nadi shodana – alternate nostril breath

Nadi Shodhana, नाडी शोधन प्राणायाम, is also known as Anuloma Viloma Prāṇāyāma, अनुलोम विलोम प्राणायाम.  Simply referred as Alternate Nostril Breathing, it is a powerful breathing practice.

Nadi, नाडी, is a Sanskrit word for ‘channel’ or ‘flow’ and shodhana, शोधन means ‘purification.’ The Nadis, channels that connect the chakras, energy centers are the psychic pathways within the human system.  This pranayama technique is used to purify these channels, balance the masculine and feminine energies.

How to Practice

Seat

  • Choose a comfortable seat; on the floor (with a cushion, block or blanket), or in a chair with your feet flat on the floor or on a block with an erect spine and head.

Guidelines

  1. Begin with Dhirgha Pranayamadeep yogic breath.
  2. When the breath feels relaxed, begin Nadi Shodhana.
  3. Bring the right hand into Vishnu mudra by folding the index and middle fingers inward until they touch the palm at the base of the right thumb. Align the length of the ring and pinky fingers on the right hand. (You may also fold index, middle and ring fingers in a modified version of this mudra)
  4. Alternatively,  Nasagra Mudra may also used.
  5. You will use the right thumb to close the right nostril and the right ring and pinky fingers (together) or just the pinky to close the left nostril alternately.
  6. Left hand is placed on the knee palms facing up (gesture of receiving). (Note: the mudras, yogic seals for pranayama – not discussed in this post.)

Variation One

  1. Use the right thumb to close the right nostril.
  2. Exhale through the left nostril.
  3. Keeping the right nostril closed, inhale through the left nostril. As you inhale, allow the breath to travel upward along the left side of the spine – from the pelvic floor to your head.
  4. Pause for one silent OM at the end of the inhalation.
  5. Use the pinky and/or ring fingers of the right hand to close the left nostril and simultaneously release the right nostril.
  6. Exhale through the right nostril, sending the breath down the right side of the body from the head down to the pelvic floor.
  7. Pause for one silent OM at the end of the exhalation.
  8. Keeping the left nostril closed, inhale through the right nostril, drawing the breath back up along the right side of the spine from the pelvic floor up to the head.
  9. Pause for one silent OM at the end of the inhalation.
  10. Use the right thumb to close the right nostril as you release the left nostril.
  11. Exhale through the left nostril, surrendering the breath back down the left side of the body from the head down to the pelvic floor.
  12. Pause for one silent OM at the end of the exhalation.
  13. This is one round of Nadi Shodana, Alternate Nostril Pranayama.
  14. Do 5-10 rounds.
  15. Complete your final round with an exhalation through the left nostril.
  16. Return your right hand on your knee and breathe with complete awareness.

Breath Ratio

The above instructions are meant to provide a simple introduction to Nadi Shodhana.

Single Nostril Nadi Shodana can also be introduced to beginners. In other variations of Nadi Shodhana, advanced techniques incorporate breath retention and duration ratios for inhalation and exhalation.

There are multiple instructions regarding breath ratios in this pranayama. I was oblivious to this in the early stages of the practice. I was introduced to the variation one (see above) in the first year of yoga classes at Yogalife Institute. This variation provided a sense of calmness I needed at that time.

Frequently suggested breath ratio is 1:1, where the inhale count is the same as the exhale count. This is the safest way to introduce Nadi Shodana Pranayama to a new practitioner. For example, if your inhale count is 6, your exhale count should be 6, following the 1:1 ratio, i.e. 6:6.

However, within this pranayama, the practice of Kumbhaka or breath retention (at the end of the inhale –Antara – internal retention) and suspension (the end of the exhale – Bahir – external suspension), is taught only when students are ready.  The word ‘ready’ implies different meanings for different people. Hence it’s always best to learn Kumbhaka in person, from a qualified teacher and choose the practice variation that is right for you.

For example, the first ratio can be 1:1:1 with instructions for breath retention to be the same count as the inhale and exhale. That means – 6 will be your retention count – i.e. 1:1:1 ratio pattern equals 6:6:6 breath count.

If you are also practicing breath suspension, then the ratio will look like this – 1:1:1:1, where the last number refers to breath suspension – 6:6:6:6

Cautions 

  • Breathing should never be forced. The breath should be slow, soft and relaxed, and performed with full awareness.
  • Remember –The quality of the breath is always more important- not the ratios.
  • Performing a lower ratio correctly is more beneficial than trying to forcefully perform a technique beyond your capabilities.
  • If you feel any discomfort, stop and return to normal breathing. Only when you are  comfortable with a technique attempt the next level under the guidance of a teacher.
  • Practice for 2-4 weeks or more on the first technique, but it could take years to master it. It depends on how often you practice.
  • As the nadis, channels are cleared, blockages will be released. They could surface in unexpected ways. Be prepared for emotional releases (desirable and undesirable) and seek professional help if issues become uncomfortable or confrontational.
  • Nadi Shodhana should be practiced on an empty stomach. Early mornings are best, or choose the best time and make it part of your daily practice.
  • Everyone and everyday is different. How you progress depends on how disciplined you are in seated practice. In time you will notice the effects on your mind and body.

Benefits

Nadi shodhana can be very gratifying, even when practiced for as little as 5 minutes regularly. But practicing daily for 15 minutes offers deeper benefits.

Physical/Physiological

  • Infuses the body with oxygen
  • Clears and releases toxins
  • Rejuvenates the nervous system
  • Helps to balance hormones
  • Helps to alleviate respiratory allergies that cause hay fever, sneezing or wheezing
  • Balances solar and lunar, masculine and feminine energies
  • Brings balance to the left and right hemispheres of the brain

Mental/Spiritual

  • Reduces stress and anxiety
  • Fosters mental clarity and an alert mind
  • Enhances the ability to concentrate
  • Calms the emotions and prepares the mind for meditation

My Practice

At the outset, this pranayama had an instant calming effect for me. It was/is helpful to slow down my racing thoughts and overactive mind. I returned to it, sometimes several times in a day, if I was anxious, stressed, or had trouble falling asleep.

I was told by different people that if I had been practicing variation one of this pranayama regularly for over a year, then I could add the retention/suspension ratio. I did experiment with the ratios with limited success and finally settled down with what is best for my body and mind.

The 1:1:1 ratio for internal retention did not work for me. I modified the ratio to look like this: 1:1/2:1 = 6:3:6. This practice was manageable and did not agitate the mind or unsettle my emotions. Although I have increased the count of my inhalations and exhalations since then, the base ratio for kumbhaka – retention and suspension still remains at 1/2; meaning if my inhale and exhale is 12, my retention and suspension is 6 = 12:6:12:6.

And, when I am exhausted or rushed, I break it down further. I do only retention or only suspension for 5 -1 0 rounds. The ratios look like this: retention = 12:6:12:0 and suspension = 12:0:12:6.

These decisions are based on the physical capacity of my lungs and is guided by the first ethic, Ahimsa, non-harming.

Now, Nadi Shodana is an integral part of my daily seated pranayama practice. I use it to quiet my mind before meditation.

Next Post: Preparation for Daily Pranayama Practice

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