When all the nadis that are now full of impurities become purified, then only can you successfully perform pranayama”.- Hatha Yoga Pradipika, 2.4
Many people develop the habit of breathing through their mouths, simply because their noses are blocked. Your nose is designed for breathing; your mouth is not. So, before you attempt to do breathing exercises, it is best to start with some nasal cleansing.
Neti is an excellent means to cleanse your nasal passages and sinus cavities of pollution, dust, pollen and excess mucus. It is useful to everyone who lives in a modern city and works in an office, or takes public transport – or goes into shops, i.e. almost everyone. It is especially beneficial for people with asthma, allergies and other respiratory problems. You can do this simple, hygienic practice daily – preferably each morning just after you have brushed your teeth. At first you may want to practice neti in front of a mirror so that you can see the openings of your nostrils.
The Sanskrit word “kapala” means skull; “bhati” denotes shining. In this exercise, you use your breath to cleanse your respiratory and circulatory systems. With regular practice, kapalabhati purifies your entire system so thoroughly that your face shines with good health and inner radiance.
The best time to do kapalabhati is right after practicing neti (see above), at the beginning of your pranayama session or before your meditation.
Kapalabhati cleanses your nasal passage, lungs and entire respiratory system while strengthening and increasing your lung capacity. It helps to drain your sinuses and eliminate accumulated mucus. It also eliminates carbon dioxide and other impurities from your blood stream, permitting the red-blood cells to suck in more oxygen. The additional oxygen enriches your blood and aids in the renewal of body tissues.
The movement of your diaphragm and abdominal contractions massage your stomach, liver, spleen, heart and pancreas. Your abdominal muscles are strengthened; digestion tends to improve.
Kapalabhati refreshes and invigorates your mind. You will probably experience an increased alertness as a result of the additional intake of fresh oxygen. Expect a feeling of exhilaration and an increase of mental clarity.
Sit with your back straight and your head erect, preferably in a cross-legged position. If you are unable to sit cross-legged, sit on a straight-backed chair with your feet flat on the ground. Take 2-3 exaggerated deep breaths, then inhale and begin the rhythmic abdominal pumping as follows:
Repeat this rapid pumping. End on an exhalation and then take 2-3 deep breaths to bring your breathing back to normal. This is one round of kapalabhati.
Start with three rounds of 20-25 pumpings each. Gradually increase this to a daily practice of 3-5 rounds of 30-50 pumpings each.
CAUTION: Kapalabhati should not be practiced during pregnancy or menstrual period. It is counter-indicated if you have a hernia, abdominal pain or cramping, high blood pressure or are experiencing an asthmatic attack.
The mechanics of kapalabhati can be a bit difficult to grasp; it is suggested that you learn to do it from a qualified yoga teacher.
“Gaze with motionless eyes at a minute object with your mind concentrated until tears come. This is called trataka by the gurus. By trataka, sloth and all diseases of the eyes are removed. So it should be carefully preserved, as you would a golden box”. -Hatha Yoga Pradipika
Tratak purifies your physical eyes, tear ducts and sinuses; it helps to strengthen your eyesight and brings a fresh supply of blood to the forehead region. It also cleanses your brow (ajna) chakra, decreases lethargy and increases your powers of discernment. If you are attempting to establish a meditation practice, tratak can be a great aid to intense concentration. Tratak stimulates the pineal gland. This smallest member of the endocrine system is located at the centre of your brain, between the two hemispheres. It produces melatonin, the serotonin derived hormone that regulates sleep patterns, your internal body clock and seasonal cycles. Regular practise of tratak can be especially effective in the winter months, when reduced levels of sunlight may cause you to suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). The exercise may also prove to be a great aid if you suffer from insomnia and other sleep-related disorders.
Dhrishti, the practice of fixing your gaze, is a cleansing discipline in itself and can bolster the purifying effects of other practices. It helps you to stay present in the moment, relieves tension and improves blood circulation to the frontal region of your head and to your brain.
When using dhrishti, you stop your attention from wandering by directing it to specific points. This stimulates the healing flow of subtle energy within the meridians (referred to as ‘nadis’ by yoga practitioners) and removes blockages from these channels.
