Shankhaprakshalana is one of the major hatha yoga practices, coming under the heading of dhauti kriya, it is also known as varisara dhauti. Dhauti refers to 'internal washing' and vari means 'water'. Generally the term shankhaprakshalana is applied, shankha meaning 'conch', because of its resemblance to the stomach and intestines; prakshalana meaning 'cleaning'.
Shankhaprakshalana is not just a practice concerning the stomach and intestines, but is a thorough cleansing technique. It creates a repair action which affects the lungs, nervous system, skin, sinus area, the whole body, continuing while the person follows the regime of special food and asanas. In this way we see the reduction of so many disease conditions, diabetes being the most notable, and a positive step in the direction of good health.
The benefit for the serious yogic practitioner is a lighter, more flexible, physical body. The various metabolic acids and chemical wastes causing stiffness, lethargy and heaviness such as lactic acid and uric acid are washed away. A clearer and more alert mind is experienced as with fasting, but without the irritating feeling of an empty stomach.
As intake of toxic substances must be curtailed, it is at this time that many people leave cigarettes, alcohol and other habits permanently. This is a time of revision where life changes direction, new food, new habits and the foundation for a positive fresh view of life are set.
Naturally when such dramatic changes occur within the system it is not advisable to perform shankhaprakshalana frequently. In the case of normal, healthy persons, once or twice a year around the change of season, is sufficient. This readjusts the body's temperature regulating mechanism (thermostat), ensuring a lower body temperature and sustained digestive capacity in the difficult summer and monsoon months. For those with diseases i.e. diabetes, asthma, mild constipation, it can be performed more frequently.
As can be readily observed, shankhaprakshalana is not a practice to be performed without skilled guidance. An undisturbed ashram environment with an expert guide on hand brings about confidence in the participant. After all, it is a new and wondrous experience.
Shankhaprakshalana is not just a practice which takes 3-4 hours on the weekly day off. It is actually a complete physiological overhaul. It begins from the night before the practice, when a light meal is eaten. The next morning, bath should be taken early, as no bathing is permitted during or after shankhaprakshalana, even on the hottest day.
After completing the flushing of the intestines, kunjal kriya and neti kriya should be performed, followed by a compulsory 30-45 minute rest. However sleep must be resisted, in order to avoid complete cessation of intestinal activity. After rest a liquid type khichari of rice, mung dal and a little haldi (tumeric) is taken, along with 2-3 teaspoons of ghee (clarified butter). A sufficient quantity, generally two or three full plates of khichari and ghee must be taken to reline the intestinal walls and reactivate gastric motility.
Khichari may be eaten again when hunger is felt, and a good amount of water should be consumed during that afternoon 3-4 hours after the initial intake.
No other food, drink, sweets, etc. are permitted in any form.
During that day there should not be any movement which creates excitement, tension or change of temperature as the body is in a sensitive state and vulnerable to cough, cold or fever. Sitting in the sun, strenuous walking, bathing, sports, cinema, outings, marital relationships, work, sitting under a fan or in an air conditioned room must be avoided as again change in body temperature or excessive physiological activity will be overtaxing. Resting quietly is the best procedure. No yoga asanas should be practised for 2 days, until the tissues and processes have completely recovered.
Following the practice, when the mind and body are in a pure and tranquillised condition, there is a great opportunity to practise mouna, likhit japa or study of spiritual books. This gives the practitioner a chance to 'come back to earth' again.
If headache or vomiting sensation is felt in the afternoon, kunjal or neti kriya, followed by rest in shavasana gives correct benefit. Medicines of any type are to be avoided for at least a few days.
From the following day after shankhaprakshalana a modified preferably salt less diet consisting of khichari, dal, boiled subjee (vegetables), roti, dahlia, rice and some haldi is taken. All dairy products including milk, cheese and dahi (curd) are prohibited and sweets, fruits, tea, coffee, processed and refined foods, sour, bitter, pungent and spicy foods, chilli, egg, onion, garlic, potatoes and any other underground vegetable, tomatoes and eggplant are also restricted. Other items such as alcohol, meat, khanni and tobacco are prohibited for another two weeks.
If the correct diet is strictly followed, the full effect of shankhaprakshalana is then felt during this next two week period. Any alteration in adherence to the rules generally causes a disturbance, if not immediately, then at a later date. This is because during this important period, the intestines are in a sensitive condition as they are recreating the correct internal medium, the correct acid/alkaline balance. As well, the protective cellular lining on the intestinal wall, which has been removed, must be fully restored and a suitable bacterial flora re-established. Following the initial two week period, normal diet may be resumed.
Naturally, with such an effective and powerful practice, as with all kriyas, there are limitations as to who is fit to practise. Obviously, sufferers from ulcers, heart disease, blood pressure high or low, epilepsy or kidney failure are not permitted to do shankhaprakshalana except under medical supervision, although a shortened form of the practice, laghoo shankhaprakshalana may sometimes be prescribed. In general the practice is contraindicated during fever. A clear sunny day must also be chosen and during the monsoon season, practice is restricted to only very fine days. Otherwise there is the likelihood of cough, cold or fever due to sudden temperature changes.
Although there are many restrictions, rules and regulations, shankhaprakshalana is a practice which is certainly worth undertaking. Initially there seems to be much involved. However, when the proper preparations are made and there is a relaxed atmosphere and correct guidance during the practice, the whole process is carried out as easily and simply as performing the routine daily asana practice.