematic use of yogic kriyas. In the Hatha Yoga Pradipika (II. 21) it is stated that anyone whose body energies are imbalanced should practise hatha yoga shatkarma. The three dosha, vata (energy, wind), pitta (heating qualities) and kapha (cooling elements), which are related to the sattwic, rajasic and tamasic elements of the body, can be balanced and purified by the yogic techniques of which shankhaprakshalana is prime. This balances ida and pingala and purifies manipura chakra. It is stated that when manipura is purified and awakened the body becomes disease free, luminous and the yogi's consciousness does not fall back into the lower states.
For most yogic practitioners, until the higher stages are reached, shankhaprakshalana and the hatha yoga kriyas are the means to escape from the pain of diseases such as diabetes and indigestion, to reorder and stabilise the gunas and body elements for vitality and clarity of mind and to prepare for sadhana such as kriya yoga. Armed with shatkarma, we can face and recover from any onslaught in life, even a monsoon.