Living with high stress levels, spending time in toxic work and home environments, eating unwholesome foods, creating tight routines for ourselves as well as an array of other unhealthy practices easily become the norm. As long as they are the norm, mental, emotional and physical toxins make themselves at home in our bodies and we become vulnerable to disease.
A thorough detoxification needs to address all the levels of your being, including the mental, emotional and spiritual.
Many of the toxins in our bodies exist because of mental and emotional imbalances that come from unhealthy lifestyles. When we’re mentally or emotionally stressed, that tension is stored in the body as toxins. While no one is completely free from toxins, how you live your life can determine the extent of toxicity. This article focuses on how to release toxins from the physical body; however, a thorough detoxification needs to address all the levels of your being, including the mental, emotional and spiritual.
Ayurveda, a science of life originating in India more than 5000 years ago, is believed to be the oldest healing science in existence. Not only can it be used as a healing system for those who are sick, it also contains wisdom and inspiration to help prevent disease and help people lead healthy, happy lives.
“Health is not mere absence of disease. Health is being established in the Self. It is the dynamic expression of life.” — Sri Sri Ravi Shankar
How do I know if my body contains excess toxins?
Ayurveda has a few signs that indicate your body contains a lot of toxins. Some of these include:
- You have low energy.
- You feel sluggish when you wake up in the morning.
- Your tongue is coated in the morning.
- Your appetite isn’t really sharp and you tend to eat out of habit rather than because you’re hungry.
- You are prone to flu, colds and coughs or allergies.
- You get sharp headaches and dizziness.
- You have mild tremors in your limbs.
- You have unexplained muscle aches, especially in the calves.
- Your throat is sore.
- Your skin is less radiant, heavier and oilier. You find it breaks out more often.
- You are more prone to sunburn and have dry patches on your skin.
Ayurveda recommends internal cleansing to clear the channels in your body of toxins (ama) that may have built up over time. You could begin your detox by having a personal consultation with an Ayurvedic practitioner. During this, you will have your pulse read and through that find out what your current doshic balance is.
The central concept of Ayurvedic medicine is that health exists when there’s a balance between three fundamental bodily humors or doshas: vata (air and space), pitta (fire and water) and kapha (water and earth). Ayurveda provides a wide range of treatments, herbs and lifestyle guidelines for purifying your entire body and bringing the tri-doshas (three doshas), the supportive forces of life, into balance.
There are two approaches to detoxifying in Ayurveda. One is shamana (to balance or pacify the doshas) and the other is shodhana, or cleansing.
Once the practitioner knows your body’s doshic balance, they can give you guidelines and lifestyle habits for your individual body type that are conducive to your dosha and rebalance any imbalances that exist in your body. These guidelines may relate to eating habits, exercise, yoga, meditation, sleeping, skin and haircare. The practitioner may give you a sequence of therapies and medicines to strengthen and purify you. Dr Tim Carr, Ayurvedic practitioner, explains that the pulse also helps you understand the degree of toxicity in your body, the strength of your digestive system and where imbalances exist.
There are two approaches to detoxifying in Ayurveda. One is shamana (to balance or pacify the doshas) and the other is shodhana, or cleansing. The first is more gradual. It slowly detoxifies and balances, and prevents new toxins from taking residence in the system, while the second is a fast approach and includes the purification processes of panchakarma.
Panchakarma is a powerful and sophisticated approach to cleansing the body that consists of the five detoxification measures of therapeutic vomiting, purgatives, enemas, nasal medications and blood purification. It involves three main steps:
- The use of oils (applied externally or internally) to bring dissolution of the fat-soluble impurities in the body. This clears a lot of fat-soluble environmental toxins and other fat-soluble toxins that otherwise stay in the body for a long time.
- Then the body is exposed to heat, which allows the impurities to be transported to the digestive tract.
- Finally, various forms of treatment clear them from the digestive tract, such as basti and laxative treatments. “Bastis aren’t just simple water treatments as used in colonics. They are a very sophisticated approach that alternates oil enemas with water-based enemas to ensure we’re not unbalancing the doshas,” says Carr. “It’s important not to expose the colon to too much water because it will aggravate the vata (air element) as we get older.
To give your body the chance to clear the toxins that have built up over months, Carr recommends a week as the optimum time for a detox. There’s good evidence to show that by going through this for the course of a week you can reduce the agricultural chemicals in your system by 50 per cent.
Tips to support detoxification
As digestion becomes stronger, metabolism becomes stronger, too, and because of this the body then becomes more competent at clearing out toxins. These are some tips to support your digestive system and enhance your body’s ability to detox:
- Avoid foods that create toxins (ama) in the body. These include leftovers; packaged, canned and frozen food; foods grown with chemicals, pesticides and chemical fertilisers; and foods with chemical additives.
- Eat foods that suit your body type or imbalances.
- Sip hot water gradually through the day (if you have a pitta imbalance, drink warm water) to help melt and flush out any accumulated
- Add spices to your food, including coriander, cumin, turmeric, and fennel, to help stimulate digestion and detoxify the skin.
