By Shannon Sexton, Yoga+
Do you have a neti pot yet? Droves of Americans are beginning to rely on this small container, which is used to clean out the nasal passages with saline, 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 one billion reported cases of upper respiratory tract infections. Many people try to quell their symptoms with antibiotics, nasal steroids, decongestants, and antihistamines. But if you’d prefer to avoid the side effects of medication, why not use a neti pot to learn the nasal wash? The process only takes five minutes–an easy, safe, inexpensive way to obtain relief.
Getting to Know the Nose
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 It 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.
Lofty promises? Yes. But the yogis encourage us to use our bodies as laboratories. Try it and see for yourself.
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 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.
Next: Help! Having trouble with your technique? Read my FAQs about the nasal wash.
The water trickles into my mouth and throat. Lower your head slightly so that it flows out of your bottom nostril.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Science of Neti
Still leery about pouring water through your nose? Scientists have been conducting a growing number of studies that suggest the nasal wash is an effective way to relieve the symptoms of sinus discomfort and disease. According to Dr. Mehmet Oz, some of this research shows that “it’s as effective as drugs for preventing sinus infections…[and] hugely beneficial for people with nasal allergies and headaches.” Several recent studies indicate that with regular use of the neti pot (and other nasal irrigation devices), patients become less reliant on medication.
Kids with allergies: In 2008, Nanjing Medical University conducted an independent study with 26 children suffering from allergic rhinitis, concluding that regular use of nasal irrigation led to a decreased use of topical steroids, “which will contribute to fewer side effects and less economic burden.”
Adults with chronic nasal and sinus problems: An eight-week randomized clinical trial at the University of Michigan with 121 subjects in 2007 suggested that nasal irrigation was more effective than saline sprays.
Chronic rhinosinusitis: A statistical analysis of eight randomized controlled studies in the Cochrane database in 2007 suggested that nasal irrigation is beneficial as both a sole and an adjunct treatment for chronic rhinosinusitis, or inflammation of the sinuses.
Meet You at the Sink?
The nasal wash 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, the quality of your thinking–and your life. Now, that’s a pretty convincing argument, isn’t it?
To perfect your nasal wash technique, watch a neti how-to video and a Q&A video with Carrie Demers, MD. Plus download our audio article about the mouth-to-nose practice–all at yogaplus.org/neti.
Shannon Sexton is the editor at large of Yoga + Joyful Living.
Yoga+ is an award-winning, independent magazine that contemplates the deeper dimensions of spiritual life–exploring the power of yoga practice and philosophy to not only transform our bodies and minds, but inspire meaningful engagement in our society, environment, and the global community.