We can survive for weeks without food and days without water---but take away our breath and we can survive at most a few minutes.
This fact alone shows us just how important our breath is to the overall functioning of the body. Our breath is our body’s primary source of energy, and the most vital function for sustaining life.
The ancient yogis understood the importance of breath, and developed an entire branch of yoga dedicated to this science. Pranayama, one of the 8 limbs of yoga, teaches us to extend or stretch our life force, or prana, through breath, intention, and focused awareness.
These techniques are the most effective, time-tested methods of utilizing our breath as medicine for self-healing.
Nadis: The Pathways of Prana
The Sanskrit word nadi means “river” or “flow”. The nadis are the channels through which prana, our vital energy, flows throughout our body.
According to the Shiva Samhita, there are 350,000 nadis in the human body, and according to the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, there are 72,000 nadis. Either way, there are a lot. Both of these texts agree that, of all of these nadis, there are three that are the most important: ida, pingala, and sushumna.
Ida nadi is accessed most directly through the left nostril. The channel originates at the base of the spine, and flows up the left side of the spine into the center of the head, to the third eye or ajna chakra. This channel is associated with the moon and lunar energy flow, is feminine (yin), cooling, and enhances mental activity.
Pingala nadi is accessed through the right nostril. The channel also originates at the base of the spine, and flows up the right side of the spine to ajna chakra. Pingala nadi is associated with the sun and solar energy flow, is masculine (yang), heating, and enhances physical activity.
To attain optimal health and proper energy flow, the flow of energy through ida and pingala nadis must be balanced and unobstructed. Too much energy in pingala nadi can lead to too much heat, inflammation, and excessive physical activity (which can cause depletion in the body's tissues). On the other hand, too much energy in ida nadi can lead to cooling of the digestive fire (which can cause weight gain), stagnation in the tissues, and excessive mental activity (such as anxiety).
Balancing ida and pingala nadis helps to eliminate extremes and creates balance in the body and mind. But there's more: through balancing the energy flow of ida and pingala nadis, we activate the energy of the third most important nadi, sushumna, which flows along our spinal column. Sushumna nadi is the channel through which we can access spiritual awakening and expansion of consciousness.
So how do we balance the flow of ida and pingala nadis? The ancients have given us a simple yet powerful practice to achieve this: nadi shodhana, also known as alternate nostril breathing.
Nadi Shodhana: A Practice for Balance and Purification
The Sanskrit word shodhana means “purification.” Nadi shodhana balances the flows of ida and pingala nadis and activates sushumna nadi, while also purifying the remaining 71,997 (or more?) nadis in our physical and energetic body.
This practice calms, purifies, and strengthens the nervous system; relieves insomnia; balances hormones; prevents headaches and migraines; and alleviates anxiety and stress. It is best practiced on an empty stomach.
Note: With all pranayama, consistency is key. While doing this once may help you feel better in the moment, practicing daily over time will lead to long-lasting benefits.
Precautions. Do not practice nadi shodhana during any of the following acute symptoms: headaches, fever, restlessness, agitation, seizures, blocked nasal passages, cold. Do not practice pranayama during menstruation.
Basic Nadi Shodhana Instructions:
Begin sitting in a comfortable seated position, aligning the spine over the pelvis.
Using the right hand, fold down the “peace sign” fingers toward the palm.
From this position, you will use the right thumb to open and close the right nostril, and the right ring finger to open and close the left nostril.
With both nostrils open, inhale and exhale completely.
Begin the first round by closing the right nostril and gently and fully inhaling through the left.
At the top of the breath, close the left nostril with the ring finger, open the right, and gently exhale through the right nostril until you have exhaled fully.
Inhale through the right nostril slowly and fully, and switch the fingers, and slowly and fully exhale through the left.
This is one round, the pattern being: IN left—OUT right—IN right—OUT left. NOTE: Always switch the fingers before the exhale, and stay on the same side to inhale.
Begin with 2-3 minutes, adding 30 seconds per week up to 10 minutes.
If you're interested in diving deeper into the healing power of breath, my new course, Pranayama: Enhancing Your Life Force Through Breath and Awareness, begins March 8th. More details here.