- Sit quietly for a few moments before eating.
- Only eat once the previous meal has been digested.
- Eat your meals at the same times every day.
- Eat your main meal at noon, with lighter meals at breakfast and dinner.
- Eat sitting down and in a settled atmosphere.
- Pay attention to your food when you eat (avoid television, phones and reading).
- Prefer to eat while having pleasant conversation rather than having business meetings or emotional discussions.
- Eat no more than three-quarters of your stomach’s capacity.
- Wait for a couple of minutes after eating so your food can settle.
After a cleansing program you should feel much lighter, more blissful and more energetic. You may even shed some unwanted pounds. Here are a couple of guidelines that can support you after the process:
- Give yourself time to gradually transit into your normal routine and eating habit, gradually adding heavier foods to your diet, and continue to follow the Ayurvedic routine and diet recommended for your body type.
- Make sure you get enough rest for a few days following the program.
Yoga for detox
Yoga asanas (poses), prananyamas (breathing techniques), meditation and bandhas (locks) are all powerful tools for detoxification on all levels. When you regularly practise yoga, the body automatically starts becoming more balanced and satwik (pure) and starts detoxifying. The more regularly you practise, the less likely you are to absorb or retain toxins.
Cleansing the channels
Your whole being functions because of the subtle life force called prana. Prana flows in the body through a system of more than 65,000 nadis (subtle energy channels) and many chakras (energy centres). The amount of prana that can flow depends on how open your chakras and nadis are. When they are open, you automatically feel happier, clearer and more energised. Yoga asanas cleanse the nadis.
In yoga and Ayurveda there are two types of therapy: brimhana (nourishing) and langhana (detoxifying). Similarly, asanas and prananyama are either nourishing or detoxifying.
If you have a deficiency or lack of energy, you’ll benefit most from practising more nourishing asanas. However, if you have excess toxins or waste in your body, you’ll benefit most from using the more detoxifying asanas.
Asanas that are slow and consolidating are nourishing and rejuvenating. These include still, seated and contracting asanas. Moving, expanding, quick and strong asanas are detoxifying, such as the flowing routine of surya namaskar (sun salutation). However, for some people, surya namaskar is too strong and may not be suitable.
Asanas also cause a change in your blood circulation, particularly surya namaskar, as it includes a lot of forward and backward bending. When you do forward-bending asanas, your blood moves towards the back of your body and when you come out of it blood moves towards the front of your body. This flushing effect of the blood helps get rid of toxins.
The importance of fresh air
Because toxins are being released when you practise yoga it’s especially important that you practise in an environment that has fresh air and is free from dust. You want to be able to breathe fresh air into your lungs each time you inhale, energising your body with oxygen and prana (life-force energy).
Your breath as a detox tool
According to Chris Dale, teacher of Sri Sri yoga and Sahaj Samadhi meditation, the main way detox of the body happens in yoga is through practices that regulate and refine the breath. Seventy per cent of the body’s toxins are released through the breath. Practices such as the sudarshan kriya, in which you breathe in distinct rhythms, harmonise the rhythms of body, mind and emotions and are very powerful for preventing toxins from accumulating in the system as well as releasing existing toxins.
Yogic techniques that combine breathing with drawing in the abdomen activate the agni (digestive fire) in the navel region and that fire burns the toxins.
“To detoxify the body,” says Dale, “anything that works the abdomen is very powerful, including kapalbhati breathing technique, agnisar kriya (see below) and uddiyana bandha (an abdominal lock, one of three internal locks or bandhas). Working the area below the navel, the apana area is important because it’s the main area for toxin accumulation in the body.”
Yogic techniques that combine breathing with drawing in the abdomen activate the agni (digestive fire) in the navel region and that fire burns the toxins. In practices such as uddiyana bandha, for example, when the abdominal muscles are drawn inwards and upwards, the toxins in the abdominal region are lifted up closer to the digestive flame, enabling it to release the toxins and purify the body.
Whenever we invert the body we are turning it so the flame is directed at the area below the navel and physical toxins get burned out. For this reason, inverted poses such as shoulder stand or headstand are considered very powerful for detoxifying.
It’s very important that bandhas are learnt from a teacher and not a book; and before practising bandhas your breathing has to be refined to a certain level and should be quite long and smooth so you’re able to extend it. The length of your breath is not only an indication of your lung capacity but also an indication of the level of toxicity in your body.
“In somebody who has a toxic body, the breath will be more laboured and short. These people will need to learn how to extend their breath and become a bit more flexible in the postures before they are ready for bandhas,” suggests Dale. “Gentle asanas and pranayamas such as nadi shodhana (alternate nostril breathing) are a good starting point as well as Sri Sri yoga, which offers an accessible and safe program of asana, pranayama and meditation, along with some strong detoxifying elements.”
