David Burgess explores how to cultivate balance with Nadi Shodhana….
In these uncertain times it is more important than ever to bring a sense of balance and equilibrium into our lives. One of the simplest ways to do this is with a daily practice of alternate nostril breathing.
The word Nadi means ‘energy channel’ and Shodhana means ‘to cleanse or purify’. So through this practice, we are cleansing the energy channels in the body and aiding the natural flow of prana. Nadi Shodhana is practiced by alternating the inhalation and exhalation between the left and right nostrils, thus balancing, and purifying the flow of prana through the two major Nadis of ida and pingala and harmonising the two brain hemispheres.
The practice of Nadi Shodhana, restores balance in both the physical and mental body, and is a method of reducing anxiety and increasing mindfulness and concentration. When we bring our focus to the breath and allow it to flow slowly and deeply with awareness, it calms us by balancing the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems therefore lessening the stress response.
The practice of Nadi Shodhana can be adjusted to suit the ability level of the practitioner, depending on the level of your practice and life circumstances. For some, the basic practice of Nadi shodhana will be enough as a long-term practice. It is a great practice to use in preparation for meditation, however through the inclusion of kumbhakas and bandhas over time, can be a complete practice in itself.
Sit in a comfortable seated position and place your right hand in a position called Nasikagra mudra. The index and middle fingers of the right hand gently rest at the eyebrow centre, and the thumb just above the right nostril and the ring finger just above the left, use these fingers to control the flow of breath in the nostrils by alternately closing one nostril then releasing and closing the other. The breath should be silent and not restricted in any way.
BASIC NADI SHODHANA (Alternate Nostril Breathing)
To begin, close your right nostril and inhale through your left nostril using a count of 1 om 2 om 3 om, then close the left nostril and exhale through the right for the same count. This is then repeated in the opposite direction, inhaling through the right, then closing the right nostril and inhaling through the left. This is one round and considered a ratio of 1:1. Over time you can slowly increase the breath count until the breath ratio is 10:10, so an inhale for a count of 10 and exhale for the same count through the opposite nostril.
This technique balances the breath and the brain hemispheres. It improves concentration, is calming and relieves anxiety. The equal ratio of 1:1 is a soothing rhythm for the brain and heart.
Once the breath ratio of 10:10 is comfortably reached, the ratio can be increased to 1:2, starting with a breath count of 5 for the inhale, and 10 for the exhale. The breath ratio can be built up over time to be 10:20, this high count should only be practiced if it can be done so with ease and without strain.
The ratio of 1:2 is beneficial in that the exhale is extended; it is a very calming practice that moves your body into a state of deep relaxation, switching over to the parasympathetic nervous system.
Throughout the practice, awareness should be focussed on the breath and the counting. Retentions (kumbhakas) are contraindicated for people with high blood pressure or heart problems.
After practising the basic method for a while, you might start to notice a natural pause between the inhale and the exhale and vice versa. Allow these pauses to occur naturally without counting them and let your breath flow naturally and with ease.
WITH ANTAR KUMBHAKA (Inner Retention)
In this version an internal breath retention (Antar Kumbhaka) is introduced where you consciously hold the breath in for a count that is equal to the inhale and exhale.
Begin with a ratio of 1:1:1 ensuring the count is equal for inhalation, inner retention, and exhalation. The breath count should be quite low to start with. A count of 5:5:5 is recommended, even if you have reached a much higher breath count in basic Nadi Shodhana. Over time the breath ratio can slowly be increased to a count of 10:10:10 ensuring there is no tension or effort in doing so.
Once that is achieved without strain, the ratio can then be adjusted to 1:1:2. Each time you change the ratio, you should lower the breath count to help you adjust. It is advisable to have at least several months of regular practice using a particular ratio and gradually increasing it, before changing it. So for the ratio of 1:1:2, the breath count should reduce to 5:5:10 and then over time, slowly and without strain, can be increased.
It is important to ensure you are not speeding up the count due to shortness of breath. The breath should flow naturally and with ease. While some might increase their breath ratio easily, for others a lower count may be the more natural option.
Over time, the ratio of 1:1:2 can be changed to 1:2:2 which should be commenced with a breath ratio of 5:10:10, and then 1:3:2 which builds on the internal retention and starts as a breath count of 5:15:10. Ultimately settling on the ratio of 1:4:2 which starts with a breath count of 5:20:10. The ratio of 1:4:2 is the most widely recommended in yogic texts.
These ratios should be built up to gradually and without strain and only once a comfortable practice is achieved with each ratio. The length of breath should increase spontaneously without the use of force.
The inner retention of the breath activates various brain centres and harmonises the pranas.
It is important to remember at any stage or variation of the practice, that the breath should be silent and not forced or straining in any way. More advanced versions of this practice include both antar and Bahir kumbhakas and bandhas.
However, if you are looking for a simple practice that helps you to handle life’s situations in a more balanced and calm manner, then a basic Nadi Shodhana would be a beneficial pranayama practice to make time for in your day.