Neti Pot: Yoga for Sinus Congestion

Just about everyone’s heard of the neti pot by now.  It’s received significant media attention.  National Public Radio broadcast a morning story about it, and it made the Oprah Winfrey show in May of 2007.

Now that it’s main-stream, neti pots are readily available at most pharmacies.  Many family physicians, 87 percent in one survey, are prescribing them for chronic sinus and allergy problems. Medical guidelines in both the United States and Canada are recommending the nasal saline flush for a variety of sinus conditions.

What many people haven’t heard is that the simple, natural, and inexpensive technique of neti originates from within the system of Yoga.

This article begins with a brief exploration of those roots as described in an old Yogic text.  Details of the technique follow.  We’ll then look at how neti was done according to the traditional teachings, and how it’s currently being taught at the most respected institutions in India.  There’s a link to a great instructional site for the currently popular version used in Western medicine.  It includes an entertaining video.

To better understand what’s happening when all that salt water goes up your nose, a review of the anatomy and physiology of the nasal and sinus passages has been provided.

And, for those of you who are interested in the science of it all, towards the end there’s a summary of studies supporting the use of neti and of those that determine just how it works.  Technical details will be reviewed, things like how much volume, what temperature, the appropriate concentration of salt, and what devices are out there on the market for use with neti.

Where Neti Comes From and What It Is

A descriptive reference of neti and the sinus flush is found in the Gherenda Samhita, a classic Yogic text dating from the late 1600s or early 1700s.  As Yoga was an oral tradition for centuries, how old the techniques are or from where exactly they originate is unknown.

The purpose of neti and other cleaning practices of Danta-dhauti is purification, a prerequisite on the path to Yoga, the ultimate union.  The body, meaning both the physical body and the “subtle body” of energy, are to be purified and freed from disease as a preparatory practice for techniques that lead to Liberation.

As “neti” is specifically described in the Gherenda Samhita, it refers to “sutra neti,” or the cleaning of the nasal passages with a thread.  A later verse describing “jala neti,” or the cleaning of the nasal passages with liquid, is referred to as Vyutkrama.

From a metaphysical point of view, according to Swami Satyananda Saraswati of the Bihar School of Yoga, purification through neti helps to sensitize ajna chakra, the third eye, aiding in its awakening and profoundly altering psychic awareness.  He recommends neti, both jala and sutra, every morning before any other practices are undertaken.  In that way, the free flow of breath may be attained in both nostrils facilitating a meditative state.

How Neti is Taught Now in India

One of the oldest and most well known modern Yoga institutions in India is Kaivalyadhama at Lonavala, a small city between Mumbai and Pune.  The founder, Swami Kuvalayananda, made a strong effort with its establishment in the 1920s to bring current scientific methodology and understanding to traditional practices.  Well respected in his day, even Mahatma Gandhi wrote requesting his help.

According to one of his disciples, Swami Kuvalayananda is responsible for the modernization of neti.

A recent visit to the Kaivalyadhama Yoga Hospital in Lonavala revealed the instructors are still teaching both sutra and jala neti.  Every morning a mentor meets anyone who will show up at 6:30 to help them learn the techniques.  Sutra neti is performed with a tiny, inexpensive rubber catheter found in their shop.  After jala neti, it’s recommended that 10 to 15 forceful expirations, or Kapalabhati, are performed to remove excess liquid.

In contrast, a visit to the The Yoga Institute in Mumbai, another well-established institution of Yoga therapy, revealed that they teach the traditional version of jala neti as described in the Gherenda Samhita.  A salt solution is made and then poured into the palm of the hand from where it is sucked up into the nasal cavity and released through the mouth.  Unlike the passive version taught at Kaivalyadhama, this version requires active effort to pull in liquid.  Training in sutra neti is reserved for more advanced Yoga students.

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