The Six Cleansing Kriyas: Though these ancient techniques may seem bizarre, they are a powerful way to detoxify and purify your body from the inside out.
When they first arrived in the West, yoga and its cherished asanas appeared quite strange -- and a bit shocking -- to many people. Stories proliferated of fakirs and turban-clad snake charmers who could bend their bodies into impossible pretzel positions before levitating or walking on coals and eating glass. A common Western response was "Why would anyone want to do those things?" These days, yoga has become a household word and its elegant asanas regularly grace the covers and pages of many magazines. Yet an integral part of hatha yoga practice that continues to hold shock value is the shat-kriyas, or six cleansing purifications for the body.
Thumbing through traditional hatha yoga books, most people cringe at the thought of yogis voluntarily pushing string down their nasal passages, swallowing cloth, or inducing vomiting. Pearce Gervis, an English writer who visited India in the '50s, reported that yogis used only red cloth for their swallowing kriya. He said that early visitors from London who witnessed these acts equated the red color with blood and "ignorantly imagined [that the yogis] were taking out their intestines and washing them to perform the act" only to swallow them back when they were finished! Unfortunately, this belief still persists today. While many people may still perceive these practices to be wild and crazy, these cleansing techniques hold practical value even for the modern yogi.
The shat-kriyas (literally, the six practices or rites) help us learn to become more intimate with our own body's internal processes. This intimacy goes beyond only muscle, bone, and joint to our breathing, blood chemistry, vital forces, internal organs, and subtle energies. Learning to care for and cleanse our respiratory and digestive systems is an important chapter in the "yoga owner's manual" for the body and can be a particularly useful aid in overcoming the squeamishness we feel about our own body's functions. When we learn to assist our body with its eliminatory processes, we can begin to facilitate the energy of wellness and self-healing. The six traditional kriyas are nauli, which is the churning or pumping of the stomach; neti, which is water or string cleansing of the nasal passages; vasti, or colon cleansing similar to an enema; tratakum, which is gazing at a candle flame or small object; kapalabhati, a breathing technique to cleanse and strengthen the lungs; and dhauti, or the cleansing of the stomach, teeth, throat, and rectum.
As a student and practitioner of yoga for many years, I have found these techniques to be natural and quite valuable. For instance, although we generally associate vomiting with upset stomach or illness, it can be a life-saving tool. Once while traveling in Europe, I became very sick after eating a bad meal. I had been camping and I recall lying down in my sleeping bag with an intense stomachache, high fever, and near delirium. Then I remembered kunjala, or "purification of the tiger," one of the dhauti cleansings of the stomach. I dragged myself outside, swallowed a few glasses of water, and proceeded to voluntarily empty the contents of my stomach onto the Swiss countryside. I was amazed at the results. Within minutes, the pain was gone. Soon afterwards I felt completely recovered and was back hiking in the mountains. I don't know how sick I would have become nor how long it would have taken my body to process the toxic meal through my entire digestive system. But I do know this technique worked almost immediately and has served me well many times in my travels. Another kriya that came in handy was hrid dhauti, or tongue cleansing. Since ancient times, yogis have taken a bent palm frond and scraped it over the tongue to remove attached coatings and food residues. Coupled with daily tooth brushing, hrid dhauti adds another level of freshness and cleanliness to the mouth.
Although we find many cleansing practices beyond the big six in hatha yoga texts, the following is an introduction to the main kriyas and an explanation of the techniques of each practice that may be useful for contemporary students of yoga.
Nauli is the churning or shaking of the belly. It stimulates peristalsis of the intestines, tones the liver, and aids digestion and elimination. Nauli helps keep the body's sewage system moving and provides quite an energy boost. Practice nauli on an empty stomach, preferably in the morning. Stand with feet hip-width apart. Bend slightly forward and press your hands against the upper part of the quadriceps (thigh muscles) of each leg. Exhale, emptying the lungs completely. Keeping the lungs empty, pull the stomach inward as far as possible. Then push the stomach out again. Continue doing these movements in succession, pumping or shaking the abdomen in and out 10 to 20 times without breathing. Inhale at the end. Rest a few moments and repeat two or three more times.
The churning action of nauli is much more difficult, and you may need a teacher to demonstrate it in order to get the hang of it. Basically, you will proceed the same as above, but this time hold the abdomen all the way in while trying to push the two central vertical columns out. Normally, the vertical muscles of the belly work in tandem. It takes some experimentation and practice to learn to isolate the central columns and push them outward while pulling the side columns inward. After this is mastered it is easy to learn to churn these muscles in a circular motion -- in, out, and around the abdominal cavity -- by shifting the weight slightly from one hand to the other. Nauli churning is unparalleled for toning the abdominal organs and the eliminative systems.
Neti is cleansing of the nasal passages and is done one of two ways: sutra, or string neti and jala, or water neti. Our nasal passages warm and cleanse the air, which prevents dust, pollen, and bacteria from entering our lungs, and they help to balance and absorb prana or life force. Water neti is quite easy to learn and works to tone, clear, and clean the nasal passages, building immunity to colds and allergens. Dissolve a level teaspoon of noniodized sea salt in a glass of lukewarm, nonchlorinated water. Tip the head back and, using a rubber syringe or traditional neti pot, gently fill one nostril with water. Then "cough" the water into the mouth and gently blow the air out both nostrils at once to remove the remaining water. Repeat on the other side. String neti is a more difficult procedure and should be learned from a teacher.
