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This is a great question. Aristotle seems to have used the idea of catharsis in two ways. First, in his medical writing, he used the word in a bodily sense, when there is a discharge of fluids from the body, usually in reference to reproductive fluids.
More interestingly, Aristotle used this term in his Poetics. Within this context, he uses the concept of catharsis to refer to the release of pent up emotions. More specifically, he uses this in the genre of tragedy. Catharsis can happen to both the characters in a play as well as the audience. For example, in Sophocles great tragedy, Oedipus Rex, Oedipus is blind as to his identity. When he finally realizes who he is and what he has done, and he accepts his fate, then there is an emotional purging - a catharsis. The same happens to the audience as their emotions build up as they come to confirm their worst feeling that Oedipus did indeed marry his mother and kill his father. The acceptance of Oedipus' fate is the moment of catharsis.
This is an important insight on many levels. First, it shows that in a literary work there is a climax and resolution. Second, it is also applicable to real life, because all people need some sort of emotional purging. In this way, Aristotle was an acute observer of human nature.
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