Shankaprakshalana; extreme and out
dated or a powerful catharsis for mind,
body and spirit?
By Dr Anna Timmis
As a practicing yogini in the Satyananda tradition and junior doctor, I have been asked by my yoga teacher to write something on the ancient shat karma, Shankaprakshalana, also known as washing of the intestines. I will do my best to give a view of the practice from both my own experience and understanding of the body’s physiology.
It is understandable why in western culture and current medical practice such a practice would be viewed with scepticism; to drink two litres or more of warm salty water only for it to come pouring out of the other end, on the face of it, seems rather extreme. And to what avail? Shankaprakshalana is a key component of Hatha Yoga; a branch of yoga concerned with purification of the physical body. Dr Swami Shankadevananda, a doctor of medicine specialising in yoga therapy at his practice in Australia, describes how the practice is the most complete and effective of yogic cleansers achieving in just a short space of time what may take days or weeks by ordinary fasting. It is also important to note that the effects of this practice are far reaching and whilst powerfully ieffective on a physical level, it is even more intensely so on the mental and pranic levels.
For detailed description of the practice please refer to the publication, Asana Pranayama Mudra Bandha. (published by Yoga Publications Trust, Munger, India)
The salt water consumed during the practice is an isotonic solution, i.e. the same concentration as that of the blood and the fluid that bathes the cells of the body. It is important that the right concentration of saline is used and that no other food or drink is taken before or during the practice so that nothing alters this solution.
Normally a large amount of water and electrolytes are absorbed into the body in the upper jejunum (part of the small bowel) and this occurs by their coupling with other substances. The reason why we don’t absorb the salt water is because the sodium in salt water can only be absorbed at this concentration in the presence of glucose. Glucose and sodium are carried across the bowel wall by a special co-transporter that needs to take both of them across together. If only sodium is present then it cannot pass through the bowel wall. Thus the salt water passes straight through the stomach and the small bowel unable to be absorbed acting as a strong laxative. The salt water does just what the tradition has indicated; it literally washes the intestines clearing away any constipation in the process.
So why would we want or need to wash out our digestive tract? The bowel wall rather than being a smooth surface has a special structure to maximise absorption. Analogous to a sea anemone it has lots of little finger like structures known as villi, reaching out into the bowel lumen. Then the bowel itself is very long with lots of corners owing to its great length folded within the abdominal cavity. This creates potential for bits of the bowel contents to become lodged in the various nooks and crannies. Stagnant matter resting against the bowel wall has been identified as a possible causative factor in the development of bowel cancer. Cancer of the large bowel is the second most common tumour in the UK. The rarity of this disease in Africa and Asia is thought to be mainly due to environmental factors such as diet. In the West the typical diet is low in fibre and the resulting stasis within the intestine increases the time for any potential carcinogen present to be in contact with the cells of the bowel iiwall. Bowel cancer is not only caused by carcinogens but they play a part in triggering errors in cell replication which have the potential to initiate tumour growth. The sheer volume of salt water passing through the digestive tract during Shankaprakshalana helps dislodge debris long embedded in the bowel wall thus minimising the time for potential carcinogens to remain in contact with the bowel wall and thus when could be preventative in the development of bowel cancer. It also ensures that the surface of the bowel wall is clear and available for absorbing and assimilating nutrients. The special diet adhered to after the practice is healthy, simple plant based diet. This supports
continuing cleansing and regenerating of the physical body.
