Purify Your Chakras
The practice of bhuta shuddhi.
By Swami Rama
According to ancient tantric texts such as the Rudra Yamala and the Bhuta Shuddhi Tantra, your body is a living shrine—and a meditation practice called bhuta shuddhi is one of the best ways to render that shrine wholesome and pure. The practice is so potent that the sages forbid students who are not familiar with the broad range of yoga practices from undertaking it. Bhuta shuddhi, they declare, is fruitful to those who combine asana, pranayama, and mantra japa, but fruitless for those who isolate those practices. It’s also a prerequisite for seekers who hope to learn the more advanced practices of the yogic and tantric traditions.
So why has Yoga International chosen to introduce bhuta shuddhi to its readers today? Because there are a large number of aspirants in the West who are studying yoga earnestly and seriously—they practice kumbhaka (breath retention), visualization, and mantra meditation—and as a result, they are qualified to undertake this unique and highly secret practice.
If you haven’t reached this level of yoga practice yet, you’ll be motivated. Just reading this article will give you a glimpse into the depth and breadth of authentic yoga practice in a world where people equate “yoga” with “asana” and “tantra” with “sex.” Swami Rama (1925–1996), the founder of Yoga International and an adept who studied in the cave monasteries of the Himalayas before coming to the West, reveals an inspiring beginner’s version of bhuta shuddhi in the pages that follow.
According to the teaching of yoga, man’s nature is divine, perfect, and infinite, but he is unaware of this because he falsely identifies himself with the body, the mind, and objects of the external world. This false identification, in turn, makes him think he is imperfect and limited, subject to sorrow, decay, and death. The techniques of yoga are tools to enable man to cast off this ignorance and become aware of his own true self, which is pure and free from all imperfections.
The whole process of yoga is to unite the individual self with the universal Self. It is an ascent into the purity of that absolute perfection which is the original state of man; it entails removing the enveloping impurities in both body and mind. Thus it is necessary to purify the mind to make it crystal clear, for as long as the mind is covered with impurities, the light of the true Self cannot shine through. Yoga is the process of removing thoughts from the mindfield, making it one-pointed, and turning it inward toward the center of consciousness. But the mind cannot be totally separated from the body—at least not at first. One influences the other—a sound mind can live only in a healthy body; physical impurities lead to mental dullness.
You can see this when you look at the obstacles you face in daily life: sickness, procrastination, sloth, lack of motivation, fear, and mental and physical instability. If you trace these obstacles to their source, you will find that the toxins in your system and your disorganized thoughts and emotions are their breeding ground. That is why to free yourself of the obstacles that prevent you from experiencing the joy of transformation you must purify both body and mind. Without purification, it is not possible to control the mind and turn it inward to cultivate an awareness of who you really are.
The ancient yogis knew that to control the mind they must first cleanse the body and strengthen the nervous system, and for this reason they developed the techniques of asana and pranayama and used them in combination with the practice of meditation. They called this raja yoga, the royal path. It is the most ancient model for health and well-being. Then, as time passed, they refined their knowledge and developed a technique that would purify the body, breath, and mind while awakening the dormant force of the soul, the kundalini shakti. In the scriptures this process is known as bhuta shuddhi (purification of the elements).
The purpose of bhuta shuddhi is to purify the basic elements of the body (earth, water, fire, air, and ether) and their corresponding chakras—the root chakra (muladhara), the pelvic center (svadhishthana), the navel center (manipura), the heart center (anahata), and the throat center (vishuddha)—as well as the two highest chakras: the realm of the mind (ajña) and the realm of pure consciousness (sahasrara), which are beyond the elements. Bhuta shuddhi involves visualization, pranayama, and the repetition of a specific mantra while focusing on each of these seven major chakras in turn. The mantra used for the first five chakras is a seed (bija) mantra, the core sound of that chakra. Systematically focusing on the seven major chakras in this manner purifies the subtle realms of being with the fire of kundalini shakti.
Bhuta shuddhi is one of the basic practices of tantra and kundalini yoga. It is also an effective technique for those following the path of raja yoga. Those who practice tantra yoga regard the body as a living shrine wherein Divinity dwells, and bhuta shuddhi is one of the preliminary methods for rendering the body pure and wholesome. In the kundalini yoga system, bhuta shuddhi prepares the aspirant for the awakening of the latent force of kundalini. Later, certain components of bhuta shuddhi—meditation on a particular chakra with mantra repetition, for example—become the central focus of kundalini practice.
This practice is derived from the texts of tantra and kundalini yoga, but it is not mentioned in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, so those following the path of raja yoga may not be aware of it. These practitioners, however, can use bhuta shuddhi to good effect after the breathing practice nadi shodhanam (channel purification) and before sitting for meditation, because it creates a smooth transition between the process of withdrawing the mind from the external world and turning it inward.
