Hatha Yoga and Shat Karmas: Benefits, Precautions

Article by Dr Raghuram Y.S. MD (Ay) & Dr Manasa, B.A.M.S
Hatha Yoga is a branch of Yoga which aims at physical fitness and fortification. Hatha Yoga prepares the physical body of the doer to practice Raja Yoga, the part of Yoga meant for comprehensive mental health and also to know and discover the best part of oneself. 

In other words, Hatha Yoga prepares us to take up the Aadhyatmika Marga or the philosophical and devotional way of life which terminates with unification of lesser soul (our soul, which is a part of the major soul of the universe or God) with the greater soul (the soul outside us, of which we are all a part and ultimately we all unify in it), the unification of microcosm (within us) and macrocosm (outside us), the unification of Jeevatma (the soul within our body) and Paramatma (the divine soul outside us).

Benefits of Hatha Yoga
Below mentioned are the benefits of Hatha Yoga –

  • It is a shareera dharana pradhana paddati – Method of procuring and achieving a healthy and fit body
  • Makes the body balanced, organized, fit, stable, strong, energetic, immune and disease-free
  • Hatha Yoga provides the body with good exercise in an organized way so as to trim and make the body fit and chiseled. Thus Hatha Yoga is a comprehensive fitness program.
  • Prepares the body to practice and perform Raja Yoga, the Yoga for attaining mental stability and health and ultimate happiness and bliss
  • Prepares one for undergoing transformation to take a philosophical way of living, which will be provided by the practice of Raja Yoga following perfection in Hatha Yoga
  • Read related: Chakra – Kundalini: Introduction, Meaning, Types, Location, Ayurveda View

Meaning of Hatha Yoga
The term Hatha is split into ‘Ha’ and ‘Tha’.
Ha – Surya or Sun
Tha – Chandra or Moon

Hatha Yoga means unifying Ha and Tha i.e. unifying 2 energies i.e. Sun and Moon energy and trying to get a balance between them.

Here Surya means Prana Vayu which is located in the head or upper part of the body and Chandra means Apana Vayu which is located in the lower part of the body. The Yoga in which we try to obstruct Prana and Apana Vayus at their places through Pranayama (controlling the breathing phenomenon) is called Hatha Yoga.

According to a treatise named Hatha Yoga Pradeepika – ‘That source which helps in suddenly opening the doors of Moksha – salvation is called Hatha Yoga’. This means that Hatha Yoga helps in attaining Moksha, which is the ultimate goal of our life and incarnation.

Hatha Yoga and Shat Karma
‘Those Shat Karmas which effect purification of the body are ultimate secrets and mysteries. They have multi-fold wondrous results. They are held in very high esteem by eminent Yogis.’ – Ref – Hatha Yoga Pradipika 2:23

Hatha Yoga advocates Shat Karmas for Aantarika Shuddhi – internal cleansing and purification of body. Shat Karma means Six procedures (Shat = six, Karma = procedures). The procedures mentioned in Shat Karmas cleanse the body, stimulates the activities and establishes good and wholesome qualities in the body.

Yoga, as a higher science gives utmost importance to cleansing processes which are perquisites for performing any asana or pranayama or to practice any Yoga methods. Shat Karmas help in thorough cleansing, purification and detoxification of the body. Without proper purification of the body, one cannot gain maximum benefit from Yoga practices. Without undergoing one or more of the Shat Karmas, one will not be ready to undergo higher practices of Yoga.

Shat Karmas should exclusively be done in those who have excessive (vitiated or morbid) kapha and or meda (fat). Shat Karmas are not necessary for healthy people or for those who have equilibrium of doshas and dhatus (tissues) in the body.

Shat Karmas
Body cleansing is comprehensively brought about by regular practice of Shat Karmas or 6 cleansing techniques mentioned in Hatha Yoga. They are important from physical and mental health point of view. These techniques are also valuable in healing and treating many psycho-somatic ailments and internal disorders. They are also preparatory steps towards higher practices of Pranayama and meditation.

Shat Karmas include –
Nauli or Nouli
Abdominal movements (churning or pumping movements of the stomach) which bring about thorough massage of the abdominal muscles and abdominal visceral organs, makes them structurally and functionally fit and healthy.

Nauli can also be defined as churning or shaking of belly. It stimulates peristalsis of the intestines, tones the liver and aids digestion and elimination. It keeps the body’s sewage system moving and boosts our energy levels. It is generally practiced on empty stomach. The abdominal muscles are churned to the left and right repeatedly. Clockwise and anti-clockwise movements of the abdominal muscles also constitute Nauli. This tones up the abdominal muscles, organs of abdomen and removes digestive disorders. The process involves isolating the abs muscle (Rectus abdominis) on both sides of the abdomen and then using it to move and churn the internal organs. It has 4 variants i.e. Vama Nauli (using left abs muscles), Dakshina Nauli (right abs muscles are used), Madhya Nauli (both abs muscles are used) and Churning of abs muscles (clockwise and anti-clockwise rotation of muscles)

Dhauti or Dhouti
Cleansing of digestive tract, mainly stomach is called Dhauti. This is mainly achieved by administration of emesis or vomiting. It is done on empty stomach early in the morning. The practitioner is made to drink about 1 – 1.5 liters of warm saline water and vomit the same, by stimulating the root of the tongue while bending forwards.

