By Rolf Sovik
Cleanse and replenish the energy channels that support your body and mind through the practice of alternate nostril breathing.
An inner energy powers our body and mind, flowing through passageways that branch and intersect like the streets and highways through a city. Among this multitude of nadis, three govern the body/mind’s overall functioning and determine the general tone of the entire system. These primary channels lie along our spinal column—two twining upward on either side and ending in the nostrils, and the third rising directly through the center of the column to the base of the nose. Ida, as it is known, ends in the left nostril, pingala terminates in the right, and sushumna ends at the base of the nose between the two nostrils.
Yoga texts, such as the Shiva Svarodaya, have observed that the flow of energy through ida and pingala is rarely equal, and that this can be noted in the nostrils. If you check your breathing right now, you will probably find that one nostril is more open than the other. The nostril with the greater airflow is considered the “active” or dominant nostril, and the other is the “passive” one.
You can gain a better appreciation of this by holding a mirror under your nose as you breathe out. The exhaled air from each nostril will leave a moisture cloud on the mirror’s surface, and the difference in the breath “print” between the two sides clearly illustrates which nostril is dominant.
Ideally, nostril dominance alternates approximately every 90 minutes, although you may find that one nostril remains active much longer, or that regular shifts in nostril dominance rarely occur. While this may seem less than consequential—you’re still breathing, after all—such irregularities can have subtle effects on your mood and activity level.
Yogic literature describes the differences in the energy of the two nostrils beautifully. Texts say that the current of energy ending in the left nostril is cooling, like the moon; it is associated with the cognitive senses (taste, touch, smell, sight, hearing), with the latent power of consciousness, and with refueling and replenishment. Feminine in character, it denotes inward, nurturing energy. When overly dominant, however, ida energy may lead to chilliness, passivity, lack of assertiveness, and depression. Conversely, pingala energy is warming like the sun. Associated with the active senses (locomotion, manipulation, communication, elimination, reproduction), with the dynamic aspect of consciousness, and with growth and expansion, this masculine energy denotes outward-moving forces. When it is overly dominant, right nostril energy may lead to fever, agitation, overassertiveness, and lack of concentration. Sun and moon, male and female, active and receptive, rational and intuitive, contracting and relaxing, hot and cold, unbending and fluid—these and other pairs of opposites comprise the archetypes that best describe the relationship between the two channels of breath.
How do these two modes of human energy affect our everyday lives? Activities such as exercising, controlling an automobile, prescribing medicines, stimulating digestion, performing physically demanding tasks, arguing, inspiring others, going to sleep (warmed by an inner fire), and undertaking any difficult or challenging action are more likely to succeed when the right nostril, or pingala, is active. Digging in the earth, taking medicines, planting gardens, visiting temples, entering one’s house, investing safely, performing artistically, or reciting mantras, on the other hand, will prosper when the left nostril, or ida, dominates.
Like a swinging pendulum, the energies associated with the two nostrils alternately dominate, but during moments of transition, the two become equal. This brief interlude provides a glimpse of equilibrium before the energies tumble back into action. When either ida or pingala reigns, we engage with the world, but during the short periods when they flow equally, sushumna draws awareness inward, creating a quiet inner joy.
Breathing practices have a direct effect on the flow of energy in the nadis. Using pranayama, we can arouse or calm energy to produce inner heat or cooling or to direct it for the restoration of health and for longevity. But as in so many other practices of yoga, pranayama first focuses on purification. Your goal is to cleanse the nadis of impurities that might otherwise disturb concentration and impede the natural movement of prana.
Nadi shodhanam—channel purification—is the primary practice used to accomplish this. This cleansing practice, also called “alternate nostril breathing,” involves inhaling and exhaling through one nostril at a time. In addition to opening the flow of energy along the nadis, this practice calms, purifies, and strengthens the nervous system and deepens self-awareness—excellent preparation for meditation. Finally, nadi shodhanam leads to su-shumna breathing, the experience of the two streams of breath united in a single central flow.
Pattern for Nadi Shodhanam
A number of patterns exist for alternating the breath in the nostrils—some simple and some complex. In the following method, which is easy to remember and monitor, you alternate the flow with each full breath.
Practitioners commonly use the time of day to determine the “starting” nostril. The maxim “right at night” (and therefore left in the morning) is an easy way to remember. Begin your evening practice on the right side, and your morning one on the left. If you practice at midday, begin by exhaling through the passive nostril. If the nostrils are flowing equally, which is less common than you might expect, you may start on either side.
While not at all strenuous, nadi shodhanam does require strict observance of the following form and technique if you wish to achieve channel purification.
Sit with your head, neck, and trunk erect, so that your spine is balanced and steady and you can breathe freely—a bent spine can disrupt your nervous system and increase physical and mental tension. Gently close your eyes.
