Shanka Prakshalana: A Cleanse
Shanka prakshalana (sometimes referred to as shankha prakshalana or sanka praksalana or laghoo shankaprakshalana) is a yoga kriya that cleanses the intestines. The meaning of shanka is ‘conch,’ and the name refers to the winding inner nature of the intestines, which is similar to the embedded spirals of a conch shell. Prakshalana means to ‘flush’ or ‘bathe’ and therefore denotes cleansing and purification.
What Exactly is Shanka Prakshalana?
This yoga kriya is performed by drinking several glasses of warm salt water. The high salt content in solution acts as a cathartic to stimulate the bowels. Salt water is drunk until the intestines completely empty and only clear liquid is coming out the other end. A physiological concentration of salt water is used, meaning that it matches the concentration of salt water already in the body. Roughly it is a tad less than two level teaspoons of fine grain, non-iodized table salt per liter.
After drinking a glass or two of salty water, exercises that are variations of asanas are done to help stimulate the intestines. Following a few rounds of drinking and exercising, a visit to the toilet will be required. To be complete, enough salt water needs to be drunk to thoroughly empty the body of all feces, and even the yellowish discoloration of liquid stool towards the end of the process needs to completely turn to clear.
Origin of Shanka Prakshalana
Siva Samhita, originating between 1300 and 1500 CE, briefly mentions a ‘dhauti prakshalana’ without much description. It’s not until Gheranda Samhita was published in the 1700s that shanka prakshalana was explained in depth. There it is referred to as varisara dhauti.
Purpose of Shanka Prakshalana
The first niyama of Yoga as first systemized by Patanjali is sauca, to be clean and pure. Sauca is to be applied to all the koshas, or layers of the body. Physically we are to be clean, but also our energy, our thoughts, our actions, and our aspirations need to be purified.
By cleansing the physical body, we can affect and influence the other koshas. Our bodies are, after all, integrated systems. Yoga sees the person holistically. If one cleanses the physical body, the energetic, emotional and mental aspects of our being get a cleansing as well. Purifying aligns our koshas to resonate with a higher vibration.
In Support of Shanka Prakshalana
In the 1970s three scientific papers were published looking at the effects of drinking warmed physiological concentrations of salt water on the colon for the purpose of colonoscopy and bowel surgery preparation. The physicians involved remarked on the excellent efficacy of the preparation for cleansing. They also reported no dangerous shifts in electrolytes or other harmful health consequences. For a discussion of them, see here.
Throughout history, from the yogis to the Egyptians and Greeks, people have benefited psychologically from a good purge of the intestines. We’re connected to our guts, and evolutionarily we likely have paid high attention to its function as we foraged for food and considered what to eat. Giving a bath to an area of our bodies that we generally consider “dirty” feels good. It’s like the feeling you get when you take a hot shower after sweating all day laboring on a job. It’s refreshing.
Beyond the fact that an occasional cleanse may clear a bout of recalcitrant constipation, there may be some truth to the claims that it will balance and stimulate the immune system. A large part of that system is the GALT, or gut-associated lymphoid tissue, which resides within the walls of the small intestine. It is one of our biggest allies on the front against foreign invaders like bacteria and viruses. Specialized cells recognize substances that are foreign and potentially harmful and induce a defensive strategy against them. Sometimes this system may malfunction causing allergic defensive responses against benign substances found in food. It’s possible that these tissues may get overwhelmed, particularly in our high consumption culture, and that they may occasionally need a break.
An intestinal cleanse followed by a basic elimination diet that slowly adds back substances such as corn, wheat, dairy, and soy while monitoring for symptoms may help to diagnose food allergies postulated to cause a variety of conditions such as fatigue, chronic headaches, eczema, irritable bowel syndrome, ulcerative colitis, some forms of arthritis, and a minority of asthma cases.
Can Harm Come From Practicing Shanka Prakshalana?
Acutely, with shanka prakshalana there is a small risk of the electrolyte disturbance, hypernatremia, a condition in which blood levels of sodium can get dangerously high, at its worst resulting in brain damage and even death.
Chronically, high intake of sodium can cause high blood pressure, strokes, kidney disease and heart disease. It is important to limit the amount of salt one ingests over time. Frequent practice of shanka prakshalana may contribute to the development of these conditions. If shanka prakshalana is practiced judiciously and infrequently, the chronic effects of high salt ingestion can be avoided.
Dehydration may occur, especially as many teachers suggest students refrain from drinking water for two or more hours immediately after performing shanka prakshalana. It is extremely important to drink fresh water to thirst for rehydration immediately following the technique.
Contraindications to the Practice of Shanka Prakshalana
Avoid shanka prakshalana if:
- you have high blood pressure, even if controlled by medications
- you have kidney disease
- you have a gastrointestinal ulcer or a recent history of one
- you have congestive heart failure or ischemic heart disease
- you are pregnant
- you are under the age of 18
Throughout history people have had the desire to clean and purify. Yogis of the ancient past developed a natural system of cleansing the intestinal tract, the part of our bodies that contains “dirty” feces. While shanka prakshalana has not been shown scientifically to improve health, the psychological effects and the more esoteric benefits to all dimensions of a holistic existence make this a helpful Yoga kriya.
Shanka prakshalana is a safe practice for most healthy people. The number of scientific studies examining its use are minimal, and harmful side-effects like hypernatremeia and dehydration are a theoretical concern in particularly susceptible individuals. Its practice should be guided by a trained professional.
- Gherenda Samhita. Editors: Digambarji, Swami and Gharote, ML. Kaivalyadhama, Lonavala, India. 1978
- Neish, Andrew S. Reviews in Basic and Clinical Gastroenterology: Microbes in Gastrointestinal Health and Disease. Gastroenterology, 2009;136:65-80
- Ruben D Acosta & Brooks D Cash. Clinical Effects of Colonic Cleansing for General Health Promotion: A Systematic Review. The American Journal of Gastroenterology. Nov 2009;104:2830-2836.
- Sampson HA, McCaskill CC. Food hypersensitivity and atopic dermatitis: evaluation of 113 patients. J Pediatr. Nov 1985;107(5):669-75.
- Swami Svatmarama. Hatha Yoga Pradipika: Light on Hatha Yoga. Bihar School of Yoga 1993 Thomson Press (India) Limited, New Delhi.