There is a very strong connection between the mind and the body and this can be said especially for the digestive tract which contains many neurones (cells of the nervous system). During the practice the sensation of the salt water moving through our system is intensified by the specific sequence of yoga asana performed. This encourages us to consciously connect with a part of the body of which we are rarely fully aware. The nerves that travel from parts of the inside of the body (the viscera) allow for a very different sensory experience compared to the nerves that supply the outer parts of the body. Normally we are aware of food entering the mouth as we taste; an intense sensory experience. We are then still aware of swallowing as the texture of the food reaches the back of our mouth and moves down the oesophagus, but when the food reaches the stomach the experience is much more subtle. From this point onwards we need to tune in carefully in order to really sense a meal filling us up and subsequently moving through various valves of the digestive tract; from stomach to small intestine, to the large intestine and eventually into the rectum where again we are more sensory aware as we experience a need to defecate. Finally, and the digestive tract would not be complete without it, there is the anal sphincter, a sensitive area with the same nerve supply as our skin. In tuning in with these parts of the body we can become more conscious of how certain actions, movements such as asana, drinking different substances, eating different foods in different amounts at different times of day, certain mental states and stress, affect us inside. In bringing consciousness to this area we can prevent and heal our own imbalances within. If we allow it, Shankaprakshalana can help us do just this. It has become common to describe feelings with reference to parts of this tract i.e. having a ‘gut feeling’ about something or feeling a ‘lump in the throat’. It is certain that emotional states can manifest themselves physically in the body as digestive symptoms such as anorexia, over eating, nausea, vomiting, indigestion, gas, constipation and diarrhoea. It can also conversely be said that these physical symptoms bring about their own mental reactions. We can even store up emotions in parts of our body. Yoga helps us to attain a more sattvic (one of the three ‘gunas’ or qualities of nature,
representing harmony and light) state of mind, where there is balance and equilibrium i.e. the mind,
body and spirit existing in harmony together. Through stimulating all the neurones in the digestive tract and physically cleaning the intestines Shankaprakshalana can cure disharmonious digestive symptoms and clear emotional unrest stored in the body mind, restoring our equilibrium. The simple diet which is kept after the full version of the practice includes very little salt and sugar, and avoids spicy, acidic or very refined foods. This resets our taste buds so that we may experience things freshly with a new sensitivity for the natural sweetness of foods unadulterated with added flavours. This allows our awareness of taste to sharpen as we rediscover simple foods and connect with nature’s offering. This helps in the detachment from extreme tastes. It provides a wonderful motivation to overcome our seemingly unconquerable habits whether they are smoking, alcohol, recreational drugs, sugar or caffeine. The desires of the senses are lessened as a deeper satisfaction is found within and after the practice and we are much more sensitive to the effects of the more subtle. The practice encourages us to lessen our extroversions in life and a natural introverted state occurs. Rest is encouraged in the days following shankaprakshalana and yoga sadhana is adapted accordingly. It can be rare in our busy lives that we give ourselves time to step back from the frontline. It is important for the mind to rest to digest the process and just as physical energy is going into the continued catharsis and regeneration of the physical body, the mind also needs space and time to allow the full effects to unfold and be experienced.
This is the point in my article where I need to set accepted medical science aside. Modern medicine does not acknowledge the existence of a life force, an energetic matter whose presence cannot be proven with current scientific method. With all the revelations that scientific research brings us it also risks reductionism replacing holism. To boil beings down to just their physical constituents risks a reductionist attitude that allows the whole to be forgotten in preference for the components. At the level of pranamaya kosha (the koshas are a concept in yogic physiology that suggests that our being is made up of 5 increasingly subtle ‘layers’ moving from the gross physical body through the energy and mental bodies to the very subtle intuitive and bliss bodies. Yoga techniques affect these koshas in different ways) the effects of Shakaprakshalana have been well documented by others more experienced in the practice than myself. Dr Swami Shankadevananda writes of an altered level of awareness, a lightness and stimulation of the Chakras(subtle psychic centres).
After the practice our digestive tract remains physically empty of matter. It is given a chance to rest and restore itself. Normally there is some, and often a lot of matter contained in a part, or all of the digestive tract. We are not used to being empty. The lining has been washed and now remains resting, free from work. This allows energy to be focused on healing and revitalising. It also allows us to experience a certain freedom found from such physical emptiness providing space within our physical form. Space permits a chance for equilibrium, healing, change and a new start. This physical emptying can find itself translating into other aspects of our lives as we become more aware of what we fill ourselves up with psychologically and emotionally.