Breathe diaphragmatically. Let each exhalation and inhalation be the same length—smooth, slow, and relaxed. Do not force the breath or allow it to be jerky. Let each breath flow without pause. Gradually increase the length of your breath, but do not practice breath retention except under the careful supervision of a teacher.
Use a special hand position, or mudra, to gently close off each nostril. Bring the right hand up to the nose and fold the index and middle fingers to the palm, so that you can use the thumb to close the right nostril, and the ring finger to close the left nostril. Be sure that you are not bending over to bring the head down to your hand. And remember, be gentle. Simply rest the thumb or finger against the side of the nostril; this does not require more than a light touch.
Begin your practice by inhaling through both nostrils, then close one nostril and exhale and inhale smoothly and completely through the other. Make the exhalation and the inhalation of equal length and avoid any sense of forcing the breath. Now change sides, completing one full breath with the opposite nostril.
Continue alternating between the nostrils until you have completed a full round—three breaths on each side, for a total of six breaths. Then lower your hand and breathe gently and smoothly three times through both nostrils. For a deeper practice, complete two more rounds. (Note: When practicing three rounds in one sitting, the middle round begins on the opposite nostril, reversing the cycle of rounds one and three.)
Nadi shodhanam will become one of the most profoundly relaxing and centering techniques in your yoga routine. As the breath moves out and in through each nostril, it provides a quieting focus. Your nervous system will become deeply calmed, and your mind will turn inward and become steadied for concentration.
Like the eye of a hurricane, sushumna—the channel of energy flowing along the core of the spine—is said to be unaffected by the powerful energies of ida and pingala swirling around it. As the mind rests from its outer activity during meditation, it is naturally drawn toward this central channel of energy. With attention anchored in sushumna, a feeling of deep joy illumines the mind.
Following meditation practice, attention turns outward again and resumes an active interest in worldly affairs, often with renewed—and even greater—enthusiasm. The charm of the meditative experience lies in its continual ability to create a subtle mood of happiness and contentment, much like the joy of having witnessed a beautiful sunrise or sunset. This memory infuses consciousness with reassurance, optimism, and good cheer.
We can enhance this experience by concentrating on the stream of energy flowing at the nose. Adepts have called this process “establishing sushumna.” Once accomplished, attention moves inward along the nadi that courses from the base of the nose to a point centered between the eyebrows and then down through the spinal column.
Ideally, upon establishing sushumna, the two nostrils will follow the lead of the mind and begin to flow equally, but this often proves difficult to achieve in practice. One nostril may feel plugged and unwilling to open, while the other may stream open with no hint of moderating its activity. Does this mean your practice is doomed to failure? No, especially if you remember that establishing su-shumna has as much to do with the ability to remain focused on the sensation of breath as it does with actual changes in nostril dominance. When attention rests firmly on the central stream of energy along the bridge of the nose, meditation will naturally deepen. Having the two nostrils flow equally would help, of course, but the act of focusing attention is the primary ingredient of this practice.
A Sushumna Practice
Start with one or more rounds of nadi shodhanam. Next, bring your attention to the touch of breath in the active nostril. For three to five breaths, focus on the breath as if it were flowing only through that side. Maintain your attention until the breath has become steady and you can feel its flow 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 on that side 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 your nostrils inward to the center point between your eyebrows (the ajna chakra). Exhaling, let the breath seem to flow from the ajna chakra, back to the base of your nostrils. Breathe back and forth along this central stream as you gradually relax your mind. This initiates the practice of establishing sushumna breathing.
Sit as long as you like, resting your attention on the flow of the breath, while relaxing your body and mind.
In the End
The breath is a vehicle for deepening concentration and revealing quiet sources of joy. Both nadi shodhanam and sushumna breathing can have far-reaching effects, coordinating the two great modes of energy within the body/mind and focusing the attention on the central stream of the breath. By sustaining awareness on this central stream, your mind will become steady and tranquil.
Hints and Cautions
Nadi shodhanam is, in many ways, the most important of all pranayama practices. It should be done twice a day—usually morning and evening. The general guidelines for all yoga practices apply: practice on a light stomach, empty the bladder beforehand, and stay within your comfort zone. When channel purification forms part of a complete yoga practice session, it is done just after asanas and prior to meditation.
Yogis place few restrictions on nadi shodhanam, but do not practice channel purification if:
1. You are tired and cannot concentrate.
2. You have a severe headache.
3. You’re overly restless and agitated (get some rest instead).
4. You’re running a fever.
5. You have a seizure disorder.
6. Noises in the head develop—simply discontinue the practice.
Rolf Sovik, PsyD, is the president of the Himalayan Institute and author of Moving Inward: The Journey to Meditation.