What is the role of the shatkarmas in the overall scheme of yoga?
Swami Niranjanananda: In the proper application of yoga, everyone must go through the practices of hatha yoga, including the cleansing techniques, to rid the body of the toxicity accumulated at both the gross and subtle levels.
The yogic tradition says, and it is implied in the Yoga Sutras of Sage Patanjali, that before the commencement of raja yoga or ashtanga yoga practices, the practices of hatha yoga must be perfected. Without perfection in hatha yoga, one cannot enter into raja yoga. Life, and one's needs, must be looked at from two perspectives.
What is one's need? Why does one come to yoga? If someone comes to yoga for temporary gain, like eradication of a problem, illness, disease, stress or tension, and yoga is used as an alternative method of healing, it makes no difference what type of yoga is practised. Anything can be practised: the quality of health and life, body and mind can be improved, and after achieving one's aspirations, the practice of yoga can be forgotten about completely. That is one way of looking at yoga, and it is the trend which most people follow.
The other method is to decide whether yoga is going to become one's discipline in life or not. If it is taken on as a discipline, it becomes a way of transcending the limitations of one's senses, mind and personality. If one is aiming for this type of qualitative transformation to enhance the process of evolution, and for an inner awakening which brings one closer to the world in which one lives with other people, yoga must be practised with an appropriate sankalpa and applied properly in life – not merely taking one grain here, one grain there, and another grain there.
One must also begin the training, the self-education of the mind, as the state of physical purity and detoxification leads to a balance between the physical energies and the mental energies, prana shakti and chitta shakti, the vital force and the mental force, the solar force and the lunar force, yang and yin. They both merge in ajna chakra. The purpose of hatha yoga is to awaken these twin forces within and bring about balance in their functions.
Hatha yoga is a specific branch of yoga whose purpose is to cleanse the pathways of prana shakti: this cleaning is known as nadi shuddhi. The cleansing techniques of hatha yoga, numbering six, clean the entire system from the head right down to the perineum, including the oesophagus, the stomach, the small intestine and the large intestine: it is a complete cleaning system for the internal body. After the body has been cleansed with the practices of neti, dhauti and basti, pranayama is taught to ensure that the prana shakti goes through those nadis, those channels that have been purified. Concentration is taught, and activation of the chakras is stimulated through specific kriyas.
What comes after neti, dhauti and basti? Kapalbhati. Kapalbhati is not just one practice of pranayama, it is a series of methods to control the movement of prana in the body. Trataka is the simplest way to focus the mind without having to fight and struggle with oneself. Nauli is the specific kriya to activate a particular psychic centre in the space of manipura chakra, the storehouse of prana shakti, the generating source of prana shakti.
Along with these cleansing techniques and specific kriyas, are the bandhas, energy locks, and mudras, techniques to divert the flow of energy in the body. They must be learnt, for only then can one derive the actual, appropriate benefits from the practices of raja yoga. The yogic tradition states clearly that before the practice of raja yoga, one must perfect hatha yoga. And before attempting to practise the higher yogas, perfect raja yoga – it is a sequence, there is a process.
People like to jump the gun, that's the problem. If one is willing to make yoga into a discipline of life, don't jump the gun, follow the system. If the system is followed, attainments and achievements in life will definitely be positive.