WE have been gobbled in gray for over four weeks now. The cabin fever is keen, the throbbing in my temple mischievous and restless—sometimes it goes beating away at the right, then the left, never both together strangely, before it worms its way behind the eye sockets.
I imagine some microscopic-sized boys with scrubs and brushes, like chimney sweepers, polishing the back of my eyeballs, scrubbing, screaming away, tumbling amid buckets of suds and silliness. Sometimes, they activate two high-powered vacuum cleaners—and the eyes, poor eyes, get sucked from the inside in! They could well have sent the vac down my stupidly stuck sinus. Goodness knows what lurks there—a particulate party with the PM2.5 family, the PM10s, and other scary unknowns. I can hardly snort and sniff. I can even taste the haze, its acrid, ashy hint at the back of my tongue.
Short of ranting on about our knucklehead peatland-burning neighbor, or watching the PM2.5 and PSI index like the STI, you could enjoy a chrysanthemum tea spiked with ginger. It is cleansing and cooling, I’m told. Or you could start your day with a nasal wash, which was exactly what I did the Saturday morning of early October when the index soared past 200. Finally, my white porcelain neti pot came out of hiding, untouched since it got shipped from some online retailer in the U.S. about a year ago.
The nasal wash, also called jala neti is an ancient cleansing technique that has its roots in India—jala means “water” in Sanskrit, and neti, “to guide.” On their own, the two words aren’t particularly graphic. Enter our neti pot—a short, stout pot sans lid with a straight spout—and a whole new world of clarity and calm opens up before us.
Yes, it does promise that, but only when you get past the water-guiding part, which, for the first-time user, could be a sputtering mess with some spirited snorting, and a little cough here and a little throat-clearing there. But that’s about all.
First, you fill the pot with saline. My recipe: dissolve half a teaspoon of Himalayan pink salt (no table salt, please) with a quick pour of hot water (bottled or filtered only). Now, add more of that same water at room temperature till your neti pot almost fills up. You now have about 8 ounces of saline. Stick your index finger in the pot for a quick temperature test. You’re going for tepid.
Now comes the fun part. You guide the water into the nostril. Start with your favorite one. Mine’s the right. So I lean my head forward over the sink, gaze up the ceiling and nudge the snout clear into the nostril. The problem you might anticipate at this stage, if you’re like me, is you find your nostril a little too small for a snug fit with the spout. You could hunt down a pot with a smaller spout, but for now, stay the course. Just flare your nostril, or if you can’t, imagine you can.
A neti pot has eyes and feelings. It can sense an earnest intention and will do all it can to help wee nostrils receive the saline smoothly. Play with the angle a little. If your head is not going down low enough, you’ll be sipping saline through the nose. Simple science: water follows gravity. That salty wet sensation on your tongue may trigger a niggling urge to cough or choke. Cough if you must, but stay calm.
At this stage, it’s tempting to inhale the saline, but don’t. Breathe only through the mouth. Once you’ve figured out the perfect tilt of the head, you would have captured the true spirit of jala neti—you’ve become not just a jala neti practitioner, but a true water guide. The saline will flow from the right nostril, gently tickling the depths of the nasal cavity as it weaves through a mysterious channel in the sinus before trickling out from the left nostril.
It’s like a magic show, a double dose on the right, then the left, one pot for each side—the kids love it, the adults too! And it doesn’t even need to be performed. Just tell it, and watch the eyes and the mouths go “O.” You too will find an “O,” not in the eyes or mouth, but the mind. Once you’ve snorted out the yucky uglies, there’s an irresistible lightness in the head, as if your worries have lifted, and all around you, everything is keener, sharper, and brighter—from vision, sound, taste, to smell. Even your breath is slower, smoother, calmer, deeper.
And in these troubling days of gray and haze, that can be quite precious.
This article first appeared in six-six.com on October 16, 2015.