How to Clear Your Congestion Naturally (with the Neti Pot)

Dr. Andrew Weil recommends the neti pot. Oprah loves it. Tina Fey and Amy Poehler spoofed it. Here’s everything you need to know about the nasal wash.

May 20, 2013    BY Shannon Sexton

“It’s a watering can…”
“A teapot.”
“A sugar bowl!”
“A candleholder?”
“Incense!”
“A gravy boat?”
“It’s a genie bottle, right?” 

These are the answers Mehmet Oz, MD, heard in April 2007 when he showed the neti pot—a small container used to clean out the nasal passages—to a series of befuddled shoppers in Chicago. It was “Ask Dr. Oz” day on The Oprah Winfrey Show, and he was about to catapult the neti pot to fame.

“You’re putting water up your nose? Ewwww!”

On stage, Dr. Oz told viewers that yogis had been using the neti pot for thousands of years—and that modern medicine was beginning to appreciate its benefits, too. Oprah spoke for the audience when she wrinkled her nose and said, “You’re putting water in your nose? Ewwww!”

In his humble scrubs, he smiled. “A lot of folks who have allergies, who have sinusitis, who have conditions that we treat with medication are equally well treated by washing the areas of your body. Think about it, Oprah. You wash your underarms. You have bidets. Why would you not wash a pretty important part of your body, your sinuses, in the same fashion?”

He invited a volunteer, Amy Huffhines from Mansfield, Texas, onstage to demonstrate the nasal wash (also known as nasal irrigation), instructing her to bend forward over a bowl, insert the snout of the neti pot into her right nostril, and twist her head to the left. You can see the look of surprise on her face as the water trickles out of her other nostril. “I thought it was going to feel like drowning,” she tells them, “but it feels good.”

That day, neti pots began flying off the shelves in drugstores across the country. About a month later, Oprah invited Amy back for a follow-up. She had suffered from chronic sinusitis for years, but had used the neti pot daily since her last visit. “It’s fantastic!” Amy told her. “I haven’t had one sinus headache. I haven’t spent any money on any cold products.”

The nasal wash is becoming a mainstream alternative to cold, sinus, and allergy medication.

What used to be a fringe cleansing practice for die-hard yoga practitioners is now becoming a mainstream alternative to cold, sinus, and allergy medication. Today, you can buy a neti pot at Whole Foods Market, Walgreens, or even Target. National Public Radio and the New York Times have run stories about it. Harvard Medical School and the Mayo Clinic recommend it. You can watch nearly 450 YouTube demo videos— from the practical to the farcical: from giggling two-year-olds to punked-out teens to bearded pranksters who substitute saline with coffee and bourbon.

Some of these videos have 700,000 to 800,000 hits and thousands of comments. At first, many viewers saw the nasal wash as a freak show (“creepy!” “omg!”). Now, neti pot devotees are biting back at their detractors, swearing that it’s changed their lives. The chatter on Facebook, Twitter, and the blogosphere has risen to a comical roar.

Each year, about 18 million Americans suffer from sinusitis and an estimated 40 million cope with environmental allergies.

It’s official: the neti pot has become a household name—and droves of Americans are using it as a natural remedy for all sorts of congestive ailments. Each year, about 18 million Americans suffer from sinusitis; an estimated 40 million cope with environmental allergies; and there are more than 1 billion reported cases of upper respiratory tract infections. Like Amy, many people try to quell their symptoms with antibiotics, nasal steroids, decongestants, and antihistamines. “I used to take over-the-counter medication all the time because I had sinus headaches,” she tells Yoga+ two years after her nasal wash TV debut. “But the side effects were annoying. They were like a stimulant, so I had trouble sleeping at night, and a foggy head. I like the holistic approach of the neti pot better.” The nasal wash only takes five minutes—an easy, safe, inexpensive way to obtain relief.

Getting to Know the Nose

You can rinse away pollen, dust, germs, and other airborne contaminants—and remove excess mucus—with the neti pot.

Before we go into the details of the nasal wash, let’s begin with a science lesson. The nostrils are the interface between your body and the atmosphere—they filter, clean, heat, and moisten the air you inhale. This is why yogis advocate breathing through the nose instead of the mouth.