Combining breath with movement
Yoga is as much about the breath as it is about the body. The correct linking of breath with movement forms the basis for a good yogic practice. Basically, poses need to be led by the breath and not the other way round. When your breath leads you from one movement to the next and is combined, you are working your body in a way other exercises rarely do. This combination of movement and breath benefits the lymphatic system, improving circulation, strengthening the heart and oxygenating the cells, and is a great form of detoxification for the lymphatic system because it keeps the lymphatic fluid moving, ensuring toxins are flushed out through sweat.
Shatkaramas — cleansing techniques
A traditional area of yogic detoxification for detoxifying and purifying the body and mind are the shatkaramas. Some of these techniques aren’t necessarily suitable for people unaccustomed to this level of difficulty and may feel uncomfortable. They are also more suitable for people of kapha constitution rather than people of vata constitution.
Guidelines given when practising the shatkaramas may vary from person to person according to their individual needs; some of the practices need to be avoided altogether by people with specific ailments. Hence, it is very important that they are learnt under the guidance of a qualified yoga teacher. According to the tradition, only those who’ve been taught by a guru (spiritual teacher) should teach others.
There are six main groups under which the shatkarmas fall:
1 Neti — a cleansing and purifying of the nasal passages. There are two forms of neti: jala neti and sutra neti.
(i) In jala neti (nasal cleansing with water) a small nozzle or spout on a pot is placed in the nostrils and warm, salty water is gently poured through, one nostril at a time, until it comes out the mouth. Jala neti improves the overall health of an individual and induces a state of harmony throughout the body, especially within the circulation and digestive systems.
(ii) Sutra neti (nasal cleansing with thread) involves inserting either a 40cm-long small rubber catheter (lubricated with butter, olive oil or saliva) or cotton thread dipped in beeswax or coconut oil into one nostril at a time and out the mouth. Sutra neti has been used to treat sluggishness, sinus headaches, congestion, eye and ear complaints, heaviness of the head, excess kapha (mucus) in the body and lack of alertness.
2 Dhauti — these four techniques cleanse the entire alimentary canal from mouth to anus:
(i) Shankhaprakshalana — cleansing of the intestines
Shankhaprakshalana is a cleansing practice in which warm, salty water is drunk and then five asanas are performed in sequence, eight times. More water is then drunk, the poses repeated, and then again. After this, the person goes to the toilet. If no bowel movement happens they drink more water and repeat the five poses eight times. Typically, solid stool is followed by a mixture of stool and water, which then becomes a cloudy yellow liquid and eventually becomes almost clear.
After this powerful detoxification it’s important to rest, eat specially prepared food and then follow a specific diet that avoids a variety of toxic foods for a period of one month. Shankhaprakshalana relieves digestive problems, tones the liver, strengthens the immune system, purifies the blood, recharges the pranic (energetic) body and purifies the chakras (energy centres).
(ii) Agnisar kriya — activating the digestive fire
In agnisar kriya the abdominal muscles are rapidly contracted and expanded for as long as it’s possible to hold the breath out without straining. Since agnisar massages the abdomen, it activates the digestive fire and encourages maximum health of the abdominal organs.
(iii) Kunjal kriya — cleansing the stomach with water
In kunjal kriya, after drinking six glasses of lightly salted lukewarm water in quick succession, the urge to vomit automatically arises. Vomiting is encouraged until the stomach is empty and the water clear. Certain foods or too much food produce toxins and places strain on the body. This practice prevents burdening the intestines when either too much food or rotten food, relieves heaviness, nausea, indigestion, gas and acidity and can help with respiratory disorders.
(iv) Vatsara dhauti — cleansing the intestines with air
In vatsara dhauti air is drawn in through the mouth, filling the stomach and then, without any effort, leaves through the large intestine in its own time. Vatsara dhauti stimulates the digestive system to work more efficiently, removing gas and wind and preventing hyperacidity and heartburn.
3 Nauli — massaging and strengthening the abdominal organs
In madhyama nauli the lower abdomen is sucked in and the rectus abdominii muscles (the muscle running vertically on each side of the anterior abdominal wall) are contracted until a central arch forms vertically in the abdominal area.
This practice massages the abdominal area and corresponding organs and can alleviate digestive disorders, depression, hormonal imbalances, sexual and urinary disorders, diabetes, lack of energy and emotional disturbances.
4 Bhasti — an enema that can be done with either water or air and is designed to wash and tone the large intestine.
5 Kapalbhati — a succession of fairly rapid breaths done sitting in a comfortable position with the eyes closed, kapalbhati balances and strengthens the nervous system and tones the digestive organs.
6 Trataka — a gazing technique where the eyes are focused on a point (such as the tip of a candle wick) or object to develop concentration, clear the mind and balance the nervous system.
Having a regular practice
One of the most helpful things you can do for yourself to detoxify and remain free from toxins is to establish a daily yoga and meditation practice. Practising yoga once a week or on the occasional retreat is beneficial, but the real nectar and benefits are those that are accumulated from practising daily.
Also remember that whatever you do for your body will also affect your mind. Every time you practise yoga or follow Ayurvedic principles, you’re not only helping eliminate toxins from your body but you’re also creating the habit of being clear-minded, focused, centred, peaceful, emotionally balanced and joyful. Happy detoxing!