By Rolf Sovik
Exploring the Sanskrit origins of familiar yoga terms can give us important insights into our yoga practice. The word asana, for example, comes from the Sanskrit root as, “to sit,” and the primary meaning of asana is “a sitting or meditative posture.” This gives us an important clue for understanding the goals of practice: asana practice leads to a steady and comfortable seated posture.
Some terms require a little more exploring before they give up their secrets. The Sanskrit word for “dispassion,” for example, is vairagya. When this word is teased apart it yields “without” (vai) “color” (raga). What is the connection? A dispassionate mind is one that is not colored by likes and dislikes.
A particularly interesting term is used to describe the energy flowing in the core of the spine. Its channel is said to be the pathway to enlightenment, the passageway through which awakened energy rises on its way to the crown chakra. The name of this passageway is sushumna, a name with an engaging derivation.
The word sushumna can be divided into three parts, although to an English speaker they hardly look meaningful. The division is: su-su-mna. “Wait a minute,” you may say, “the spelling of the second su is changed, and mna seems rather peculiar, too.” Well, you’re right. Su is a prefix which often changes to shu. It means “good, beautiful, virtuous, sweet, and well” (and it is found in the English word “sugar”). Mna is an infrequently used verb root with the same meaning as its more common root form, man, which means “to think.”
When su and mna are joined (shumna—“good thoughts”) the result is translated as “kind or gracious”—at least that’s what can be found in Sanskrit dictionaries. Doubling the prefix (su-shumna) conveys these qualities in the superlative. We might say, “very kind or very gracious.”
Yoga adepts, however, give us a deeper meaning. They explain that sushumna actually means sukha-mana—that is, a joyful (sukha) mind (mana). In this new compound, the first word, sukha, which is normally translated as happy or joyful, also contains the prefix su—this time added to the short noun kha. And among the many definitions for kha (which is generally related to the concept of space) is the meaning “the space at the center of a wheel.” The implication of su-kha, then, is that at the center of any wheel is a place of balance and tranquility. Thus, sukha can mean “well-centered, running smoothly,” or more commonly, “happy, joyful.”
As we shall see, one of the final pranayama preparations leading to meditative concentration is the practice of establishing a joyful mind. To do this, you must learn to bring attention to the upper end of the sushumna stream, to the energy flowing in the center of the nostrils. And when you do, your mind will naturally turn inward and become tranquil. Learning to center your attention in this way is a matter of practice. Let’s explore the basics.
Yoga texts such as the Shiva Svarodaya have observed that the flow of air through the two nostrils is rarely equal. If you check your own breathing right now, you will probably find that one nostril is more open than the other. In yoga the nostril with the greater air flow is called the “active” or dominant nostril; the other nostril is termed “passive.”
You can gain a better appreciation of this by breathing out onto a mirror held horizontally just under the nose. The exhaled air from each nostril will form a moisture pattern on the mirror’s surface, and the difference in size between the two sides of the pattern makes the discrepancy in nostril dominance visible. Moreover, comparing the evaporation times on each side of the pattern will provide an approximate ratio of nostril activity. For example, if the moisture pattern on the left side evaporates in 30 seconds while the pattern on the right lasts just 15 seconds, then your left nostril is about twice as active as the right.
According to ancient yoga manuals, differences in nostril activity are quite normal—nostril dominance, in fact, alternates approximately every 60 minutes. This is the ideal, but most of us find that one nostril may remain active for much longer periods of time, or that regular alternation in nostril dominance rarely occurs. Such irregularities can have subtle effects on our mood and activity levels.
Yogis claim that the nostrils function much like a gauge on an automobile dashboard. To know the temperature of a car’s engine, for example, it is not necessary to open the hood. The temperature gauge shows us whether or not the engine is operating within the normal range. Similarly, the nostrils provide information about the status of the energy powering the body and mind.
Every human being is a blend of two primary energies. No matter what the physical sex is, the left nostril is associated with inward, nurturing energy, feminine in character. Energy in the left nostril is cooling like the moon; it is associated with the latent power of consciousness, Shakti, and with nourishment and replenishment. The right nostril is associated with outward moving forces, male in character. Energy in the right nostril is warming like the sun; it is associated with the dynamic aspect of consciousness, Shiva, and with growth and expansion. The predominant modes of thinking associated with the left nostril are intuitive and introspective, while thinking associated with the right nostril is rational and logical.
The domain of these two primary modes of human energy extends into the world of activities. For example, digging in the earth, taking medicines, planting gardens, visiting temples, entering one’s house, investing safely, performing artistically, or reciting mantras are all activities that will prosper when the left nostril is dominant. Exercising, controlling an automobile, prescribing medicines, creating a good appetite, performing physically demanding tasks, arguing, inspiring others, going to sleep (warmed by an inner fire), and undertaking any difficult or harsh action are all activities that are most likely to prosper when the right nostril is active.