These gazes, best practiced under the guidance of an experienced teacher, cleanse, stimulate and equalize the energy of both major and minor chakras. They facilitate the holding of balancing poses and draw the body into correct alignment.
Begin with nasal gazing. Sit in a comfortable meditative position with your back straight and your head erect. Turn your gaze downward and focus both eyes on the tip of your nose with your eyelids half closed. Hold this for only 10 seconds; then close and relax your eyes. Gradually you may build up to one minute, as long as your eyes do not feel strained. Once you have perfected this technique, notice how its use strengthens your eyes and enhances such poses as ‘the yawning lion’ (see page 00)
When you have perfected the nasal gaze, and can do it without experiencing tension, try turning your eyes upward. The eyeballs themselves are turned up towards the frontal region of the brain and the vision is fixed on the point between your eyebrows.
Advance students start concentration by directing and turning the half-closed eyes toward the space between the eyebrows, which is also known as the Ajna Chakra, or Third Eye. By directing the gaze at this point the olfactory nerves and optic nerves are stimulated and, in turn, the automatic nervous system and central nervous system are awakened. Done slowly, this exercise has a soothing effect on the cranial nerves and helps the mind to become one-pointed. Advanced students will find this exercise very useful as a breathing exercise and to awaken the Kundalini Shakti. However, it is best to avoid too much strain on the eye muscles. Prolonged practice without the guidance of a teacher may affect the eye muscles as well as the nervous system.
Maintain this gaze for only 10 seconds. Then rest and relax your eyes. It may be used in asanas, such as the ‘fish pose’ (Matsyasana), but prolonged practice is not recommended.
For more information see:‘Complete Illustrated Book of Yoga’ by Swami Vishnu-devananda (pages 31-34)
or ‘The Cleansing Power of Yoga’ by Swami Saradananda (pages 46-47)
Oil pulling is a highly effective way to reduce tooth cavities and eradicate bad breath. It removes many harmful bacteria and other toxins that try to make your mouth their home, eliminating them before they have the opportunity to spread to the rest of your body. It strengthens your tongue and gums, helping to eliminate plaque – and plague-induced gingivitis. You will have no need for chemical teeth whitening strips. The oil possesses natural antibiotic and antiviral properties that brighten and clean your teeth, keeping them pearly white.
Prepare your oil beforehand. Organic, cold-pressed sesame oil (make sure it is untoasted) probably works the best, but coconut or virgin olive oils are also excellent. You may also want to add a drop of an anti-microbial essential oil, such as tea tree, oregano or lemon oil. The essential oil has the potential to amplify the cleansing benefits of the oil pulling process, but add no more than 1 drop of essential oil to 30 ml (1 fluid ounce) of carrier oil; too much could be irritating.
Practice oil-pulling first thing in the morning, on an empty stomach. Place a large spoonful of oil into your mouth and swish it around for up to 20 minutes. You may go about other tasks while you are doing this, such as making your bed or getting dressed.
After 20 minutes, or whenever your mouth get tired, spit the oil out into the waste bin. Do not spit it into the sink, as its stickiness can encourage the pipes to clog. Then brush your teeth with a natural fluoride-free toothpaste and rinse your mouth.
DO NOT use oil pulling in place of your brushing your teeth. Also, do not swallow the oil as you will ingest the toxins you are trying to wipe out.
When you start oil pulling, you might experience the positive effects immediately, or it may take a few weeks.
NOTE: If you don’t have time for oil pulling, chew 1-2 cardamom seeds. They are an excellent mouth freshener that promotes oral health.
Modern hygiene focuses on external cleanliness, advocating regular bathing of the body and brushing your teeth, but it says little of internal purification. The human digestive system needs periodic internal cleansing to maintain good health.
Dhauti includes a series of practices that cleanse the upper digestive tract, i.e. the throat, oesophagus and stomach, so that you can pursue your goals in life without the least possible discomfort, fatigue or interruption. Although the following techniques may seem a bit exotic at first, they lay the foundation and assist you in obtaining optimal benefit from the better-known yoga techniques of postural and breathing exercises.
NOTE: no form of dhauti should be attempted during pregnancy – or by any one who has, or has had, an eating disorder.
