Pranayama - the yogic science of the breathing and energy. Thousands of years ago the great yogis of India experimented with the breath and how it effects the body, mind and spirit. They devised various practices that they used to regulate and alter the breath. From these practices and observations pranayama was born. Prana means life force or vital energy and ayama means extension or expansion. Pranayama is therefore the process of expanding the energy or life force within us. A very powerful and sacred practice.
Pranayama is a valuable tool for meditation. It enables us to go beyond our natural limitations, as it "expands our minds" and connects us with the vital energy that we share with all living things. Sitting and focusing on our breath helps us to take our mind inward and create one pointed focus.
One of the most famous and widely practiced forms of pranayama is Nadi Shodhana or more simply alternate nostril breathing. Nadis are channels that run throughout our bodies. They are connected to the chakras and therefore are seen as psychic pathways with the human system. Shodhana means purification so this particular pranayama technique is used to purify the channels of the body, mind and spirit.
Being such a powerful technique it should be practiced with a clear understanding of the processes involved. Not following the steps outlined here, skipping ahead or rushing is not advised. Pranayama is a powerfully transformative practice and needs to be handled with the care and respect it deserves. Here is a word of warning from Swami Svatmarama in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika:
"As lions, elephants and tigers are tamed very slowly and cautiously, so should prana be brought under control very slowly in gradation measured according to one's capacity and physical limitations. Otherwise it will kill the practitioner".
Please read the below points carefully before you begin.
Breathing should never be forced or restricted. The breath should always be light, subtle and relaxed. All techniques should be preformed with full awareness and great care. When you start to play with the ratios of your breath do not compromise the quality of the breath to achieve your goal. The ratios are not the primary goals of the practice, the quality of the breath is always of utmost importance. You will find a lower level performed correctly to be far more beneficial than trying to forcefully perform at a technique beyond your capabilities. If you find yourself compromising the breath in any way, or you feel any discomfort, you are not ready for the stage that you are attempting. Stop the practice and return to normal breathing. Only when you are fully comfortable with a technique should you attempt to more onto the next. As a general rule you should spend about 2-4 weeks on the first technique. Technique two and three should be practiced for a minimum of 6 months but it could take years! It all depends on how often you practice and how you develop. These first two techniques are designed to prepare the lungs and nervous system for techniques three and four so are essential foundation stages and therefore very important.
Everyone and everyday is different so how quickly or easily you find these practices really depends on where you are each time you sit down to practice. Focus on the journey not the destination! Over time you will notice the effects of the practice on your mind and your body. As the nadis are cleared blockages will be released and they could surface in ways that you may not expect. Be prepared for emotional releases and if needed seek professional help or advice. Find a treatment and practitioner to help you deal with issues that may be uncomfortable or confronting.
Nadi Shodhana should be practiced after your asana practice on an empty stomach. Ideally in the early morning, but if that does not suit then choose a time that does and make it part of your daily routine.
The benefits of Nadi Shodhana are numerous:
- Every time we breath in we allow oxygen into our bodies. Oxygen is very nourishing for the body so the more we breath in the more nourishment we are allowing our bodies to receive.
- As we breath out our blood is purified of toxins.
- With less toxins in our blood, the less blood needs to be sent to the lungs for purification. This reduces the load on the heart and lungs giving them a well deserved rest.
- The brain is stimulated and which increases our ability to concentrate. Our work improves and our thoughts are clearer.
- Balances the left and right hemispheres of the brain.
- Stress, worries and anxiety are greatly reduced.
- Relieves all doshas especially pitta
- Blockages along the nadis are cleared creating a more balanced, harmonious and happier you.
- Our ability to meditate is enhanced allowing us to reach a deeper level of spiritual awareness and understanding.
- Improves sleep
- High blood pressure (can be practiced without retention)
- Low blood pressure (can practice with retention only)
- Heart problems
- Above mentioned issues relating to forced breathing, and rushing through the techniques.
Possible side effects (usually temporary as your body adjusts to the practice and toxins are expelled. However if they are persistent then seek advice ) :
- Reduction in urine
- Itching, tingling
- Feeling hot or cold
- Felling light or heavy
There are 4 stages or techniques of Nadi Shodhana and each stage should be practised before moving on to the next.