Like a revolving wheel, the energies associated with the two nostrils alternately dominate, but during the moments of transition the two seem almost equal. Brief as they are, these moments give us a glimpse of balance before the energies tumble back into action again. And as they interact they color our every perception.
The Eye of the Storm
Like the eye of a hurricane, sushumna, the channel of energy flowing in the core of the spine and extending from the base of the spine to the eyebrow center (with an extension to the base of the nostrils), is said to be unaffected by the powerful energies swirling around it. Sushumna is the center of the wheel of life. During meditation the mind rests from its outer activity and is naturally drawn toward this central channel of energy, and when it is, both nostrils may begin to flow equally, becoming balanced. And when the attention is well-anchored on that balanced flow of energy, an experience of deep joy illuminates the mind.
This state of balanced energy is extremely well-suited for inner exploration, but it is not useful for worldly activity. When joy permeates the mind, interest in worldly accomplishments diminishes. At that time you will naturally become more even-tempered and dispassionate, and compelling worldly matters seem less imposing when seen from this perspective. The mind is resting in its own joy, which is independent and self-effulgent. It does not depend on worldly success or failure.
Following meditation practice, however, the attention turns outward again and an active interest in worldly affairs is restored, often with more enthusiasm than before. But the charm of the meditative experience continues to create a subtle mood of happiness and contentment, much like the joy of having witnessed a beautiful sunrise or sunset. Although the precise cause of inner joy is difficult to pinpoint, the memory of it infuses consciousness with reassurance, optimism, and good cheer.
We have seen that variations in nostril dominance are expected and welcome in everyday life, but that meditation practice is enhanced when the two nostrils begin to flow equally. We can help this take place by concentrating on the stream of energy flowing at the nose. Adepts have called this process “establishing sushumna,” and when it is accomplished, the attention moves inward along a central channel leading from the base of the nose to the center between the eyebrows, and concentration improves.
Ideally, when sushumna is established the two nostrils will follow the lead of the mind, and begin to flow equally, but this is often difficult to achieve in practice. One nostril may feel plugged and be unwilling to open. The other may stream open with no hint of moderating its activity. Does this mean that our practice is doomed to failure? It is good to remember that establishing sushumna has as much to do with the ability to remain focused on the sensation of breath as with actual changes in nostril dominance. When the attention is firmly rested on the central stream of energy along the nose bridge, meditation will naturally deepen. It would be helpful if the two nostrils were to flow equally, but the act of focusing attention is the primary ingredient of this practice.
Method for Beginning Practice
Sitting erect with your eyes closed, adjust your posture so that you are comfortable and steady. Breathe diaphragmatically, feeling the sides of the lower rib cage expand and contract with each breath. Your abdomen is relaxed and also moves naturally with the breath. Relax your body systematically, and breathe 5–10 times as if your whole body breathes—feeling the cleansing and nourishing sensations of each breath.
Now bring your attention to the touch of breath in the active nostril. Focus on the breath as if it is flowing only through the active side. Maintain your attention there until it has become steady and you can feel the breath without interruption. Let your thoughts come and go, without giving them energy or attention. Simply maintain your focus on the breath in the active nostril, letting your nervous system relax.
Next, bring your attention to the breath in the passive nostril. Again feel the flow of the breath until you can maintain your focus without interruption. Remain here longer than on the active side. By maintaining the focus, the nostril may open.
Finally, merge these two streams into one single, central stream. Inhaling, breathe as if the breath flows from the base of the nostrils inward to the point between the eyebrows (the ajna chakra). Exhaling, let the breath seem to flow from the ajna chakra, back to the base of the nostrils. Breathe back and forth along this central stream as you gradually relax your mind. This is the introduction to the practice of establishing sushumna breathing.
To continue, let the sound of the breath flow with each exhalation and inhalation. Inhale “so,” and exhale “ham” (pronounced “hum”). Simply hear the sound in your mind, as you feel the breath flowing along this central stream. Sit for as long as you like, gradually resting your attention on the breath and the sound, while relaxing your body, breathing, and mind.
Adepts have explained that the breath is a vehicle for deepening concentration, and an important tool for uncovering inner tranquility. A technique that can have far-reaching effects is to establish sushumna breathing. In this practice the two great modes of energy within the body/mind are coordinated, and attention is focused on the central stream of energy. By sustaining awareness on this central stream, a process of quiet transformation begins. If you have been looking for the way to turn your attention inward with greater facility, see whether this may not be the practice you’ve been seeking.
Rolf Sovik, PsyD, is the author of Moving Inward: The Journey to Meditation. He is the president of the Himalayan Institute, and serves as the director of the Institute’s branch center in Buffalo, New York.