In its variant called Vastra Dhauti, a 30 feet long cotton cloth dipped in saline water is made to swallow slowly and cautiously. Later it is pulled out slowly thereby cleaning the stomach and food pipe.

Dhauti also includes cleansing of teeth, throat and rectum.

Vasti
This is a method of colon cleansing by administration of water or air into the intestines, through method of suction or enema.

In this, the water or air is drawn into the colon by contracting the abdominal muscles. A rubber tube or catheter can also be used. The water or air is made to circulate throughout the intestine by providing churning movement to the abdominal muscles. Later the water or air is thrown out of the intestine. Alternatively the enema apparatus can be used to provide Vasti.

Neti
Nasal cleansing is called Neti, this includes Jala Neti (cleansing with the help of water) and Sutra Neti (cleansing with the help of a sterile cloth or thread or string). Nasal cleansing is done using Neti Pot with a long spout. Warm salt water filled in the pot is let into the nostrils by inserting the spout into the nose. The water let into the left nostril is made to come out through the right nostril. The same procedure is done on the right side. The water let into the right nostril is made to come out through left nostril.

Neti is a good remedy for –

  • Cleansing nasal cavity and sinuses
  • Allergies
  • Sinusitis
  • Headaches
  • Migraine

Neti done with the help of rubber tube is called Sutra Neti.

Kapalabhati
Purification of the head and brain is called Kapalabhati. Kapalabhati actually means to make the head or skull radiant. It is also said to be a breathing technique to cleanse and strengthen the lungs and charge you with Pranic energy. It is also said to be a variant of Pranayama. It is a method of powerful cleansing in which the air is expelled forcibly from the lungs. In Kapalabhati the inspiration is normal but exhalation is forcefully done. It is said to cure many diseases.

Trataka
Gazing at a material, marked point or flame of a candle without blinking the eyes is called Trataka. Trataka helps in development of concentration and removes mental disturbances. Practice of Trataka regularly helps in improving the eyesight and gives steadiness of mind.

To sum up
Each of the Shat Karmas has subtypes (which I will discuss while discussing individual Karmas in future blogs).

Shat Karmas are excellent practices or procedures designed to purify the whole body and establish optimum health. These procedures though are oriented for physical cleansing and physical purification, they also bring about mental health. Thus Shat Karmas are good for both body and mind.

Though Hatha Yoga has broadly classified these cleansing procedures under 6 headings and called them Shat Karmas, Gheranda Samhita and Hatha Yoga Samhita treatises enumerate as many as 21 cleansing practices, albeit under 6 broad headings. The Shat Karma Sangraha treatise describes about 46 processes including Vamana, Virechana, Gandusha, Raktasrava and Udgara.

Benefits of Shat Karmas

  • Shat Karmas bring about thorough cleansing of the body (and mind). Cleansing of the body will enable free flow of energy and nutrients in the body so as to keep the body functions running smoothly and uninterruptedly.
  • Shat Karmas make the body strong, fit, disease free and immune
  • They are powerful practices which correct the imbalances of the doshas in the body and thus aid in proper functioning of the system
  • Shat Karmas purify the body viscera, like Dhauti cleanses the stomach, Vasti purifies the colon, Neti purifies the nose and respiratory passages etc
  • Shat Karmas enhance one’s capacity to work, think, digest, taste, feel, experience etc and develops awareness
  • They help in improving concentration and enable flow of Prana into the organs and the Pranic meridians or Nadis.
  • Shat Karmas (and Hatha Yoga) aims at creating harmony between the two major Pranic flows, ida and pingala, thereby helping in attaining physical and mental purification and balance.
  • Shat Karmas prepare the body and mind for Raja Yoga
  • Bestows the other benefits mentioned in ‘benefits of Hatha Yoga’ since Shat Karmas are part of Hatha Yoga

Precautions to be taken before taking Shat Karma practice or training

  • The techniques and procedures mentioned in Shat Karmas should not be practiced alone. They should be practiced only after seeking advice from doctor or expert Yoga teacher who is well versed in these procedures. They need to be done under supervision.
  • The water used in these practices should be clean and sterile. The water may be boiled or subjected to ultraviolet filtration for several minutes before use. Later this water should be allowed to cool to room temperature and used.
  • All practices need patience and dedication. It takes time to master over them and there is no short cut. Regular practice is the key.
  • During pregnancy only Jala Neti and Trataka are recommended. Other procedures shall be avoided. Anyhow it is wise to take an opinion from Yoga teacher.
  • Follow clean and healthy diet during Kriyas
  • Never use the Shat Karmas as antidotes or remedy for overeating and or bad dietary habits.

Just Before Finish
Hatha Yoga is an essential and inseparable part of Yoga and Shat Karma is the core of Hatha Yoga. In this article I have dealt with basics of Hatha Yoga and Shat Karma. Each of the ‘Shat Karmas’ shall be dealt separately in the upcoming blogs.
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