“If I had known what was really involved in the cleansing, I’m not sure I would be here right now.”
It was the first night of yoga teacher training, and I was surrounded by strangers who would soon become my friends; I wasn’t the only one with reservations about experiencing shatkarma. Sure, I knew there would be cleansing techniques involved in my training, but I didn’t think it stretched beyond the neti pot, something that already worried me. For many reasons, I didn’t do the research ahead of time, so I was thrown for a loop once I discovered what we would be doing.
That night, I headed to bed, nervous about the following day. Here I was alone in India, my friends and family a fourteen hour plane ride away and ten and a half hours behind in the time difference, and I was about to embark on this crazy journey. I had no idea what to expect, but as my friend, Rachel, said, “Embrace it all.” What other choice did I have? She was right, I made the decision to come to India for yoga teacher training, so it was only right to embrace each and every step.
According to our book Asana Pranayama Muda Banda by Swami Satyananda Saraswati, “Shatkarmas are practices to promote the health of yoga practitioners and to awaken and direct the energies in the body, mind, and deeper psyche.” With a promise like that, how could I not at least give it a try?
The first of these was Jala Neti, which we began from day one of our training and continued every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 6am for the month-long course. This is not an uncommon practice in The United States, but we tend to use it the entirely wrong way…go figure. Jala Neti is all about cleansing and purifying the nasal passages by using a neti pot, we were gifted a plastic one on the evening of our opening ceremony. The benefit of the Jala Neti is to remove mucus and pollution from the sinuses and prevent respiratory tract diseases. It is also said to relieve anxiety, anger, and depression, while introducing a state of harmony and balance by awakening the third-eye. With all of these benefits, I was ready to give it a try, especially as someone who has issues with her sinuses and often experiences anxiety.
Our mistake in the West is that we use the neti pot when we are already sick and congested, but we were advised never to use it then and only to use it when the nasal passages were clear and unblocked. Every other morning, we would fill up our neti pots with warm saline water and crouch in the field near school, occasionally next to a monkey or cow, and wash out our nostrils. This was never something that was easy for me, but I will say that my sinuses have never felt better while doing this.
If I had to pick my least favorite cleansing, it would have to be this one. Just like when people put a piece of spaghetti up their nose and pull it out through their mouth, that is what Sutra Neti is all about. I couldn’t even watch my instructor perform it without feeling like I was going to throw up. On the night of our opening ceremony, along with our neti pot, we were given a rubber neti, a long string-like object made of rubber, that starting week three, we’d be inserting up our noses.
While the benefits are the same as jala neti, this can help with a deviated septum and removing any blockages that are inside the nasal passages. Several of the yoga students were able to get the neti up their noses and out of their mouths, but I couldn’t make it happen. Part of it may have been fear, but as someone who has had issues with her sinuses, I wasn’t fully confident in the practice. I tried each of the days we were supposed to, but I was unsuccessful, and that was more than okay by me.
This one is a mouthful and to be honest, I was dreading it. Maybe it’s silly, but my whole goal in India was not to have diarrhea, and with Shankhaprakshalana I was cleaning out my digestive system and unfortunately, diarrhea was a part of the process. That being said, this is a cleansing I would do again without question because afterwards I felt so good. This cleansing was much more involved than the others and our preparation began the night before with a light meal, and we were up early on our first Saturday for the practice.
We gathered upstairs in the yoga room nervous about what was to come. Nothing says bonding like joining together in a digestive tract cleansing, let me tell you. To start, we drank two glasses of warm, salty water, and then performed five asanas (yoga postures) eight times in a particular sequence. These asanas were in place to help the water make its way through our digestive tract. Then, we needed to drink two more classes and perform the same asanas. This was continued, but when we felt the urge to use the bathroom, we could run down, use the facilities in our room (never have I ever been more grateful for a private bathroom), and then we were supposed to return upstairs and continue with the process. Although after using the bathroom the first time, the water tends to make its way through the system quite quickly, resulting in a lot of running up and down stairs. The end goal is to have clear water evacuated, which happens after about twelve glasses for the average person.
After this has happened, rest is necessary and we retreated to our rooms for about an hour to lay in Savasana with our bodies covered. Then, we all gathered downstairs for a light lunch of khichari, a mixture of spices, dal, and rice. For the rest of the day rest is key.
We were lucky because we had the opportunity to complete our cleansing at the most ideal time of year, the changing of the seasons. Shankhaprakshalana has many benefits such as reducing mucus, purifying the blood, helping with digestive problems, and toning the liver. It also removes any energy blockages. While I didn’t believe it at first, I really saw and felt a difference with this cleansing, enough to believe in it and want to experience it again.
This was another cleansing I was dreading and while it wasn’t as bad as I anticipated, I would prefer to never do it again. Early in the morning, towards the end of our training, we gathered outside and were given our instructions. They were to drink six glasses of saline water as quickly as possible until the stomach couldn’t take anymore or until we felt the need to throw up. Then, we ran one by one to the grassy patch near school and threw up our water. The key was to get it all out so as not to repeat Shankhaprakshalana, although this happened to several of us anyway.
The idea is to remove mucus, which helps the respiratory functions, as well as to stimulate and tone the abdominal organs. It can also relieve emotional blocks. While I felt great afterwards, throwing up salty water is really something I’d prefer never to do again.
What I learned from experiencing shatkarma in India is that everything is not always what it appears to be. This was something that terrified me, but why? For me, yoga teacher training was really about doing what Rachel said and embracing it all. I went to India to participate in something I may never have had the chance to do otherwise. These shatkarmas date all the way back to the Yoga Upanishads, and they are in place to purify the body, create harmony between the prana (energy), and help those who practice them attain physical and mental purification.
I wanted to learn everything I could about Hatha yoga while I was in India, so I put full trust and confidence in my yoga school and teachers. The result was even better than I could have imagined, and I am so glad I decided to let go of my doubts and fears to fully experience all that yoga encompasses.
Had I participated in yoga teacher training elsewhere in the world, I doubt I would have been able to have my shatkarma experiences, and I don’t think I would have transformed the way I did without them. I probably wouldn’t have become a vegetarian or gained such a respect for what my body is capable of doing. Shatkarma is there to purify the body of toxins and keep the body healthy by balancing the doshas. I left Rishikesh feeling more balanced and open than I have in a very long time, proof that what I did during my month in India, clearly produced a change within me.
These shatkarmas are not to be attempted without the guidance of a guru or someone who has been trained by a guru.