There is a potential risk of dehydration and electrolyte imbalances during the practice which is why it is important that it is not carried out in the infirm. (there are other specific contra indications and guidelines for the practice so please consult a qualified yoga teacher experienced with the technique before attempting it) The constitution needs to be relatively strong in order to adapt to the practice and
the individual well hydrated beforehand. If the salt water solution is made up too salty then fluid will be drawn out into the intestine which is likely to lead to dehydration. If it is not salty enough then there is a greater chance that the body will absorb some of the water and it will pass out through the kidneys instead of the intestine (this is not a danger as such but will impair the practice). It is best not performed in very hot weather where electrolytes are lost though sweating. In very cold or damp weather the body will not have the same energy for the practice and there is the chance of getting very cold after the practice. A warm dry sunny day is perfect.
A headache as a result of caffeine withdrawal is likely in a regular coffee or tea drinker and it could be helpful to gradually wean oneself off these substances prior to the practice.
From a medical perspective this practice is likely to flush out the healthy flora that inhabits the gut and helps protect us from harmful microorganisms and may be involved in the manufacture of certain vitamins. This could temporarily weaken the digestion within the colon. In a person with a fairly normal to robust constitution this is not likely to be much of a problem as we are capable of repopulating our gut again and bacteria will grow fast if given the right conditions and after shankaprakshalana the conditions are very good. It must also be remembered that conditions such as constipation do nothing to aid our absorption and assimilation of nutrients or provide healthy conditions for healthy bacterial flora. Overall if care is taken with eating habits after the practice, then digestive fire is increased by the practice in the long run.
For the above reasons the practice must not be performed too often. Full shankaprakshalana is advised only twice a year, in the spring and autumn time, and the half version where less salt water is drunk (laghoo shankaprakshalana) practiced with a frequency advised by a yoga teacher or yoga therapist who is familiar with your constitution.
The potency of Shankaprakshalana must not be underestimated and it is important with the full version especially to carry it out at a time that permits a relatively quiet few days following the practice. Mental and emotional catharsis has the potential to be disturbing in the short term as feelings come to the surface. It is important to have a yoga teacher as a point of contact with whom one can discuss any adverse effects. Just as it is important to keep to the dietary restrictions, it is also wise to take care with the kind of ‘ahara’ or mental food one takes in at this time. Watching a horror film or
being in a very hectic, crowded environment is likely to be more disturbing at this time than usual. It must be remembered that such a cleansing practice is not a replacement for a healthy balanced lifestyle but only a beneficial adjunct that may not be suitable at all times for all persons. Contraindications
Shankaprakshalana is a powerful practice and it should be taught in a supervised environment. Advice will need to be sought from an experienced yoga teacher or yoga therapist regarding any medical conditions and medication being taken prior to undertaking the practice. Shankaprakshalana should not be practiced during pregnancy, if there has been recent surgery, in those with a weakened condition, the immobile (for practical reasons), if there is absolute constipation where no wind is being passed indicating possible intestinal obstruction, inflammatory bowel disease with active inflammation (Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis), if there is an active ulcer, chronic amoebic dysentery, renal impairment or high blood pressure.
Shankaprakshalana is a powerful yogic cleansing practice that should be learned under supervision and not taken lightly. If performed correctly it can be extremely empowering and have a very beneficial effects on the physical, mental and pranic levels of the individual and contribute greatly towards the rest of our yoga practice.
i Dr Swami Shankadevananda, The practices of Yoga for the digestive system, Ch25 P197-201, 1993 iith P. Kumar and M. Clark, Clinical Medicine, 4 edn, Ch 4 P273, 1999
may research few more and add as appropriate, including any reference to koshas and gunas