The first technique- the preparatory practice
There seems to be two schools of thought about which mudra (hand gesture) to use for this practice. My pranayama teacher and the teachers at the meditation centre I go to teach us to use mrgi mudra while most books and yoga schools use nasagra mudra. So as variety is the spice of life I will give you both and then you have the option to choose the one that feels right for you. I think because the nasgra mudra has the fingers placed on the eyebrow centre or Ajna Chakra it may be considered too intense or an interference for meditation practices. Well that's my theory anyway.
Nasgra mudra - Extend your right hand and place the index and middle finger on the point between the eyebrows. Place your thumb beside the right nostril and the ring and little finger beside the left nostril.
Mrgi mudra - Extend your right hand and curl the index and middle finger towards the palm and place them on the fatty area at the bottom of your thumb. Place your thumb beside the right nostril and the ring and little finger beside the left nostril.
Use the thumb to gently block the right nostril and breath in and out through the left nostril 5 times. Do not force the breath but just breath naturally. After the 5 breath release the thumb and use the ring finger to block the right nostril. Breath naturally through the right nostril 5 times. Lower your hand and breath normally through both nostrils 5 times. This is one round.
Do 5 rounds for 15 - 30 days then go on to the next technique.
The second technique - alternate nostril breathing
Now you will, as the name implies, alternate between the two nostrils. The mudras remain the same.
Close the right nostril and breath in for the count of 3. You could count mentally 1 - Om, 2 - Om, 3 - Om if you so desired. Whatever counting system you use make sure it is even. Then close the left nostril and breath out for 3. Then close the right nostril and so on. In left, our right, in right our left is one round. Practice 10 rounds.
After a few days or weeks if you are comfortable with the practice extend both the inhalation and exhalation by one count. Once that becomes easy add another count until you reach 24:24.
You will probably notice that your in breath is a lot shorter than your out breath so be careful not to count faster on the exhalations. Be patient and don't force your breath at all or you will do more harm than good. Pranayama is not a practice that happens overnight. keep at it and you will notice the changes. Observe and learn it is a gift in itself.
Once you are able to breath evenly at the ratio of 24:24 you can start to extend your breath to 1:2. so you could breath in for 4 and out for 8. Whatever works for you. The goal is to establish a ratio of 12:24 where the out breath is longer than the inhalation.
This ratio is very calming and is beneficial for both cardiovascular and nervous system disorders. It's a great technique for anybody suffering for stress.
After about 6 months or more when you are comfortable with this practice you can move onto the next technique.
The third technique - Antar Kumbhaka (inner retention of breath)
This stage is a bit tricky.
Breath in through the left nostril for the count of 5 then close both nostrils and hold for 5. Then breath out through the right nostril and immediately breath back in slightly through the right nostril then breath out through the same nostril/right for the count of 5.
Then immediately breath in through the right nostril for 5 with the left nostril closed. Hold for 5. Open the left nostril take a slight breath then exhale through the left for 5. This is one round. Practice 10 rounds.
Practice mindfully and with complete awareness. I can't see that you could really do it any other way!
It's very important that you maintain the set ratio, but once you are able to successfully practice with the 1:1:1 ratio you can increase the ration to 1:1:2. So you could do inhale for 5, hold for 5 and exhale for 10. This should keep you going for a few weeks or even months. Once you are comfortable with this ratio change it to 1:2:2 (in:hold:out). Once you are able to do this successfully and without any discomfort or strain you can begin increasing the count. Add one count to the inhalation, two counts to the retention and two counts to the exhalation. You then over 1-2 years (probably longer for the average person!) keep increasing the ration until you reach 24:48:48.
Then you're ready for technique 4. As it will take several years to reach the next technique I will not include it here.
Technique 4 Antar and Bahir Kumbhaka can be found on my new website here
Technique 4 Antar and Bahir Kumbhaka can be found on my new website here
I would like to thank Swami Satyananda Saraswati for the 2 wonderful publications:
"Meditations from the Tantras"
"Asana, Pranayama, Mudra, Bandha"
These 2 books have provided me with wonderful knowledge and insight into the subject of Pranayama.
If you are interested give it a go and give it a chance to have an effect. But please be careful and mindful of these practices.