Yogic Text: Gheranda Samhita
The Gheranda Samhita highlights the systematic manner in which we purify the body and mind, starting with the cleansing practices known as Shatkarmas and ending with Meditation itself. Without purity and strength in the body system, one can find it difficult to concentrate on any object – whether it be internal or external. As the Buddha says – the first prerequisite for meditation is after all, a healthy body.
1.8 Like an unbaked earthen pot thrown in water, the body soon decays in this world. Bake it hard in the fire of training in order to strengthen and purify the body.
1.9 The seven exercises which pertain to this training of the body are as follows: — Purifying (Shatkarmas), Strengthening (Asana), Steadying (Mudra), Calming (Pratyahara), and those leading to lightness and heightened perception (Pranayama & Dhyana).
Hatha Yoga Pradipika
2.23 – These shatkarma which effect purification of the body are secret. They have manifold, wondrous results and are held in high esteem by eminent yogis.
2.36 – By the 6 karmas (shatkarmas) one is freed from excess of the doshas.
In both Yoga & Ayurveda, agni is of central importance. The agni represents the digestive fire – the ability to transform, transmutate, absorb and assimilate the necessary pranic energy from food, and for our purposes to use that energy towards worldly and spiritual pursuits. In fact, the strength of agni in the body is among the most critical factors in determining overall health. In Ayurveda, the toxins in our body accumulate as ama – a disease causing substance that forms as a result of impaired agni, and that, in turn, destroys agni. In this way, impaired agni and the creation of ama routinely enter into a vicious and self-perpetuating cycle. The accumulation of ama can lead to all kinds of imbalances and is a causative factor in any number of diseases. As a result, understanding ama as the antithesis of agni—learning what it is exactly, how to recognize it, how to rid the body of it, and how to kindle agni in its place—can be a very helpful step in the journey toward optimal health.
Ama accumulates in gross and subtle ways in the entire length of our digestive tract, vessels, our joints, our organs, and in the nadis of our pranic system. Ama is a Sanskrit word that translates literally to mean “unripe,” “uncooked,” “raw,” “immature,” or “undigested.” Essentially, it is a form of un-metabolized waste that cannot be utilized by the body. To some degree, the formation of small amounts of ama is a normal part of the digestive process, provided it is efficiently removed. But when it is not regularly cleared and eliminated, ama becomes hugely problematic. In fact, ama is said to be the root cause of all disease.
As ama accumulates in the body, it inevitably clogs the channels of the body (srotamsi) and disrupts tissue nutrition. This alone is problematic, but ama can disturb physiological processes at the cellular level as well. When ama finds it’s way into the deeper tissues, it coats and clogs individual cell membranes—inhibiting cellular communication and weakening the immune response. This eventually leads to a loss of intelligence at the cellular level, which can cause much more serious diseases such as autoimmune disorders, or cancer.
To properly maintain a healthy balance of agni in the system, and conversely remove toxic ama from the body, the Yogis recognized the importance of cleansing practices that create a luminous body with clear channels. These they called the shatkarmas or the 6 actions of cleansing.
Shatkarmas: Six Cleansing Techniques
These cleansing methods help in cleansing the body, removing toxins, improving concentration and keeping the body healthy. Also, they improve the flow of prana into the organs and the nadis.
A series of cleansing techniques that are used for internal cleansing, head cleansing and thoracic cleansing, as well as balancing the doshas. There are many dhauti practices, but the two are of current importance are related to our digestive tract:
- Varisara/Shankhaprakshalana and Lagoo Shankhaprakshalana
- Vahnisara/Agnisara kriya
A method to strengthen the anus and rectum, either with water or done through the contraction of the sphincter muscles. Removes excess wind (Apana Vayu) from the system. Ashwini mudra is an example.
Cleanses and purifies the nasal passages and destroys phlegm and sinus related disorders and bestows clairvoyance The practices include: Jal (water) neti and Sutra (thread) neti.
A method of massaging and stimulating the abdominal organs. It kindles digestive fire, removes all sluggishness from digestion and all disorders of the dosas, and brings happiness.
Intense gazing at a point which cleanses the eyes, removes fatigue and improves concentration.
A purifying breathing technique for the heart, lungs and frontal brain region. It removes disorders related to excess mucous.
Further Elucidation of Shankhaprakshalana/Varisara Dhauti
Shankhaprakshalana is one of the most effective ways to reset the ama and agni relationship in the body. ‘Shanka’ means conch and ‘prakshalana’ means cleaning out. The ancient Yogis saw their digestive system as a conch, a long spiral tunnel through which food travelled. To clean out the whole digestive system from mouth to anus, they devised a self administered method of salt water cleansing. The traditional name used for this practice is varisara dhauti. In Sanskrit, “vari” means “water”, “sara” refers to “essence”, and “dhauti” means “cleansing”.
