Alternate nostril breathing is a classic Yoga Pranayama practice. But why do we do it? And why is it so fundamental to Yoga?
The Subtle Body
Yogic thought says that we exist on three different planes of existence: the physical, energetic, and wisdom bodies. The physical body is clearly the body of bones, blood, and organs etc. The wisdom body is often associated with bliss, and enlightenment. The energetic body – or Subtle Body as it is commonly known in Yoga – consists of Nadis (called meridians in other traditions) that enable the flow of Prana (energy or life force) which gives life to the physical body, emotions, and mind amongst other things.
In Kundalini Yoga (derived from Tantra / Hatha) working with the Subtle Body is fundamental to success. According to some of the classic texts we have 100,000s Nadi in the body. In reality, we are only concerned with three – the Ida, Pingala, and Sushumna.
Working the Energy Channels
The Ida starts at the base of the spine (in the First Chakra) and crisscrosses its way up the spine until it ends in the left nostril. It is said to be related to moon energy, cooling and creative when moderate, lethargic and detached when excessive. The Pingala also starts in the First Chakra and crisscrosses up the spine to the right nostril. It is associated with Sun energy – warm and focused when moderate, agitated and stressed when excessive. (The points where Ida and Pingala cross are where the Chakras are located).
The Sushumna begins in the First Chakra and ends in the Crown. It is said to lie alongside the spinal column. The Yogis believe it is blocked in most people. When it is open and filled with Prana we cannot be distracted by the outside World or by our unconscious thoughts. This is when Kundalini energy can rise, and when we can access states of deeper consciousness. It only happens when Ida and Pingala are balanced.
Most of the time we spend our lives flipping from Ida to Pingala. From degrees of lethargy to agitation. There is a cycle to nostril dominance – every 90 minutes or so, either the left or right becomes more open. We can think of this as reflecting the Autonomic Nervous System – we move between feeling activated, stressed or anxious (Sympathetic), to feeling tired, detached, or unfocused (Parasympathetic). It is only when these two systems come into balance that we move into the calm focus required for meditation.
When we breathe through alternate nostrils, we are working to balance the channels or Nadis, and to bring Ida and Pingala into equilibrium. We might begin by using the fingers to close off a nostril, but eventually we become able to do this by will alone. This then becomes an effective way to control our state of being – for example, if you are having trouble sleeping, breathe through the left nostril. The right nostril will give you the energy you need to get through a mid-afternoon slump. In a yogic sense, it means we can access meditative states more readily, and is an easier thing to focus on than stilling your thoughts.
Close off your right nostril and breathe gently & slowly through the left nostril for two minutes – focus on opening the nostril (you might also visualise light being drawn down the left side of the spine).
Swap sides and do the same with the right nostril for 2 minutes.
Then spend 2 – 3 minutes alternating – block the right nostril and inhale through the left. Pause, then block the left nostril, and exhale through the right. Inhale back through the right nostril, then pause, and swap, exhaling through the left.
Sit and meditate.