“Contracting the anus, draw the apana up to the throat and vomit the contents of the stomach. This act that generally brings the nadi chakras under control is called gaja-karani.”- Hatha Yoga Pradipika, 2.38
Also known as kunjal kriya or gaja-karani, this practice uses water to cleanse the stomach and oesophagus. It must be done first thing in the morning before eating or drinking anything else.
Prepare for the exercise by mixing 3-5 tsp salt into 2-3 litres of lukewarm water (36-37 degree). If you prefer, you may leave out the salt.
Drink the salt water and then gently massage the stomach (on the left side, just under the ribs) for 1-2 minutes.
Using the index and middle fingers of one hand, tickle the root of the tongue at the back of the throat until the water is vomited up.
You may practice this exercise once per week. It is advisable to practice with guidance in the beginning.
Shankh-prakshalana is a natural means of cleansing your entire digestive system. It is best practiced twice a year at the changing of the seasons. The process itself takes about 1-2 hours; you will need to rest and take light food for the rest of the day.
The idea is to drink salt water while performing simple yoga exercises. These movements stimulate the water to cleanse your digestive tract, eliminating one of the major causes of physical stress and the promoting good health of your entire system.
Choose a day when you are free of work and other responsibilities. Prepare yourself by eating lightly for three days beforehand, completely avoiding meat, fish, eggs, alcohol and dairy products. The night before, eat a small meal, preferably just some fruit. Practice first thing in the morning on an empty stomach.
Mix 60-75 grams of sea salt into 4-5 litres of warm water (36-37° C). The water needs to be salty otherwise it’s not going to reach your colon. Instead, your body will evacuate it as urine.
CAUTION: people with serious stomach or other digestive disorders should not practice shankh-prakshalana. Also, do not attempt it during pregnancy or menstruation – or if you currently have or have ever suffered from an eating disorder.
Eye exercises improve physical vision and protect your visual abilities from the negative effects of artificial light and stress; they also help you to be more focused and to gain spiritual insight. They are especially beneficial if you spend long periods of time reading or working at a computer.
Eye exercises can be practised while sitting on a chair (preferable a straight backed one), in a kneeling position or seated cross legged. Be sure to keep your back and head straight. The movements work best when practised in a slow, gentle manner.
Be sure to move only your eyes, not your head. At first, you may want to have a friend watch to check that you are not moving your head. If your eyes start to tear or water, count it as an especially successful cleanse. It is best to remove glasses or contact lenses when practising eye exercises.
Up and down
Open your eyes wide; imagine that you are popping them out of your head. Keeping the head and neck still, look up as high as you can, then down. Do this10-15 times. Then close your eyes and relax them for a moment.
Right and Left
Raise your left arm with the thumb pointing upward and the elbow straight. Open your eyes wide and focus them on your thumb nail. As you slowly move your hand to the left, follow the nail with your eyes. The slower you move, the more your eyes have to work and the more benefit you receive.
Move the hand out as far as you can see, without moving your head. Then, just as slowly, return your hand and eyes to centre. Change arms and repeat to the right. Do this 2-3 times on each side. Close and relax your eyes.
Diagonal and circles
Open your eyes as wide as possible. Without moving your head, look up at your right thumb, down at your left and up to the right again. Repeat these movements 8-10 times. Then change arms and repeat. Rest your eyes for a few moments.
If you like, you can also rotate your eyes slowly in clockwise direction; making sure that you reach the whole circumference of the widest circle possible.
After 3-5 rotations, change to an anti-clockwise direction.
Nose and third-eye
Open your eyes wide. Raise one hand in front of your nose with arm fully extended and the thumb pointing upward. Keeping your focus on the thumbnail, slowly bend your elbow and move the thumb towards the tip of your nose. Come as close as you can focus, then reverse, moving the thumb outward. Do this 5-10 times.
In the second part of this exercise, lift your extended arm 6-8 cm. Slowly bring your thumb in towards the point between your eyebrows. Keeping your focus on the thumbnail, move the arm in and out 5-10 times.
Relaxing the eyes
Close your eyes and rub your hands together vigorously, until they feel slightly warm. Cup the palms over your eyes, so that they cover your eyes. Make sure your neck is long and not contracted at the back. When your eyes feel relaxed, drop your hands and blink a few times.
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