The sensitive lining of the nostrils secretes mucus, which effectively traps dust, dirt, and other particles when it is moist. The mucus also contains antibodies, which help protect the body from infection or irritation by foreign materials or organisms. This is important because you inhale 18,000 to 20,000 times daily. All day the moist, sticky mucus collects dirty particles from the air you breathe and keeps it from entering the lungs. If you don’t clean this matter out of the nostrils, it will end up in your stomach, because the mucus lining of the nostrils slowly moves everything backwards until it is swallowed. What’s more, when the mucus becomes dry or laden with dust, it loses its protective function. The nasal wash dissolves and clears away dried mucus and stimulates the nasal linings to secrete fresh, moist mucus, which will help keep your nose—and the rest of your system—healthy.

How The Neti Pot Works

You can use the neti pot to rinse away pollen, dust, germs, and other airborne contaminants; to remove excess mucus when you’re congested; to moisturize the nasal membrane after spending time in planes or in heated or air-conditioned rooms; and to open the nostrils as you prepare for meditation.

The anatomy is simple. As holistic expert Carrie Demers, MD, explains: “Your nose is divided into two passages, and there’s a septum in between. You pour the water in one nostril, it goes around the back of the septum, and gravity helps it flow out the other side.”

The nasal wash, she says, can also prevent or treat sinus infections. “Your sinuses drain into your nasal passages through little openings called meatuses. It’s when these openings get blocked that mucus accumulates and causes pressure and infection. The neti water washes over the meatuses, keeping them open and the mucus inside the sinus cavities flowing out—the water doesn’t actually go into your sinuses.”

Yoga on the Nasal Wash

Yogis call the nasal wash jala neti or neti kriya, and they have been doing it for centuries. They regard the nose as one of the most sensitive parts of our anatomy, and they make bold claims for its benefits: cleaning the nose helps overcome addictions, especially to tobacco and alcohol; it is as effective as nadi shodhanam (alternate nostril breathing) for curbing mood swings; and, because it is one of the six shat karmas (yogic cleansing practices), jala neti washes away at least one-sixth of human complaints.

“Yogis use the neti pot as part of their personal cleansing ritual, but they also use it to help them attain higher states of meditation.”

As Warren Jefferson writes in The Neti Pot for Better Health, “Yogis use it as part of their personal cleansing ritual, but they also use it to help them attain higher states of meditation.” Clear breathing leads to clear thinking—a prerequisite to a fruitful yoga practice. Traditionally, jala neti is used as a prelude to pranayama (yogic breathing practices) and meditation because it begins to equalize the flow of breath between the nostrils. This balances the solar and lunar or masculine and feminine energy channels—known respectively as the pingala and ida nadis—as well as the right and left hemispheres of the brain.

In his commentary on the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Swami Muktibodhananda Saraswati writes: “The practice of neti…induces a state of harmony and balance throughout the entire central nervous system and the systems governing the respiratory, circulatory, digestive, and excretory functions. The frontal lobes of the cerebrum, responsible for the higher mental faculties, begin to function optimally. Integration of the higher mental faculties leads to genius, intuition, creativity, and so on.”

On a more esoteric note, he adds: “Perfection of neti leads to divya drishti. Divya means ‘divine’ and drishti is ‘sight’ or ‘vision.’ Divya drishti is the faculty of clairvoyance, which manifests with the awakening of the ajna chakra. It is a faculty of the higher intuitive mind or the ‘third eye.’ The practice of neti is said to stimulate ajna chakra, remove its blockages, and bring it into fuller functioning.”

Lofty promises? Yes. But the yogis encourage us to use our bodies as laboratories. Try it and see for yourself.

How to Use the Neti Pot

If you’re wincing at the memory of getting water up your nose while swimming as a kid, don’t worry—jala neti uses a warm saline solution that’s the same temperature and salt concentration as your bodily fluids and is soothing to the sinuses. Neti pots vary in shape and size, so here’s a basic recipe: Mix one-half heaping teaspoon of pure noniodized salt with two cups of sterile warm water until the salt dissolves completely. Adjust the mixture to your own salinity—it should taste like warm tears.

