Week seven in the yoga classes taught at our center includes a trip to the washroom. We all gather around the sink for a performance that usually elicits a few gasps and a few laughs. It’s the nasal wash (jala neti)—rinsing the inside of the nose, a portion of the anatomy we usually keep as far from water as possible.
The demonstration is engaging. The teacher pours salted water through her nose, using a pot that looks like Aladdin’s lamp. What could be more entertaining? To add to the performance, teachers sometimes talk, sing, or even whistle while the water flows.
Students, of course, puzzle over how it works. It seems an anatomical miracle that water can flow into one nostril and out the other. Then, when it comes time for a member of the class to try the wash, the act reaches a climax. The brave recruit wonders aloud whether water will actually flow through his own nose. And, will it hurt?
It seems an anatomical miracle that water can flow into one nostril and out the other.
The experiment almost invariably leads to an unsolicited testimonial. “I can’t believe how much more open my nose is...It feels really good!...It didn’t hurt at all...Once the water started flowing it was easy.” The demonstration is then summarized by the teacher with a few comments about how to clear remaining water from the nose, when to practice the nasal wash, and the benefits of doing it regularly. It’s a performance that few students forget—and surprisingly many take to it with a vengeance.
Mucus and the Nose
The nasal area is called in Sanskrit sapta-patha, meaning “seven paths.” It is the confluence of seven openings—the two nostrils, the two tear ducts (when we cry, tears run into the nose), the two Eustachian tubes, and the pharynx (the upper throat). In addition, the sinuses are connected to the nose through small canals emptying at the sides of the nostrils. Over 20,000 breaths per day pass back and forth through this area. Filtered, warmed, cleaned, moistened, and tested for noxious smells, air passing inward through the nose is strikingly transformed by its brief sojourn there.
The nose, sinuses, and nasal pharynx are lined with highly sensitive tissue containing two special cell types: goblet and ciliated cells. Goblet cells secrete mucus—about one pint a day. Ciliated cells contain tiny hair-like filaments that beat rhythmically to move the mucus lining from the nose into the throat, where it can be swallowed (or spit out).
From the point of view of yogic science, mucus can be either a healthy secretion or an unpleasant excretion. A healthy blanket of mucus traps airborne particles carried into the nose. It also lubricates the nose and moistens the air, which otherwise can be extremely drying (as one can appreciate when it becomes necessary to breathe through the mouth).
The consistency and thickness of the mucus lining in the nose varies. Mucus can range from thin and watery to thick and dry. It can also crust. During periods of imbalance, mucus is excreted in large quantities and becomes a source of problems.
So long as it remains a healthy consistency, the blanket of mucus is carried along by the underlying cilia and is completely replaced every 10 to 20 minutes. However, when the blanket becomes too thin and watery, mucus pools, running out the nose and back into the throat (postnasal drip). Thick or excessive mucus, on the other hand, overwhelms the cilia. This leads to congestion and may clog sinus openings and prevent the sinuses from draining.
Particles trapped in the mucus lining include not only dust but also potentially infectious microbes, such as bacteria, viruses, and fungi. Antibodies in the mucus help protect the body from these microbes, and in a healthy person mucus carried from the nose into the stomach, and eventually through the bowels, transports invading microbes out of the body.
The Nasal Wash
Practices for cleansing the nose and improving the health of the nasal tissue have been described since ancient times. An ayurvedic text, the Gheranda Samhita, explains that water can be taken in the nose and passed out the mouth—or the other way around. In either direction, beginners usually find the task disconcerting. In a third, more contemporary method, a small pot called a Neti Pot is used to pass saline water from one nostril to the other and then out. This technique is simpler and far easier to learn.
Practices for cleansing the nose and improving the health of the nasal tissue have been described since ancient times.
Fill the Neti Pot with warm saline solution. If your tap water has an unpleasant taste or contains chemicals, consider warming some bottled water. If the water is too cool, it may increase congestion. If it is too warm, it will irritate the delicate lining of the nose. Never use hot water.
A properly mixed warm saline solution won’t burn the nasal passage. It is best to use a pure, noniodized salt, such as kosher salt or canning/pickling salt. The amount you use depends on how finely the salt is ground. Use a slightly rounded one-half teaspoon with coarse varieties, like kosher salt, and a heaping one-fourth teaspoon with finely ground salt, such as table salt. Make sure the salt is completely dissolved before using the solution. With just the right amount of salt (not too much and not too little), the water is soothing as it passes through the nose. During times of inflammation the salt will also draw fluid out of swollen tissues.
The technique can be mastered in a few tries. Begin by leaning over the sink, face downward. Twist your head to the side, raising one nostril. Breathe through the mouth (holding the breath is not necessary and may even prevent the water from flowing smoothly). Then, insert the spout into the upper nostril and let the water flow back through the nose and out the lower nostril.
If water flows into your mouth, lower your head a little. You are too erect and the water is flowing into your throat. If the water does not flow into the other nostril or if it irritates the nose, you may need to raise your head or twist further. The head position is important—but success comes easily with a little experimentation. If the flow won’t start, consult with a qualified teacher for help. Most often the problem is simple to correct.
