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The Yogic Origins of Cleansing the Body – Shatkarmas or Shatkriyas

Posted by on Dec 8, 2010



Cleansing the body is not unique to yogic practice, but there is great interest in its origins within the tradition. Translated from Sanskrit, akarman, means purification of the body. It is difficult to pin down its introduction into the practice, and some schools of yoga claim that no physical elimination of impurity need to be conducted, but “cleanliness” or Saucha is more a mental practice involving varied other yogic techniques.

Another probability is that shatkarmas were directly transmitted form guru to disciple because they were unobligatory and purely at the discretion of the guru. The practices may have been passed down orally as part of the intimate knowledge of the guru for his/her disciple. In fact, these practices appear in, and not prior to the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, the Hatha Yoga Samhita, and the Gheranda Samhita. There are Ayuervedic texts which name numerous health benefits whilst practicing shatkarmas.[1]


For instance, the technique of ghrit neti, emerges from the buddhistic era. (Interestingly, and as an aside, the fulfillment of the 2600th year of the dispensation of the Thathagatha falls on the full moon day of Vesak in 2012 A.D. (588+2012 = 2600).  A famous physician of that age, Jivika, employed some practice of the kind to cure the fatal nasal-cum-head disease of a renowned merchant’s wife [2] At a place in Siva Samhita (SS), [3]  and there is a slight passing reference to dhauti prakshalana, though in a derogatory sense.


Dr. G. Yogeshwar tells us that an important treatise on the Bhagavad Gita are silent about Shatkriyas. However, Hatha yoga describes Shatkarmas (six processes) in detail for Body purification and mind purification. Various asanas (Yoga Positions), six shatkarmas, mudras & bandhas (psychic knots or psycho-physiological energy release techniques) and Pranayama are described in old ancient Sanskrit texts of Hatha Yoga (Hatha Yoga Pradipika and Gherandasamhita).


Some yoga practitioners have considered internal purification of the human body in depth. The shuddhikriyas have been planned with a view to achieve total purification of the body before various samskaras are made within the etheric and causal bodies. All that is energetically imbedded in the more subtle bodies (causal and etheric) ends up affecting the physical body and vice versa. As we clean the physical shell, the energetic body becomes more pure.

It is thought that the organs where there can be a lot of impurities require shuddhikriyas. The internal organs, which come into contact with the external influences regularly (pollution, chemical toxins in food, water, for example), need to be purified. The trachea regularly comes into contact with the external air, the food pipe comes into contact with food products, and the mind comes into contact with the thoughts of the external world; these and such other organs need to be purified internally. Certain elements are cured with these kriyas. Ayurveda has described these shuddhikriyas by the name of Panchkarmas. However, these panchkarmas take help of certain medicines and herbs. In the shuddhikriyas stated in Yoga, the emphasis is on the natural method. Many shuddhikriyas have been described in the Yoga texts.

While studying shuddhikriyas, one should consider the important difference in other yogic processes and the shuddhikriyas. Other yogic processes invariably form part of the daily activity of the human life, but these shuddhikriyas are not to be practiced daily. In fact they are not meant as part of the daily routine. When it is necessary to purify the body, these kriyas may be practiced daily, but when the need is over, the practice is stopped. It cannot generally be stated over here, when the need arises. It depends on each and every individual, and this may be why early yogis advised their disciples of when to practice these techniques.

(c) 2010, 2911, 2012 Christina Sarich

[1]The Charaka Samhita of Agnivesa, Edt. Dr. Ganga Sahaya Pandeya, (Part I), Pub. The Chowkhamba Sanskrit Series Office, Varanasi, 1961; 1.20.17- ‘Slesmavikaramsca vimsatimata urdhvam vyakh-yasyamah, tadyathatrptisca, tandra ca, nidra-dhikyam ca, staimityam ca, gurugatrata ca, alasyamca, mukhamadhuryam ca, mukhasravasca……svetamutrane travarcastvam ca iti vimsatih slesma vikarah. Also Cp. Sarangadhara Samhita, Pub. Pandit Pustakalaya, Kashi, 1950; 1.7.119-122.
[2] The Mahavavagga, Edt. Bhikkhu J. Kashyap, Pub. Pali Publication Board, Bihar Govt., Nalanda, 1956- ‘……atha kho jivako komarabhacco tarn pastam saghim janabhesajjehi nippcitva setthibhariyam mancake uttanam nipjjapetva natthuto adasi. Atha kho tam sappim natthuto dinnam mukhto ugganchi. (8.2 Lines 12-1)
[3]Siva Samhita (SS), Edt. Rai Bahdur Srisa Chandra Vidyarnava, Pub. The Panini Office, Bahadurganj, Allahabad, 1923; 5.5.

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