Fill your neti pot and lean over a sink, face downward. Keeping your nose slightly higher than your lips, twist your head to the left. As you breathe through the mouth, insert the spout into the upper nostril until it forms a tight (but comfortable) seal. Raise the handle of the neti pot and let the water flow through the nose and out the lower nostril. When you’ve emptied the pot, exhale through both nostrils into the sink or a tissue. (Do not close off one nostril while blowing, because this could force the water back into the ear.) Then repeat on the other side.

To clear loose mucus and water from the nose after the practice, exhale forcefully into the sink 5 to 10 times with both nostrils open and the face relaxed. Next, do a simple forward bend, turning the head from side to side as you do another round of vigorous exhalations. Remember, one of the goals of the nasal wash is to reduce excess mucus—so don’t be squeamish about blowing it out. You’ll feel better if you do.

The yogis have numerous variations of jala neti. In addition to the beginner’s nostril-to-nostril version described above, you can also learn how to pull water from your nose into your mouth, or push it from your mouth to your nose—which is especially useful if you’re away from home without your neti pot. To try the mouth-to-nose practice, fill your mouth three-quarters full with warm saline solution. Lean over the sink, facedown. To expel the water, tuck your chin toward your neck and press your entire tongue against the roof of the mouth, forcefully exhaling the saline into the sink. Keep the throat relaxed through the entire process. Repeat several times. This nasal wash reverses the natural motion of the cilia and cleans them in a different way. It also reduces postnasal drip.

Try the Neti Pot Challenge!

For those of you who are new to the nasal wash, try spending three to six days learning how to do it. Then use the neti pot every morning for a month to observe its overall effect.

Next, figure out how often you need to do it and what time of day works best for you. To check whether you would benefit from the nasal wash at any given moment, breathe deeply through both nostrils together, then through each nostril separately; if you feel any blockage, you will find the nasal wash helpful and soothing.

Here are a few more suggestions: Use the neti pot before your asana or meditation practice. Try rinsing your nose after exposure to dusty, smoky, or sooty environments and notice the relief you get from it. Anticipate allergy seasons by getting started on a regular schedule of two or more daily washes. Generally, use the pot before meals, instead of afterward, to stay in harmony with the body’s natural mucus-producing schedule.

Meet You at the Sink?

So there it is: nasal irrigation is both comical and practical. It cleanses and protects the nasal passages, counteracting the effects of environmental pollution and treating colds, allergies, and sinus problems naturally and effectively. It improves the quality of your breathing, and hence, your yoga and meditation practices. Now, that’s a pretty convincing argument, isn’t it? 

Help! 6 Troubleshooting Tips for Using the Neti Pot

  1. The water trickles into my mouth and throat. Lower your head slightly so that it flows out of your bottom nostril.
  2. My nostrils are stinging. Check your salt concentration; adding more salt will usually do the trick. Use the purest salt you can find—noniodized, without caking agents, and, ideally, pharmaceutical grade—and make sure the salt is completely dissolved.
  3. I don’t feel congested, but the water isn’t flowing out of my other nostril. Try raising your head or twisting further at the neck.
  4. I’m so congested that the water won’t move. Hold the position for 30 to 60 seconds to see if you can get a weak trickle, then blow your nose and repeat on the other side. You should feel less congested for 30 to 40 minutes. If nothing happens, don’t overdo it—wait for a few hours and try again.
  5. After the nasal wash, I got a headache. This could mean that your forehead was too far down while you were doing the nasal wash, and you may have gotten water in your frontal sinus. Your nose should always be higher than your chin. But don’t worry; the water drains out after an hour or two without causing any harm.
  6. My ears are plugged. Your head was turned too far to one side, with your nose up toward the ceiling, and you may have gotten water into your Eustachian tube. The water should safely drain out after a while; chewing gum or yawning may also help.

Shannon Sexton
Former Yoga International editor-in-chief Shannon Sexton writes about food, travel, yoga, and natural health.