Once the flow of water begins, it is natural to want to see it in the mirror. Unfortunately, lifting up to do that changes the head position and will interrupt the stream. So be content to let the water do its work while you continue to do yours.
I like to empty the pot into one nostril, then refill it and do the same thing with the other nostril. Others simply use half the pot on each side. Either way, be sure to do the practice on both sides of your nose.
On the Road
Suppose you are away from home, without your Neti Pot. Then, it could be helpful to learn the mouth-to-nose variation of this practice. It requires a glass of warm water and some salt.
After mixing the water and salt, about three-quarters of a mouthful of water is taken into the mouth. Lean over the sink, face down (lowering your nose and forehead), so that when the water is pushed into the nose it will tumble out into the basin. To expel the water move it to the rear of the mouth and then, exhaling, press it through the nose by constricting the base of the tongue against the soft palate. As the tongue is pressed upward toward the palate, keep the opening from the throat to the nose relaxed, permitting the water to flow into the nose and out into the sink.
I remember standing over the sink, imagining the water moving into the nose, and at the same time asking myself, “Do I really want to do this?” But once the process is mastered, it is pleasant, quick, and refreshing.
Since the upper portion of the throat is lined with the same nerve-sensitive tissue as the nose itself, there is natural resistance to letting water go up toward the nose, and as a result, the area may tighten, blocking the water from going out. In the beginning I remember standing over the sink, imagining the water moving into the nose, and at the same time asking myself, “Do I really want to do this?” But once the process is mastered, it is pleasant, quick, and refreshing. It is not as easy as using a Neti Pot, but in a pinch the mouth-to-nose technique can prove useful.
When You’ve Finished
Once the nasal wash is completed, 10 to 20 moderately forceful exhalations will help clear loose mucus and any remaining water from the nose. During these exhalations it is important not to squeeze the nose or block the nostrils, and to keep the mouth open. Otherwise water or mucus can be propelled back into the openings of the Eustachian tubes or the sinuses. Blow firmly out into the sink, or into a tissue held lightly around the nose. Remember that one purpose of the wash is to reduce excess mucus—so don’t be squeamish about blowing it out. You’ll feel better if you do.
If water does not seem to completely clear from the nose, selected yoga postures are sometimes used to help the process. The main purpose is to tilt the nose in a variety of directions to assist draining. The three poses commonly recommended are a simple forward bend; a side stretch with the head facing forward; and a rotated forward bend with the head turned upward. These are pictured below. You can experiment to find the position(s) most useful to you. Then, as you come out of the posture, water may trickle from the nose. Blow it out, and follow with another round of moderately forceful exhalations.
One word of caution: the nasal wash is not a substitute for medical attention, and anyone with chronic inflammation or blockage of the nasal passages should seek expert assistance.
A good plan is to buy a Neti Pot and spend three to six days learning to do the wash. Then experiment to discover how often you need to do it and the time of day most suitable for you. Here are some suggestions.
Try using the Neti Pot every morning for a month in order to see its overall effect. Practice before your asana or meditation practice. Rinse your nose promptly after exposure to dusty, smoky, or sooty environments and notice the relief. Anticipate allergy seasons by getting started on a regular schedule of two or more daily rinsings. Generally, use the pot before meals rather than following meals to harmonize with the body’s natural mucus-producing schedule.
Here’s a final thought from a text called the Yoga-Ratnakara, a treatise on ayurvedic medicine.
"A person who regularly drinks water through the nose in the early morning at the end of the night, becomes intelligent, develops eyesight as acute as an eagle, prevents the graying of hair, prevents the wrinkling of skin, and is freed from all diseases."
Meet you in the morning?
An obvious benefit of the nasal wash is that it rinses away excess mucus. But the nasal wash is not intended simply for those with acute nasal congestion. If you’re looking for possible reasons for trying it, here’s a baker’s dozen:
1. Your nose will feel clean, even after breathing in a dusty or sooty environment.
2. Your breath will flow more easily and quietly. This is relaxing at a deep level.
3. With regular practice, your sense of smell will improve.
4. As smell improves, the sense of taste improves.
5. Blockage at the opening of the Eustachian tubes can be relieved.
6. Openings from the sinus canals into the nose may drain more easily, preventing or relieving a variety of sinus-related conditions (water, however, does not enter the sinuses).
7. According to yoga manuals, the optic nerve is soothed by the nearby flow of water, relaxing the eyes.
8. With regular practice chronic inflammation and irritability of the mucus lining in the nose can be improved. Normal, healthy nasal function can be restored.
9. The anxiety or discomfort created by nasal congestion is relieved.
10. Dependence on over-the-counter nasal sprays and drops can be reduced or eliminated.
11. Symptoms of hay fever, dust, and other airborne allergies can be relieved.
12. Yoga breathing practices and the concentration of attention are made easier.
13. Unnecessary mouth breathing can be reduced or eliminated.