The principle of cleansing is one of the central tenants of yoga; it is well resourced with techniques to facilitate this on many levels. Essentially, cleansing is aimed at the heart/mind and the different techniques used can be viewed as means to this end.
It therefore follows that the means should be applied according to what will take a particular person most effectively towards that aim. The nature of any journey depends on where you set off from. Many of the practices work on an archetypal/ritual level as well as on the more obvious level on which they manifest.
Cleansing is an attempt to lighten the mind and cleanse it from its habits and compulsions or, more accurately, from its attachment to them. It is an attempt to purify the mind from the conditioned drives (samskaras) that run through it in the form of body, emotional and breathe memories.
Its primary technique is described by Patanjali, “Practice and non-reaction are required to still the patterning of consciousness”.
The Buddha makes the same point in another way when he says, “nothing in all the world is left apart or kept aside from the heart emitting loving kindness.”
These aphorisms both point to the need for attention and openness/relaxation together. Attention is required as areas that are left unaware are not, as we might presume, left empty but instead left under the sway of these unconscious compulsions, habits, tendencies. Exposure through awareness alone can leave one subject to becoming entangled in the objects of awareness and reacting even more strongly to them through aversion or attachment.
This principle is expressed also through the Sanskrit words “Sthira Sukham”, or attention that is easy, spacious-attention. These compulsions can inhibit our ability to discern and blind us to the true nature of consciousness which otherwise “takes itself to be the patterning of consciousness” – that is, “knowing”, “seeing”, “illuminating”.
In one of its early forms, Hatha yoga consisted of six types of cleansing practice, the Shatkarmas. For reasons cited above, many of these practices will be wholly unnecessary and can even be detrimental to one’s health if practiced under the wrong conditions and without proper instruction. The following list, therefore, is an introduction to this group of practices, followed by a section on recommended practices suitable for most practitioners, with suggested modern variations/alternatives.
The six practices are:
Dhauti - An important yogic system of auto cleansing.
Antar ( internal) Dhauti - Which further divides into:
Vatsara Dhauti: expelling air through anus.
Varisara Dhauti: evacuating a large quantity of water through the bowels, known also as Shankhaprakshalana.
Vahnisara Dhauti: rapid expanse/contraction of the abdomen, which is performed by breathing in slowly through the mouth in Kaki mudra and then swallowing the air into the stomach while expanding the abdomen. This is very similar to Plava pranayama.
Bahiskrita Dhauti: washing the rectum in the hands.
Hrida (cardiac) Dhauti - It has three kinds of practices:
Danda Dhauti: inserting soft banana stem in the stomach.
Vastra Dhauti: swallowing a long thin strip of cloth.
Vaman Dhauti: regurgirating the contents of the stomach.
Danta Dhauti - Cleaning the teeth with a special stick, usually of neem or bamboo. There are several other forms of Dhauti too, such as ear cleansing and eye cleansing: if it exists, the system seems to have found a way to clean it!
Basti - This yoga practice of colon cleansing has two parts:
Jala (water) basti: water is sucked in through the large intestine through the anus and expelled.
Sthal (dry) basti: air is sucked in in this case.
Neti - This yogic nasal irrigation technique has four variations:
Jala (water) Neti: passing warm saline water through the nose.
Sutra (thread) Neti: passing a soft thread through the nose.
Ghrita (ghee) Neti: passing clarified butter through the nose.
Dugdha (milk) Neti: passing of milk through the nose.
Tratak - A yoga exercise for the eyes, it involves steady and continuous gazing at a point of concentration. It is further subdivided into; Antar (internal) Trataka, and Bahir (external) Tratak.
Nauli - An abdominal cleansing technique which serves to massage the internal organs of the body. In this the abdominal muscles are isolated and churned. It has three parts:
Madhyama Nauli: middle.
Dakshin Nauli: when muscles are isolated to the right.
Vama Nauli: left.
Nauli kriya: the circular movement of the central muscles of the abdomen.
Kapalabhati - This mind detoxification technique of yoga has three components:
Vatkrama Kapalbhati: similar to Bhastrika pranayama.
Vyutkrama Kapalbhati: sucking water in through the nose and expelling it through the mouth.
Sheetkrama Kapalbhati: the reverse of vyutkrama. The word “sheet” means “cool” or “passive”. In this practice, you take a mouthful of warm salty water, and expel it through the nose.
