The other day I was teaching my classes to a group, and I was trying to explain then how does works the Naddhis, and how naddhi shodana helps to balance the nervous system.
But I think that it would be much easier with visual aids.
To begin with, I think I should explain better what nadi means, the word nadi in Sanskrit means to flow like water, or like a river, finding the path of least resistance and nourishing everything in its path.
Tantric texts say that the human body contains 72,000 nadis that channel prana (vital energy) to every cell. When this system flows freely, we are vital and healthy; when it becomes weak or congested, we struggle with poor mental and physical health. The practices of hatha yoga are so effective because they strengthen the flow of prana in our bodies, invigorating the current so that it carries away obstructions that block the free flow of energy.
Three nadis are our interest , the sushumna (most gracious) running from the base of the spine to the crown of the head, passing through each of the seven chakras in its course. It is the channel through which kundalini shakti (the latent serpent power) —and the higher spiritual consciousness it can fuel—rises up from its origin at the muladhara (root) chakra to its true home at the sahasrara (thousandfold) chakra at the crown of the head. The ida (comfort) and pingala (tawny) nadis spiral around the sushumna nadi like the double helix of our DNA, crossing each other at every chakra. Eventually, all three meet at the ajna (command) chakra, midway between the eyebrows.
The ida nadi begins and ends on the left side of sushumna. Ida is regarded as the lunar nadi, cool and nurturing by nature, and is said to control all mental processes and the more feminine aspects of our personality. The color white is used to represent the subtle vibrational quality of ida. Pingala, the solar nadi, begins and ends to the right of sushumna. It is warm and stimulating by nature, controls all vital somatic processes, and oversees the more masculine aspects of our personality. The vibrational quality of pingala is represented by the color red.
The interaction between ida and pingala corresponds to the internal dance between intuition and rationality, consciousness and vital power, and the right and left brain hemispheres. In everyday life, one of these nadis is always dominant. Although this dominance alternates throughout the day, one nadi tends to be ascendant more often and for longer periods than the other. This results in personality, behavior, and health issues that can be called ida-like or pingala-like.
Ida-like individuals have lunar, or nurturing, qualities but may lack the verve to sustain a strong yoga practice. They are full of potential, but unless they develop their pingala side may never manifest that potential in either worldly affairs or spiritual development. Pingala-like individuals have solar qualities: type A personalities, lots of creativity, abundant vitality. But unless they develop their ida side, they may lack the quietude, introspection, and receptivity necessary to yield to the grace of spiritual awakening.
The most powerful method of balancing ida and pingala is Nadi Shodhana, alternate-nostril breathing. (Literally, the Sanskrit means “nadi cleansing.”) This practice is effective because the ida nadi is directly connected to the left nostril, and the pingala nadi to the right. A few rounds of this basic pPranayama technique at the end of an asana practice are an excellent way to help restore equilibrium between the two nadis and to compensate for any imbalance you may have inadvertently caused during your practice.
Nadi shodhana, or alternate-nostril breath, is touted for its ability to reduce stress and still the mind. This practice consists of sitting quietly and breathing into each nostril separately by plugging one nostril and breathing in the opposite nostril. The instruction is to practice going back and forth between each nostril slowly and rhythmically. The practitioner plugs the left nostril, breathes in through the right; plugs the right nostril, exhales through the left. Then he or she repeats this on the other side: Plug the right nostril, breathe in through the left, and onward. Some of the yogic benefits of this practice include calming the mind and reducing stress, releasing tension from the chest and abdomen, and balancing the flow of prana in the nadis (energy channels).
When we practice Nadi Shodhana, we do it primarily as a means to pacify the sympathetic nervous system, which runs on the neurotransmitter, adrenaline, to allow us to fight or flee in stressful situations, or perceived stressful situations. If sitting at a red light too long instigates your fight-or-flight response, you also increase all the nervous system-induced casualties of that feeling – a heightened heart rate and respiratory rate, more adrenaline and cortisol being pumped into your blood, and as a terrible feedback loop, more stress in reaction to the initial discomfort or displeasure of having to wait behind a slow driver. You can imagine how many instances like this one throughout the day might trigger this sympathetic nervous system.
When we can control this response, through practices like Nadi Shodhana, the brain is given different signals. We also regulate the pranic energy of the body – the subtle energy that allows us to eventually reach enlightenment. Shodhana means ‘to purify’ and since we are breathing through the Ida, or left nostril, more passive, feminine nostril, we purify those qualities. When we breathe through the right nostril, or Pingala nadi, we purify the more masculine or ‘sun’ centered aspects of our personalities. Ideally we need enough get-up-and-go, and passive, allow and flow to accomplish anything positive in life.
While breathing through the right nostril only, can be beneficial for those who suffer from ailments like obesity and diabetes, since it builds heat in the body, the balanced breathing of Nadi Shodhana through both the right and left nostrils, allows the air that is heated by the right nostril to be cooled by the left. We always begin by breathing through the left nostril, because this is the aspect of us that needs to be awakened – the passive, allowing, nurturing aspect which neutralizes the heat, or excess of stress.
While the physical benefits of Nadi Shidhana are almost immediate, with practitioners experiencing a lowered resting heart rate and respiratory rates within as little as one month of consistent practice for just five minutes a day, longer term practice can start to augment other Hatha yoga practices that aim at dissolving the ego-bound self and helping one to reach full enlightenment. This happens when the purified energies of both Ida and Pingala nadis are joined with the other purified energy of the charkas along the spinal column or Sushumna, and reach the higher charkas, first Ajna chakra, or the pineal gland, and later the crown, or Sahasrara chakra. When the subtle energy channels are thoroughly clear, kundalini energy can rise to cause an awakening. Consciousness then expands greatly.
While scientists have yet to find a way to measure changes in energy channels, they are beginning to measure the impact of nadi shodhana on overall physiology. Preliminary studies show that nadi shodhana decreases blood pressure, increases skin conductance (which is a marker of sympathetic activity), and increases heart rate.
Interestingly, as many yogis have noticed in their own practice, breathing through one nostril compared to the other produces different effects on the body. For example, in the same study researchers found that breathing exclusively in and out of the left nostril decreases blood pressure, whereas breathing exclusively through the right nostril increases blood pressure. This aligns with the yogic view that breathing into the left nostril activates the ida, the energy channel associated with rest and relaxation, and that breathing into the right nostril activates the pingala, the energy channel associated with activity and action. Bottom line? Nadi shodhana helps balance the nervous system, evening out differences in sympathetic and parasympathetic tone (i.e., it evens out the fight-or-flight system with the rest-and-digest system) and it also reduces blood pressure, promoting a greater sense of calm and relaxation.
How to Practice Nadi Shodhana
For best results, Nadi Shodhana should be practiced after a Hatha yoga session of asana (yogic postures), or if you don’t already practice yoga, in a peaceful, meditative posture without distractions.
You should begin with a basic yogic breath. This means as you inhale your belly will expand, utilizing a full diaphragmatic breath, and as you exhale the belly will hollow out as you pull it back in toward the spine. Start with a 1:1 ratio of breathing in and out. Over time you can increase this. You will form a pranava mudra (hand gesture) of curling in your pinkie and ring finger of the right hand, in order to close the right nostril with the thumb to begin. You will not retain the breath in the basic version of nadhi shodhana
Exhale through both nostrils. Cover the right nostril and inhale slowly through the left. Cover the left nostril and exhale slowly through the right. Slowly inhale through the right, cover the right nostril and exhale slowly through the left. This consummates one round of Nadi Shodhana.