Written by Nick Sadashiv Bradley - Co-founder of Akhanda Yoga Australia
Hatha yoga is a full system comprising of Asana, pranayama, meditation, philosophy, mudras and shatkarma. In modern day yoga, the practice of Asana is very prevalent, and all the other facets are practiced to a certain degree, but shatkarma seems to be forgotten about and left in the texts. Interestingly the Hatha yoga Pradipika says “do shatkarma first then Asana”. Why would the Rishis’ place such high regard for these obscure sometimes grotesque, cleansing techniques? Are we missing out by not following this guideline? Looking into the example of Vastra Dhauti highlights a few potential answers.
In Vastra Dhauti, the yogi swallows twenty-one feet of cotton thread down the oesophagus, behind the beating heart to the stomach. He churns his full stomach with nauli then gently pulls the cloth out in under ten minutes before the cloth moves into the small intestines.
Apart from being a good party trick, obvious benefits would be the cleansing of the inside of the oesophagus and stomach by giving it a good scrub as well as all the benefits of nauli kriya. However if we look deeper into our anatomy and physiology the effects are profound.
The stomach is positioned under the diaphragm on the high, central left part of the abdomen. It’s function is to grind and break down food, predigest proteins, and emulsify fats which it achieves through peristaltic contractions and gastric secretions. The secretions are mucus, bicarbonate, hydrochloric acid and pepsinogen. From the parietal cells in the stomach walls intrinsic factor is secreted, this is critical for the digestion of vitamin B12 (a very important vitamin for everyone, especially vegans/vegetarians). Is this how the vegetarian yogis maximised their B12 levels crucial for energy production in the body?
There is an extremely important and significant nerve called the vagus nerve which runs from the brainstem, down our neck, the back of the tongue, the throat and continues down circling around the oesophagus supplying almost all the body’s organs with the parasympathetic division of the autonomic nervous system (NS). The parasympathetic NS is the “rest and digest” part of the autonomic NS opposing the “fight flight” of the sympathetic. The parasympathetic NS is what we are trying to induce in yoga to bring us into a peaceful, restful meditative state, increasing blood supply to the organs, stimulating organ activity and digestion. Our heart rate and breathing rate reduces and the muscles of the body relax.
Mastering control over this ‘autonomic’ nerve could be incredibly powerful. In Desikachar’s ‘Yoga of the Yogi’ he describes how Krishnamacharia (the guru of Pattabhi Jois and Iyengar) could demonstrate the technique of stopping his own heart-beat in front of a western physician. The way he would have been able to do this is through control of the Vagus nerve.
In modern day science the Vagus nerve is receiving a large amount of interest due to it’s importance in mind-body functions. It has been coined the “enteric” or 3rd part of the autonomic NS. The vagus nerve makes up what is called the brain-gut axis, which is about the relationship between the mind and the digestive tract. Studies have shown how disruptions to the mind effect the gut and disruptions to the gut effect the mind. When then vagus nerve is not functioning well (like at times of chronic stress), it can manifest in poor gut function, poor gallbladder function and reduced secretion of pancreatic enzymes, suppression of organ blood flow and suppression of the intestinal immune system which can lead to a “leaky gut”. The leaky gut creates inflammation, which enters the blood stream and makes it’s way to the brain, decreasing function and the cycle continues. A recent study on mice demonstrated this when a brain injury was inflicted a leaky gut developed shortly after. The vagus nerve also stimulates the release of gastric secretions (mentioned above).
The first obstacle the yogi must face with Vastra Dhauti is the gag reflex, which is also controlled by the vagus nerve. To do this you must have a conscious control over a mechanism that normally takes place by itself. The key phrase from the famous neuroplasticity book The Brain That Changes Itself is: “neurons that fire together, wire together”. So with this in mind the yogi could be strengthening the conscious connection to have control over the Vagus nerve and its functions by continuously overriding the gag reflex. Possibly Vastra Dhauti is a gateway technique to learning how to stop your heart?
On a more physical level, the stomach sits under the heart and diaphragm. On every breath the stomach moves down and up and with general movement of the human torso (like walking) the stomach would move from side to side. The famous French osteopath Jean-Pierre Barral, has based his whole practice and many books on this observation of the movement of the organs. He explains how, on average the liver would move up to a kilometre each day, the kidneys 800 meters and so on. So if these organs develop adhesions and don’t move in their normal free way, other parts of the body have to compensate and overwork, which can lead to restrictions in range of motion, back and neck pain, etc. Barral says: “90% of musculoskeletal dysfunctions in the body have a visceral component.”
So in a way, shatkarmas are freeing and opening the body from the inside out in the same way that asana does from the outside in. The stomach, embryologically, is formed from what is called the yolk sac, which starts off being outside the body. The embryo then folds in on itself including the yolk sac inside forming the intestinal tube from the skull to the tail. Due to this, the stomach has remanent fascial connections all the way from the thorax to the cranium. Therefore freeing up the stomach can have an effect on all these structures above and below.
In yoga we can never separate the physical from the emotional and energetic. We have all felt butterflies in our stomach at a nervous time! The emotional attributes of the stomach when it is working well are goundedness (the earth element), supplying the body with nutrition and feeling nourished in life. But when it is not working well nervousness, worry and anxiety take over. In the Ayurveda system of India the three 3 doshas (vata, pitta, kapha) can be used to describe the effects of Vastra Dhauti and the shatkarmas. When practiced with saline water it is said to take out kapha (mucus) but when it is done soaked in milk it has an effect of taking out pitta (excess heat or stomach acid). Depending on the dosha dominance of the yogi, Vastra Dhauti can be used to help balance these doshas in the body with their yoga practice, the food they eat, the seasons and the environment they live in.
Hopefully the above information has changed your appreciation for a yogi’s breakfast. Vastra Dhauti was taught to me by my guru Yogrishi Vishvketu from Rishikesh, India, who shares the same passion and enthusiasm towards all the shatkarmas as myself. He also practices and teaches all aspects of traditional Hatha yoga as a complete system. He has won Vastra Dhauti competitions in India, being able to swallow the 21 feet of cloth down in 60 seconds! As an end note here a word of caution, Please do not try this unless you are under the watchful eye of an experienced teacher.
Dr Nick Bradley is an Osteopath, yoga teacher, co-founder of Akhanda Yoga Australia, runs workshops and teacher trainings in Australia’s Gold Coast Hinterland.