Bhuta shuddhi introduces you to the deepest layers of your being. In addition to helping you master pranayama, it trains the mind to concentrate. And by combining visualization and the repetition of the seed mantras of the specific chakras, a harmonious balance is created between the auditory and the optic nerve centers in the brain, and the thinking process is clarified. The power of memory is also improved, for recollection depends greatly on the relationship between what is seen and what is heard. In other words, the practice of bhuta shuddhi creates a perfect environment in which the brain centers that regulate vision and hearing are activated and linked with the processes of speaking and thinking.
What is more, the energy released from the sacred sound of the seed mantras, together with the combined force of intense visualization and breath retention, help unblock the energy channels more effectively than many other yogic methods that are not so all-inclusive. However, because this technique involves breath retention and requires coordination between thinking, hearing, and visualization, it is important that you learn it systematically and practice it regularly and sincerely.
The scriptures praise bhuta shuddhi so that students will be inspired to practice it. But to make sure it is taught properly, the scriptures also tell us that it is highly secret. I therefore advise anyone who practices bhuta shuddhi to do so under the guidance of a competent teacher who has mastered this technique and who has experienced the subtleties that are not described in either the scriptures or this article.
There are many ways to do bhuta shuddhi. The method I describe here is drawn from different schools of yoga and tantra, and includes the best techniques for inner purification.
Sit in a comfortable meditation posture, with your head, neck, and trunk in a straight line. Close your eyes and focus your attention at the muladhara chakra, the abode of the earth element, at the base of the spine. Visualize a yellow square surrounded by four petals. In the center of this yellow square, visualize the kundalini in the form of a sleeping serpent. Its body is as brilliant as a thousand flashes of lightning.
Now create a root lock by squeezing the anus muscles and pulling them upward. Allow your mind to reach the central point in the region of the root lock. While mentally repeating the sound “hum,” feel as though you are awakening the dormant kundalini shakti. Then mentally repeat “lam,” the bija (seed) mantra of the earth element, not less than sixteen times, while focusing your mind on the kundalini shakti that resides at the muladhara.
Next, visualize the kundalini awakening and traveling upward until it reaches the svadhishthana chakra, the abode of the water element, just above the root of the genitals. There, visualize an ocean-blue circle with a white crescent moon in the center. The circle is surrounded by six petals. While you maintain this image, mentally repeat the bija mantra of the water element, “vam,” not less than sixteen times.
Now visualize the kundalini traveling upward toward the manipura chakra, the abode of fire, at the navel center. Here, visualize a red triangle pointing upward. This triangle is enclosed in a circle of ten petals. Mentally repeat the bija mantra of the fire element, “ram,” not less than sixteen times.
Continue to move with the upward-traveling kundalini until you reach the anahata, the heart center, which is the abode of air. Here, visualize two smoky-gray triangles, one superimposed upon the other, encircled by a twelve-petaled lotus. In the center visualize jiva, the individual soul, in the form of a flame. At this stage mentally repeat the bija mantra of the air element, “yam,” not less than sixteen times.
Next, visualize the kundalini shakti, in which the individual consciousness has dissolved, traveling upward until it reaches the vishuddha chakra, the abode of ether at the base of the throat. There, a sky-blue circle is surrounded by a sixteen-petaled lotus. The presiding force of this chakra is contained in the bija mantra of the space (or ether) element, “hum,” which you mentally repeat not less than sixteen times.
Now visualize the upward-traveling kundalini shakti reaching the ajña chakra, the center between the eyebrows. This is the realm of mind. This chakra consists of a yellow triangle surrounded by a circle. A bright white flame is enclosed in the triangle. Outside the circle are two petals. Mentally repeat the mantra “so hum.”
Still moving upward with the kundalini shakti, reach the sahasrara chakra, the thousand-petaled crown center which is the abode of the primordial spiritual master—pure consciousness.
At this center all colors, forms, and shapes dissolve, for this chakra is beyond the realm of mind and therefore beyond the realm of imagination. When you experience this center, it consists of countless rays of white light. However, it is most often visualized as a thousand-petaled lotus with a pinkish aura so that the mind can conceive of it. Here repeat the mantra “hamsah.”
Keeping your consciousness at the sahasrara chakra, begin three cycles of pranayama. These pranayama cycles require you to retain your breath after the inhalation—normally the breath is retained four times longer than the inhalation and twice as long as the exhalation. If you have not yet mastered breath retention but still want to do this practice, retain your breath only to your comfortable capacity and disregard the ratios given here.
The First Cycle
Close the right nostril and inhale deeply through the left nostril while mentally repeating “yam,” the bija mantra of air, sixteen times. Then close both nostrils and retain the breath. While holding the breath, repeat “yam” sixty-four times. Then, while closing the left nostril, exhale slowly through the right nostril, repeating the mantra thirty-two times.
