Smelling Well: Opening the Senses Through the Nose

Everyday Ayurveda by Bhaswati Bhattacharya

The practice of nasya is considered one of the five great cleansing works, panchakarmaNasya is used to clean out mucous and toxins that have accumulated in the head and neck, gathering wastes from the crevices of the sinuses, nostrils, nasal cavity, mouth and throat.  From January to March, there is a natural tendency to accumulate the kapha in the head, so cleaning it out prevents many problems that can persist when spring comes and the goop clings to nooks and crannies in the body.

While there are many options, anu thailam and brahmi oil are considered among the most common and most available formulations for the correct practice of nasya. A systematic process was developed 5000 years ago and elaborated upon by ancient scientists. Warming the head and neck, the blood flow was increased so that movement of contaminants stuck inside the body could be drawn out. Warm oil on the skin sealed the pores from leaking heat. A hot washcloth applied steam to heat the sinuses and hollow structures under the forehead, cheeks and face.

Tilting the head so that cleansing herbs in droplet form flowed down the nasal cavity would cause all the dirt and toxins to coalesce and draw them out. After they collected as the passages cooled naturally, the patient would sit up and use gravity to expel the collected phlegm from the entire connected network of passages leading outwards to the nose and mouth.

Regular nasya helps keep nasal passages clean for those who are healthy and gradually cleanses and cures the sinuses and hollows of those who are afflicted. It is used to heal a whole variety of diseases in the head as oil-based toxins are slowly drawn out over time. The sense of smell is rejuvenated, and nasal hairs, which protect against unwanted invasions of bacteria, grow healthy. In addition, open passages obviously increase the oxygen taken into the body.

Placing things deep into the nose has recently been made illegal for anyone in the US except physicians, since it is considered a type of entrance into the body and thus a surgery. But the passages are continuous with the flow of air, so they are really open though convoluted. In fact, anyone guided properly can practice nasya.

There are many types of nasya, depending on the needs of the person, collected in ancient scripts over thousands of years’ recommendations to the person, depending on the environment, climate, season, lifestyle, workplace and logistics.

Sometimes, dry powders such as brahmi are used instead of oils, blowing them like snuff into the nose, like the first application of cowpox used in the 1700s by Jenner to vaccinate against smallpox in Europe. Called pradhamana nasya, powders are dry and thus mainly used to treat kapha-dominating diseases of heaviness, stickiness and stagnancy, such as headaches, common colds, heaviness in the head, nasal congestion, sticky collections of pus around the eyes and sinusitis. Advanced diseases of swelling of lymph nodes in the neck or skin immune diseases, nervousness, anxiety, fear, dizziness and emptiness are also treated by pradhamana nasya carefully and slowly dissolve into the fat-dominated immune system and slowly release their chemicals and pitta-pacifying elements into the plentiful immune cells in the head and neck. Neurological diseases, such as epilepsy, chronic drowsiness and parkinsonism are treated by nasya nerve cells are bundled by fat and have their own transport system independent of the blood highways of the body.

Ghee nasya is a nutritive (bruhana in Sanskrit) nasya, loved by those who use ghee regularly. Since the head is oily and the passages are prone to phlegm, but also to dryness and roughness from the constant intake and outflow of air, ghee is a natural remedy for and drying tendencies. Bruhana nasya uses shatavari ghee, ashwagandha ghee and medicated milk to cure dryness and conditions in the head, along with oils, salts and plain ghee. Studies suggest it can improve tension-type headaches, migraines, hoarse voice, dry nose and sinuses, loss of sense of smell, heavy eyelids, bursitis and stiffness in the neck, all consequences of excess dryness and roughness of the tissues. People also report less negative, dry thoughts that lead to nervousness, anxiety, fear, dizziness and emptiness as symbolically these are also tendencies of the body as much as modern medicine, all types of conditions are cured using moist, warm and grounding oily formulations.

The lack of ability to sleep has become endemic in modern society. Ancients understood the cleansing power of good sleep and used nasya as a palliation or calming treatment to promote healthy, restful sleep. Shamana nasya is tailored to each person, noting whether imbalanced or excess pitta, or kapha is creating insomnia. Usually, agitation and pitta aggravation play a part with inflammation in the head and neck.

Hence, sedative nasya includes qualities opposite to pitta, using pitta-reducing and inflammation-reducing herbs as decoctions — known as kashaya or kadha or kwatha, teas and light oils. Ghees are too heavy and coagulate the heat of the inflammation. Liquids are more cooling by nature, invoking a smooth anti-pitta response. Within a couple of weeks, people report sound sleep, less snoring, less sleep apnea and thus, often better night-time marital relations.

The South Asian Times Columnist Dr. Bhaswati Bhattacharya is a Fulbright Specialist 20182022 in Public Health and Clinical Asst Professor of Medicine, Weill Cornell Medical College, New York. Her bestselling book Everyday Ayurveda is published by Penguin Random House. 

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