Vasti is colon cleansing. Similar to an enema, vasti is used to clean and evacuate the lower bowels. Traditionally, the yogi would use a thin, hollow bamboo tube inserted into the anus. He would then squat or hoist himself in a lotus position over water and perform nauli stomach churning. This produces a vacuum in the abdominal cavity that naturally draws water into the rectum which is subsequently pumped back out. Another traditional technique was to insert the tube and stand neck-deep in water. The pressures would equalize by forcing water into the colon. Luckily, it's not necessary to go to such extremes anymore, since you can achieve the same results using an enema bag. Many health teachers recommend an occasional enema (perhaps a few times each year or during fasting) to keep the colon clean. Fill an enema bag with lukewarm, nonchlorinated water. Lie on your back or left side. (The descending colon is on the left and you could cause your ascending colon to sag if you lie on your right.) Coat the enema tip with Vaseline or A&D Ointment and insert it into the rectum. Slowly allow the water to enter the colon. Remove the tip and gently pump the stomach in and out, or gently but deeply massage it. Then evacuate the colon. Repeat once if necessary. Some health professionals advise using a mild coffee solution (coffee diluted 50 percent with water) which intensifies the cleansing and detoxifying effects.
Variasar is purification of the conch. Just as water can be poured in one end of a conch shell and then, by twisting and rolling it around, made to pass out the other end, so can one learn to pass water through the entire alimentary canal. The yogi drinks several glasses of water and performs a short sequence of asanas that slowly move the water along through the digestive system until it is evacuated through the anus. After a few repetitions one is able to pass clear water through, indicating that for the first time in our lives, we are not "full of it." This kriya should not be performed without instruction from a competent teacher and never more than one to three times a year.
Tratakum is a practice of gazing at a candle flame. It increases concentration, tones and "cleanses" the eyes and emotions, while calming and relaxing one's whole being. Place a candle in front of you, just below eye level. A darkened room is best but not required. Sit with your spine erect and gaze steadily at the flame without blinking for about a minute. Then close your eyes, relax and visualize the flame for an equal amount of time. Repeat the procedure. Gradually increase the gazing period, over time, until the eyes begin to water before closing them. Practice for several minutes. If a candle is not available, use a small object or even a black dot.
Kapalabhati means to make the head or skull radiant. It is a breathing practice that cleans and tones the lungs and charges you with pranic energy. Sit in a comfortable posture with your spine straight and relaxed. Begin by taking a few diaphragmatic breaths. Move the diaphragm out when inhaling and contract it inward when exhaling. Then exhale with a forcible burst of air, followed by a normal but quick inhalation. The exhalation should be a quick, sharp burst without straining, wheezing, or tension in the throat. Inhalations should not be forced or strained. Keep a good rhythm going and keep your face relaxed. Do 25 to 50 pumpings, take one to three normal breaths, and then hold the breath in for 30 to 90 seconds without straining. This is one complete round. Do three to six rounds. Kapalabhati is relatively easy to learn, but beginners should consult a qualified instructor to ensure that they are performing it properly. This simplified technique is given here as an example of kapalabhati kriya.
Kunjala and Gaja Karani
Kunjala or gaja karani, means "purification of the elephant," because elephants draw water with their trunks and then spray it back out. This technique -- drinking and regurgitating water -- is done occasionally on an empty stomach to remove excess acid or undigested foods. It's also a helpful way to get over one's aversion to vomiting, so it can be used when necessary to eliminate a bad meal. When this act is done with a full stomach, it is called "the purification of the tiger," because tigers vomit shortly after meals to eliminate the food not easily digested. Yogis use the act to eliminate a toxic meal, which is preferable to processing it through one's system and risking illness, food poisoning, or even death. The practice should be done in the morning on an empty stomach. Drink three to six glasses of water. Practice a couple of rounds of nauli or shake the stomach in and out of few times to mix the water around. In a suitable location, stand erect but bent at the waist. Inhale and keep air in the lungs which will increase the abdominal pressure. Place two or three fingers down your throat to tickle the epiglottis until a strong vomiting effect is obtained and some stomach contents are emptied. Repeat a few times until your stomach is completely empty. If you have trouble stimulating the regurgitating response, dip your fingertips into some salt before tickling your throat. Rinse your mouth and throat when you're finished.
Hrid Dhauti and Danta Dhauti
Hrid dhauti is cleansing the tongue and danta dhauti is cleansing the teeth. Since ancient times, hatha yogis traditionally broke off small branches of the fibrous neem tree and used it as a brush to clean their teeth. The idea of cleansing the tongue, however, may be a more novel idea to many people. The tongue is like a thick, plush carpet that traps and holds food and bacteria. Several mail order firms sell stainless steel tongue scrapers. If these are not available, use a spoon or a toothbrush. A scraper, however, is far superior. The technique is a simple one: Gently scrape the tongue, removing plaque, coatings, and build up. Rinse your mouth when finished.
The yogic kriyas evolved in times before sanitary conditions, refrigeration, and clean food were as commonplace as they are today in many countries. Although they may have been more necessary back then, the kriyas remain useful and valuable techniques today. You may practice nauli, neti, hrid dhauti, tratakum, and kapalabhati on a regular basis; but reserve the other kriyas -- vasti, variasar, gaja karani, and kunjala -- for medicinal purposes or for preventative health reasons a couple of times a year. Follow a clean and healthful diet, and never use the kriyas as antidotes to overeating or bad dietary habits. If you have questions about the advisability of, or the techniques for, any of these practices, please consult a qualified teacher or an ayurvedic health professional.
Yoga Journal L.L.C.
By Ganga White