As the classical version (described below) will often need quite particular conditions – a quiet safe restful space, guidance and support from an experienced practitioner – an intelligent alternative to Varisara Dhauti may be best conducted with the assistance of a trained therapist; this is referred to as hydro-therapy and colonic irrigation. A 45-minute session of colonic hydrotherapy will use 15 gallons of water to gently flush the colon. Massage and pressure points are used so that the colon therapist is able to work loose and eliminate far more toxic waste.
Enemas are useful for emptying the rectum (the lowest 8 to 12 inches of the colon). Usually, one or two pints of water are used to do that, and these can be done for oneself.
In the yogic practice, Varisara Dhauti also known as Shankhaprakshalana, in which you drink a total of 16 glasses of warm salty water and evacuate it through the bowels. The practice begins with drinking two glasses then performing a series of five specific asanas: Tadasana, Tiryaka tadasana, Kati chakrasana, Tiryaka bhujangasana and Udarakarshanasana. After every two glasses, the asanas should be performed until the water starts flowing out of the anus, which is experienced as an ordinary (if not a little urgent) need to evacuate the bowels. Once clear water starts coming through, you will know that the stomach and intestines are perfectly clean and you can stop the practice. One should conduct Shankhaprakshalana with proper guidance and support.
Laxatives can also be used for colon cleansing, but should not be undertaken without consultation from a responsible trained consultant. Herbal laxatives are formulated for various purposes, such as: to undo the effects of temporary constipation or to build up the tone of the colon muscle. Triphala, formulated by Ayurvedic physicians, is considered the most effective and safest laxative and colon tonic by most ayuvedic practitioners. Triphala is mild, non-habit forming, and a rejuvenative. Triphala is considered a “tridoshic rasayan”, balancing and rejuvenating the three constitutional elements that govern human life: vata, which regulates the nervous system; pitta, which maintains metabollic processes; and Kapha, which supports structural integrity.
Vatsara Dhauti (Expelling air through anus) can be aided through certain asanas. Pavana muktasana is known to assist in the evacuation of built up gas. Long stays in inverted standings such as prasarita padottanasana, uttanasana can also help.
Bahiskrita Dhauti (washing the rectum in the hands), in its ‘full on’ guise, is extreme involving, pushing forth the rectum whilst standing waist deep in water and cleansing it in the hands. While the principle of cleansing works to support the spiritual life, this practise seems a little excessive for people with less time on their hands. The principle, however, is good and keeping the anus clean can be achieved simply with the use of water cleansers. Most toilets in the world have some sort of device to clean the anus from the bucket: pots found throughout Asia and Africa; squirting hose jets in parts of the middle east; the European bidet. For deeper cleansing, an enema can be used as already mentioned above.
Danta Dhauti. Teeth cleaning is a practice that we take as second nature nowadays but may have its roots in the yoga tradition. It is possible to purchase tongue scrappers but one should be mindful not to be to rough and not to purchase any that might be to abrasive. Tooth picks are also recommended.
Ear cleansing After a shower or bath, place tissue onto middle finger, insert into ear and gently cleanse the external ear. It is not recommended to use anything smaller than the middle finger, such as a cotton bud, to cleanse the ear with.
A regular practice of cleansing ritual is likely to lead to the question of intake, what is it that we are cleansing? And if we are working so hard to cleanse the system from these “impurities” is it not worth looking at how they come in the first place?
Impurities are taken in through;
Excessive stress (chronic sympathetic dominance)
Over-busy lives where there are excessive swings between manic work schedules and total energy crashes.
Over stimulation through the constant movement on the roads and skies of high speed and noisy traffic.
Over stimulation through advertising, and popular media themes.
Social structure that isolates individuals by stressing a sense of common values and encouraging a sense of competition.
Processed foods, chemicals that have no nutritional benefit used to colour, flavour and preserve
Foods that themselves have produced the toxins associated with chronic stress and acute distress (the meat industry as it exists today is an obvious example).
Chemically stimulated growth, plants that are grown using chemicals and pesticides, on essentially poor-quality soil.
Excess/over eating certain food types that are themselves not harmful except in excess or without balance from other food types.
Environmental pollution. Industry and travel-produced toxic waste taken in through skin, respiration and ingestion, through soil and water contamination.
Social coping mechanisms. The compulsive use of drugs (cigarettes and caffeine included) and alcohol, and popular mass media to distract and suppress autonomous thoughts that are not allied with the group ideals alluded to above.
Outmoded views and opinions. In other words, views and opinions that give rise to ill-will, greed or ignorance. The yogi cleanses (surrenders) all views in the fire of discernment, relaxed attention.