There are two versions of Shankaprakshalana, short (or Laghu) Shankaprakshalana and Full (or Purna) Shankaprakshalana. The major purpose of shankhaprakshalana is to fully clean the entire ~15 feet of intestines and accumulated ama that is stuck from many days, weeks, years or one’s whole lifetime!
Varisara Dhauti also serves as a vital part of an ayurvedic technique known as Kaya Kalpa, a well known process that helps to enhance the longevity of the body by. “Kaya” means body and “kalpa” is a term for transformation. Therefore, shankhaprakshalana is more than a purification technique. It is a holistic approach to eliminate impurities promoting physical and mental health – and a necessary preparation for further yogic studies and practices.
The procedure is done with a kichari diet before and after the cleanse. Maintaining a vegetarian diet during shankhaprakshalana is a must, as is avoidance of external disturbances on the day of the cleanse such as work, phone, and excessive sense gratification. One should see it as a deep cleaning for mind, spirit and body.
Shankaprakshalana purifies the whole body not just the gastro-intestinal tract. There is no medicine or method (apart from a prolonged fast) that can clean the small and large intestines so thoroughly as this practice. Saline irrigation removes partial and blocked matter in the gastro-intestinal tract and reestablishes natural and regular bowel function. It is therefore highly recommended for those with chronic constipation, gas, acidity, indigestion and other digestive ailments. It is beneficial for the kidneys and urinary systems, preventing infection and kidney stones. Whereas the long version can help initiate elimination of many ailments in a short time.
Many diseases are directly or indirectly caused by accumulation of toxic waste matter in the intestines. This practice expels all impurities from the digestive tract and thereby helps to purify the blood system. This can result in a noticeable improvement in general health as well as helping to remove specific ailments. In particular, it has been found useful for the treatment of diabetes, hyperacidity, constipation, dysentery and many other ailments connected with impure blood such as bad complexion and excessive occurrence of boils and pimples. It can assist in removal of: excess stomach gases, chronic flatulence, pre-menstrual cramps, irregular menstruation, asthma, excess digestive and respiratory mucus, gall stones and kidney stones can be removed and prevented.
Healthy people can also do the practice, for they can improve their health, making them feel lighter, more cheerful and exhilarated with life, and makes the mind sharper. This is also a very important practice for those people who intend to perform intensive yogic techniques for higher awareness. Shankaprakshalana, by purifying the body, helps greatly to make the mind and body more receptive to higher vibrations.
The Procedure: Lemon Salt Water & Asanas
After having two glasses of water before each round of the asanas, the water moves from the stomach, small intestine, to the large intestine. This leads to the eventual removal of toxins and water from the anus. In this way the combination of lemon salt water and asanas targeted towards the digestive tract:
1. Promotes peristalsis
In this shankha prakshalana, the gastrointestinal tract all the way from mouth to anus is washed. It catalyzes the further movement of foodstuff, thereby promoting peristalsis. This leads to enhanced bowel movement.
2. Decreases cholesterol level via bile removal
Due to peristalsis, the chyme from the stomach reaches the small intestine. As it enters the duodenum, it combines with bile juice. As the bowel movement has been enhanced, the mixture is removed easily. This reduces the concentration of bile. Cholesterol acts as major component in bile secretion. Therefore, cholesterol is consumed more often to produce bile and leads to reduced cholesterol level.
3. Increased hemoglobin
Mucus acts a barrier in the absorption of ferrous ion. It reduces the concentration of iron in the body and acts as ferritin curtain. However, shankhaprakshalana eliminates mucus and increases the absorption of ferrous ion. It maintains the iron concentration in the body, thereby increasing the hemoglobin level.
4. Prompts parasympathetic dominance
The clearance of gastrointestinal tract renews and rejuvenates the internal organs. This leads to hormonal balance to maintain homeostasis. This hormonal balance leads to a calm state of mind, inducing parasympathetic dominance. The internal cleansing brings improvement in physical health. It creates an environment for better mental health, thereby providing soothing effects on psychophysiological terms.
- High blood pressure or any heart disease.
- Weak kidneys
- Avoid during Menstrual Cycle
- Do not practice shankhaprakshalana during pregnancy.
- If you have a gastrointestinal ulcer, this practice must be avoided.
- If you have had a recent surgery.