While inhaling during this cycle, visualize a smoky color in the left nostril. During retention, imagine that your whole heart region is filled with the air element, drying up all the toxins and impurities in the body.
The Second Cycle
Close the left nostril and inhale through the right nostril while mentally repeating the bija mantra of the fire element, “ram,” sixteen times. Close both nostrils and retain the breath while repeating “ram” sixty-four times. Then close the right nostril and slowly exhale through the left nostril, repeating the mantra thirty-two times.
During this second cycle visualize a bright, flame-like light in the right nostril during the inhalation. While retaining the breath, imagine this light consuming the impurities dried up during the first cycle. During exhalation, visualize the light as emanating from the heart region and exiting through the left nostril, taking all impurities with it.
The Third Cycle
Close the right nostril and inhale through the left while mentally repeating “vam,” the bija mantra of nectar (also the seed mantra of water), sixteen times. After completing the inhalation, retain the breath and concentrate on the ajña chakra, feeling the nectar showering from this chakra in the form of all the mantras you have employed (they carry the subtle power of the divine force), and filling your body. During retention, repeat the mantra “vam” sixty-four times. Then exhale through the right nostril, repeating the mantra thirty-two times.
When you have finished these three cycles of pranayama, let your consciousness descend toward the lower chakras. Remember, the kundalini shakti has swallowed all the elements, energies, and issues associated with each of the chakras as it traveled upward. Now, as it travels downward, those elements and energies re-emerge, purified by the kundalini shakti. The mind is left at the ajña chakra; the space element is left at the throat; individual consciousness and the air element return to the heart; the fire returns to the navel center; water returns to the pelvic center; and the earth element returns to the base of the spine. Finally, the kundalini shakti rests again at the muladhara chakra.
The Realm Beyond
The type of bhuta shuddhi practice just described comes from kundalini yoga. Its purpose is to help you make a smooth transition from general yoga practices to more advanced disciplines. Generally this process takes place only in the imagination, but when a competent master bestows shaktipata (the direct transmission of spiritual energy), then the kundalini is actually awakened and bhuta shuddhi becomes a living experience. The student who receives shaktipata transcends all sense of solidity and weight as the kundalini rises above the muladhara center, and at the same time such a student also attains freedom from fear of death, insecurity, and anxiety. When the kundalini rises above the ajña chakra all thoughts vanish, and the mind is left behind. What remains is only the awareness of pure consciousness.
According to the scriptures, attaining a direct experience of pure consciousness takes a long time. Shaktipata—the direct transmission from master to student—is the quickest and surest way. However, it is better to practice bhuta shuddhi sincerely and to your fullest capacity than to wait passively for a realized master to bestow shaktipata. Such masters are rare, and even if an aspirant finds one, few students are prepared to receive such a high degree of initiation. Self-effort is the force that draws divine grace and moves the guru spirit to light the spark that may result in shaktipata.
Swami Rama studied meditation, yoga, and philosophy in the cave monasteries of the Himalayas. He came to the West in 1969 to build a bridge between modern science and ancient traditions.
Cautions and Precautions
Bhuta shuddhi soothes the mind and awakens the heart; it leaves no room for sloth and inertia. When this practice is finished the mind slips into meditation without effort. But according to what I have observed, bhuta shuddhi is a joyful experience mixed with fear for those who have not prepared themselves. Aspirants who have not gained some experience with mantra meditation and who have not practiced pranayama find bhuta shuddhi too intense—by the time they have completed the practice, the mind has turned inward and become so one-pointed that the nervous system is overwhelmed. That is why the scriptures tell you to purify your heart, to strengthen your nervous system with the help of pranayama, and to train your mind with the help of japa in order to enjoy the bliss that springs from the center of consciousness.
Bhuta shuddhi is an advanced practice. This means it should be done carefully. People with heart disease, high blood pressure, a nervous disorder, or schizophrenia, as well as those recovering from drug abuse, should consult a competent teacher before undertaking this practice. If you want to practice bhuta shuddhi you should first have studied yoga philosophy and practiced the fundamental yoga postures and breathing techniques. You also should have been meditating regularly for some time. A basic knowledge of kundalini shakti, the chakras, tantra yoga, and the role of mantra in awakening the dormant force within will help you understand the dynamics of visualization and the deep meaning behind the repetition of specific seed mantras at the chakras. By the same token, the breathing practices of nadi shodhanam, kapalabhati, bhastrika, and agni sara will help prepare you for the advanced pranayama, which is an important part of bhuta shuddhi.
One of the greatest yogis, teachers, and humanitarians of the 20th century, Swami Rama is the founder of the Himalayan Institute and of Yoga International. Under the guidance of his master, the Himalayan sage, Bengali Baba, he traveled throughout India and the Himalayan region, studying and practicing with adepts from a variety of traditions.