Nadi Shodhana Pranyama (alternate nostril breathing) is an easy and accessible pranyama practice with barely any contraindications. The word nadi means “channel” or “flow” (of energy). In accordance with yoga and ayurvedic science, the nadis essentially assist the flow of “prana” around the body. Traditional Chinese Medicine calls these channels “meridians” – a word most people are familiar with. Instead of “prana” , the Chinese equivalent is “chi” or qi.
The sanskrit term “Shodhana” describes some kind of purification practise. Hence Nadi Shodhana is believed to be a way of purifying the body’s energy channels so that prana can flow more freely.
Congestion in the channels
When you think about it, the body is essentially made up of channels. Consider, for example, how blood, air, water, energy, information and matter is able to circulate. We have a windpipe, intestines, capillaries, arteries, blood vessels and glands – sweat and otherwise – to name but a few. Ayurvedic health science describes many of these as shrotas. If we compare our “channels/shrotas” to roads or rivers, it’s easy to see how a blockage somewhere could create congestion and stagnation and some kind of health issue at the source (for example, oedema). But that may not be the end of it since, just like the traffic report, congestion in one spot is not only likely to slow down and/or limit the flow of energy and information at that specific area, but is likely to lead to problems elsewhere too (for example, high blood pressure, aneurysm, compacted bowel etc).
The nadis are described in yogic physiology as being part of the psychic (or subtle) body. In other words, something that exists as an idea perhaps, but cannot actually be seen on an MRI or under a microscope. Perhaps the closest we could come is to think of them as nerve conductors.
In this regard, yoga tells us that the body’s three “main” nadi channels are called Ida, Pingala and Sushumna. If you have ever seen an image depicting where the main chakras (chakras too are believed to be part of the subtle/psychic body) are believed to be located in the body, you will know that the circular chakra images are usually drawn on a central line that begins at the base of the spine and ends at the crown of the head. The base of spine/kunda area is said to be where the Kundalini “life-force” energy resides, lying dormant, waiting to be released. It is said that certain regular spiritual practises can help to release this energy safely but that if it is released due too quickly – perhaps due to a traumatic event, the results could be disastrous. This is because the practitioner may not be ready or able to cope with such a profound experience.
Ida nadi is thought to be located on the left side of the sushumna channel – you could say it correlates to the “yin” energy or the “tha” (as in Ha-tha yoga). The Pingala nadi is on the right, corresponding with Yang or Ha. Typically, when we talk about “balance” in yoga or other spiritual disciplines, it is generally about balancing the extremes of these energies – masculine/feminine, solar/lunar, hot/cold – in order to feel more grounded and calm. Yogic lore tells us that once the ida and pingala nadis have been purified and the blockages cleared, only then is the kundalini “serpent” like energy able to make its way through the sushumna channel, perhaps, possibly leading to enlightenment or “samadhi” (“bliss”).
How to Practice:
Mmmm, well, things being what they are, for most of us, this may or may not happen – at least in this lifetime! However, Nadi Shodhana pranyama (alternate nostril breathing) is one way to safely begin balancing the extremes of these energies. This is an incredibly calming and grounding breathing exercise that is pretty safe for anyone. If you are feeling anxious, it can help to induce relaxation and a sense of serenity. On the other hand, if you are feeling exhausted and flat, it may help relieve tiredness, bringing about a sense of rejuvenation. The breath should never feel forced. Never feel as if you have to breathe quickly or more than you normally might just because you are doing a specific breath-work exercise.*
There are a few variations. Here are a few you might like to try:
- Sit comfortably – maybe on a blanket or a cushion or against a wall for support. Relax into your natural breath for at least a few minutes. Take your right hand and curl your index finger and your middle finger towards the base of your thumb (see image above – some may prefer Nasagra Mudra where the middle finger rests on the forehead between the eyebrows). Block off the right nostril with the thumb and inhale through the left. Block off the left nostril with the ring finger and exhale through the right. inhale right and then block of right and exhale left. That’s one round. Repeat for a few rounds.
- A variation you might like to try – particularly if you are suffering from anxiety or even having trouble sleeping is more of a circular-type breath. Begin in the same way, taking your hands into place when you are ready. This time, the practise involves blocking the right nostril while inhaling through the left nostril and then blocking the left nostril and exhaling through the right.
- Another version is not using your hands at all and simply visualising the practice. You can do this in a sitting or lying position and it can be an excellent way to induce a calming sleep.
In time, these practises will help to improve clarity, wellbeing and enhance concentration levels by balancing ida and pingala nadis. Physiologically, it will increase the amount of nourishing oxygen that makes its way into the blood cells. It is also likely that sleep will come more easily and be more restful. Overall, the practitioner can expect to feel a sense of increased vitality on all levels.
*More experienced yogis can add breath retentions and suspensions (antar and bah kumbhaka) after the inhalation and exhalation. But remember, there should never be a feeling of panic and there is no hurry for these things. Take your time!