Yoga is for everyone!
In my previous post we discussed The Three Part Breath, which should be mastered first before attempting more advanced Pranayama. Of the more advanced breathing practices, Nadi Shodhana is my favorite. It is very soothing to the nervous system and it can be adapted to whatever needs I may experience at the moment - it can energize me if I am tired, or calm me down when I am stressed. In order for you to fully appreciate the Alternate Nostril breathing technique, also called Nadi Shuddhi in some Yoga traditions, let me set fourth some Yoga Theory and Philosophy. It always helps to know the reasons behind an activity, as we can then make better choices and stay motivated.
Shushumna, Ida, and Pingala Nadis
The ancient Yogis have observed that energy has some properties of liquid, in the sense that it can "flow" or be "blocked", it can "pool" in certain stagnant areas of the body causing congestion, or it can bypass certain others creating a "desert" - a numb place where tissues are dry and Prana is weak. The channels that the energy uses to travel are called nadis, and there are thousands of nadis in the energy body, supplying Prana to every nook and cranny of a human being. Prana is directed by our awareness, so if we have poor body awareness, the flow of Prana will be limited. If we have dysfunctional movement patterns, poor posture, or injuries, there will be "blockages" in the some areas. That is why I say that "where the mind goes, there the Prana goes." Every time nadis intersect, they create a little whirlpool called a "chakra".
Of all the thousands of nadis there are three that are of particular importance - a central nadi, the Shushumna, that runs up the spinal column, the Pingala Nadi (also called the Sun Nadi for its energizing and heating qualities) that runs from the right nostril and spirals down the Shushumna like a DNA helix, and the Ida Nadi (or the Moon Nadi, for its cooling, calming properties) that does the same from the left nostril. All three Nadis end at the root of the spine, in the place called the Muladhara Chakra. As the Ida and the Pingala travel down winding and intersecting along the spinal column, they create the other major chakras. I have covered the chakras extensively elsewhere in this blog, so feel free to take a detour into that very fascinating territory.
When Prana is blocked in a nadi, due to scar tissue from injury, due to muscle tension that creates a "knot" and therefore, a blockage, or due to psychological/emotional "knots", it can be sensed by a Yoga practitioner in the nostrils. The right nostril is connected to the left hemisphere of the brain, the left nostril connects to the right. When the vibration of the air passes through the nostrils, this vibration resonates in the brain as well. We know that the left nostril is the more logical and analytical one, while the right is the more intuitive and creative. The Pingala energy in the right nostril is the masculine energy of the Sun, while the Ida in the left nostril is the feminine energy of the Moon.
I have an entire blog entry devoted to Yoga for Brain - How to Balance Right and Left Hemispheres, I hope you check it out.
Energy being what it is, it has nothing to do with being a man or a woman, but rather the ancient Yogis have noticed that certain properties and characteristics tend to go together. Pingala has in it the agression, assertion, heat, and organization that we commonly associate with the masculine energy of the Sun. Ida has in it the cooling, intuitive, quiet, contemplative qualities we attribute to the Moon. One nostril is usually dominant over the other in a cycle that can be anywhere from 20 to 40 minutes.
A Yoga practitioner can observe which nostril is the open one at the moment and notice the mental state that is fostered. When the left brain/right nostril are dominant, we experience such feelings as anger, hunger, drive for action. When the right brain/left nostril are dominant we feel measurably more calm and contemplative, but also possibly tired, sleepy, maybe even depressed. It is possible that one nostril is habitually more dominant than the other, creating a sense of being "stuck" in a state of hyperactive restlessness or placid listlessness.
Alternate nostril breathing technique is a helpful tool in balancing out the right brain/left brain activity, fostering certain control over your state of energy so you are able to move towards balance. This type of self-awareness is what frees the flow of Prana (and you may remember that Pranayama is translated as "Prana without restraint").
To direct the flow of the breath through the nostrils we use our fingers. Traditionally the right hand has been used, but I see no reason why we shouldn't be able to use either. The left hand was used in ancient India for various hygienic purposes, but with the invention of modern plumbing, provided you avail yourself of the faucet on a regular basis, I believe we can use whatever hand we feel most comfortable, and even switch hands while in the middle of the practice if one becomes tired.
The Vishny Mudra (or hand gesture) is typically used, with variations, to close off one nostril at a time. One can curl the index and the middle finger towards the base of the thumb, or rest them on the "third eye" between the eyebrows, the important part is that we use the thumb and the ring finger to regulate the flow of air.
The pads of the fingers need to rest not on the nostrils themselves but a bit higher, just above. Feel up and down the sides of your nose and you will find the spot just below the bridge of the nose, as if made for your finger. With practice you should be able to feel the pulse and the vibration of the air there.
When we regulate the flow of air through a nostril, it should be partially closed, with the finger resting on the spot just above where the nostril flares to feel this vibration and to slow the passage of air on its way in or out. It is similar to the Ujjayi in the sense that the air should pass through a bit of a constriction to intensify the vibration and the sound. Both the vibration and the sound play an important role in Pranayama, and this detail should not be overlooked.
This vibration and sound have a certain effect on the nervous system, stimulating various elements that the ancient Yogis have characterized into Earth, Water, Fire, Air, and Ether. I have discussed in detail this particular aspect in another blog, Balance the Five Elements, which you can refer to for more information.
Once you arrange your fingers in the Vishny Mudra and position the thumb and the ring finger on their respective spots above the nostrils, take a breath through each one to determine which one is dominant and if there is any stuffiness in the nose. Stuffy nose can be cleared by old-fashioned blowing into a tissue or with a few rapid inhales and exhales, Kapalabhati style, through the plugged nostril. If the nose is too stuffed up, you can try a different Pranayama, such as Seetali, instead. It is, however, helpful to know that your nose can become stuffier in the beginning, as the circulation is increased to the nose, causing the nostrils to swell a little. This should pass as you learn to engage the diaphragm and Jalandhara Bandha to open the back of the throat, so you are not siphoning the air through the nostrils quite so much.
Once the nostrils have been cleared, sit up tall, open the chest and take a long and complete breath out. Lengthen the spine to open up the Nadis, giving equal space to Ida and Pingala through better posture. Relax your jaw and drop your gaze, or maybe even close your eyes, and focus your attention inward. Let the head have a slight nod towards the lifted chest, for a hint of Jalandhara Bandha. This will allow you to develop subtle control of your breath. The breathing should not be noisy, it should be quiet, almost inaudible to an observer. Only the practitioner should be able to hear and feel the breath. Inhale fully without force. Exhale slow, making sure the exhale is complete, regulating the opening of the nostril with your finger to make sure the breath is long, but comfortable. You can incorporate a hint of Ujjayi technique as well to make the breath even more subtle and quiet in the nostrils.
The following techniques, from beginner to advanced, can be practiced:
These are the main ones to start with, but there are many more. The important thing is to observe the effects based on the above information about the masculine/feminine, right brain/left brain, and pick one that suits your needs, and stop when you have noticed the desired effect. Remember that breathing IN through a nostril stimulates the corresponding nadi, while breathing OUT sedates it.
The goal here is to balance the nadis and to bring stillness and peace to the mind. Gradually refine your technique so that the breath is quiet, smooth, effortless, and subtle. Your end mind state is a good indicator of whether you have chosen your Pranayama wisely and if you have done it correctly - you should feel clear, centered, calm, yet alert to the slightest sensation. Your awareness can then penetrate the most hard-to-reach places, opening them to the flow of Prana.
In my next post I will describe another useful Pranayama, Seetali, that has been mentioned here and that is another favorite of mine. Meanwhile, watch my video tutorial on Nadi Shodhana.