Nadi Shodana Pranayama
Pranayama is the name given to Yogic breathing exercises. In the West, Yoga tends to focus on asana practice, but in India, the country of its origin, where Yoga is practiced more in alignment with its original texts, Pranayama is given equal, if not more importance.
Pranayama exercises are based on the correlation of mind and breath. If we manage to observe ourselves or others when angry, we will notice that the breath is shallow, fast and generally through the mouth. When we are calm, the breath is slow, deep and typically through the nose. Pranayama exercises turn this correspondence around. Instead of the mind controlling the breath, we consciously take control of the breath in order to control the mind.
Here the best known of all Pranayama exercises, Nadi Shodana is introduced (sometimes simply referred to as alternate nostril breathing). In Yoga, a nadi is an energy channel within the body, Shodana means cleansing. Our vital energy is often blocked due to unexpressed emotions or negative habit patterns. Sub-consciously, these may cause the body and inner organs contort in certain habitual ways, obstructing the flow of oxygen, blood or other vital fluids. Such habits are likely so deeply ingrained we are unlikely to be aware of them. Nadi Shodana forces fresh oxygen into all such channels. If practiced correctly, its primary effect is a profound calming of the mind, making it an ideal preparation for meditation.
As with all pranayamas, it should be performed with an empty stomach. It should not be performed if we are feeling excessively emotional, as the emotions will likely be further exacerbated. You should practice in a quiet space where you are unlikely to be disturbed for at least 15 minutes – turn off your phone!
Sit on the floor, in lotus posture if you can, or any comfortable posture in which you can maintain the spine erect and the body still. Straighten the spine, contract your perineum muscle slightly, thus lifting the pelvic floor. Open your chest, relax your shoulders, align your neck with your spine and close your eyes.
- Close your right nostril with your right thumb and inhale slowly and deeply through the left nostril for a count of 5
- Open the right nostril and close the left with the two forefingers and exhale slowly through the right nostril for a count of 10
- Inhale through the right nostril for a count of 5
- Close the right nostril, open the left and exhale slowly for a count of 10.
This is one round.
Continue for at least 20 rounds, trying to make the breath as subtle as possible. Intend to make the breath silent. Try to make it so subtle that it appears as though you are not breathing at all. Engage your mind completely with the subtle breath, following every inhale and exhale. Make sure you do not strain - during this exercise you should never become breathless – if necessary reduce the count (or if you feel comfortable increase it). As regards to the counting, what is important is that the ratio remains consistent i.e. 1:2.
When finished, sit still and observe the effects of Nadi Shodana for yourself. How is your natural breath after the practice? How is your mind? Remember that all Yogic practices are ultimately tools for self-observation.
Advancing the Practice.
The more subtle your breathing and the more attentively you engage your mind with your breath, the more effective the practice becomes. With repeated practice, gradually aim to lengthen the breath. After some weeks of practice you may also add breath retention after inhalation, the ratio of inhalation/retention/exhalation being initially 1:1:2. With extended practice this ratio increases to 1:2:2 and eventually 1:4:2.
You can vastly improve the effects of the practice by cleaning the nasal passages beforehand. This is effectively done using a neti pot and salt water, or by passing a specialised rubber catheter (called sutra neti) through your sinus passages (please do you own research on these). The cleaner the nasal passages the more subtle the breath.
In the short and long terms, Nadi Shodana enables us to slow down the mind, giving us more perspective over it, enabling us to break the continual chain of action / re-action and thus keep our highest goals in perspective in whatever we do.