Respiration is the most important function of the body. Yet most people are not aware of the simple fact that the breath does not flow equally through the two nostrils. At times one nostril is more active than the other, and at other times it may become less active than the other. This is because on each side of the septum separating the two nostrils there are structures called turbinates that regulate the pathway of airflow within the inner nose. These turbinates are covered by mucous membrane, which is composed of erectile tissue. The swelling of the turbinates changes the inner configuration of the air pathways and can thus restrict or even block the flow of air. This explains the unequal flow of breath through the nostrils.

One of the aims of yogic breathing techniques is to equalize the airflow in the nostrils. This is a prerequisite for the devitalization of the ida and pingala nadis (energy channels) and the opening up of the blocked sushumna nadi. In a moment, we will consider a breathing technique called nadi shodhana, or purification of the nadis, the practice of which leads to equalization of the breath in the right and left nostrils, and then to the opening of the sushumna nadi. Equalizing the flow of breath calms the mind, and in states of deep meditation this equal flow is evident.

Equalizing the flow of breath calms the mind, and in states of deep meditation this equal flow is evident.

A Preliminary Step: Cleansing the Nostrils

A preliminary step to equalizing the flow of breath is cleansing the nostrils, and for this yoga manuals describe a technique called jala neti (purification with water). Lukewarm water, with a little salt dissolved in it, is poured into one nostril while the head is tilted so as to allow the saline solution to flow out through the other nostril. (A cup can be used to do this, but it is far more convenient to use a pot with a narrow spout—a neti pot.) This lukewarm, saline water not only dissolves and washes away any accumulated mucus and dirt, but it also, by osmosis, draws out excess water from swollen turbinate structures. It also facilitates drainage of the sinuses.

If the water is first poured into the left nostril and flows out through the right, the flow of direction is then reversed by pouring the salt water into the right nostril and allowing it to drain through the left. This accomplishes a thorough cleansing of the air passageways. Personal instruction in this technique from a qualified teacher is recommended before attempting it on your own. Daily practice prevents congestion of the sinuses and makes you less susceptible to common colds and other respiratory infections.

Another cleansing technique is sutra neti (string cleansing).In this exercise a rubber catheter with a cotton string attached is inserted into the nostril and then taken out through the mouth, or string alone may be used if the end has been stiffened with wax. All the implements should be sterilized before they are used and, as has been said before, the demonstration of this technique by a competent teacher is recommended before your first attempt. This exercise cleanses the nostrils, strengthens the mucous membrane, and benefits the eyes.

Nadi Shodhana (Alternate Nostril Breathing)

An excellent breathing exercise that leads to equalizing the flow of breath is called nadi shodhana, which literally means “channel purification.”

Nadi shodhana literally means “channel purification.”

  1. Sit in a calm, quiet, airy place in an easy and steady posture with the head, neck, and trunk erect and in a straight line. The body should be still.
  2. Bring the right hand up to the nose; the index and middle fingers should be folded so that the right thumb can be used to close the right nostril and the ring finger used to close the left nostril (Vishnu mudra).
  3. With the right nostril closed, exhale completely through the left nostril. The exhalation should be slow, controlled, and free from exertion and jerkiness.
  4. At the end of the exhalation, close the left nostril with the ring finger, open the right nostril, and inhale slowly and completely. Inhalation should also be slow, smooth, controlled, and of the same duration as the exhalation.
  5. Repeat this cycle of exhalation through the left nostril followed by inhalation through the right nostril two more times.
  6. At the end of the third inhalation through the right nostril, exhale completely through the same nostril, still keeping the left nostril closed with the ring finger.
  7. At the end of this exhalation close the right nostril and inhale through the left nostril. Repeat this cycle of exhalation through the right nostril followed by inhalation through the left nostril two more times. This completes the exercise.

In summary, the exercise consists of three cycles of exhalation through the left nostril and inhalation through the right nostril, followed by three cycles of exhalation through the right nostril and inhalation through the left nostril.

In the evening, start the exercise with three cycles of exhalation through the right nostril and inhalation through the left nostril, followed by three cycles of exhalation through the left nostril and inhalation through the right nostril. In all phases of this exercise, the exhalation and inhalation should be of equal duration, without a pause between exhalation and inhalation. Breathing should be diaphragmatic and should be slow and controlled, with no sense of exertion. With practice, gradual lengthening of the duration of inhalation and exhalation should be attempted.

There are slight variations on this basic technique in different yoga texts. The student should avoid frequent changes in technique, however, for only with regular practice of the same technique can he reap the full benefits of nadi shodhana. Further, in some texts retention of the breath between inhalation and exhalation is recommended. This is an advanced form of the exercise and should be attempted only under the guidance of a competent teacher. Otherwise the student may harm himself irreparably.

Under proper guidance retention may be practiced, the period of retention being gradually increased so long as it does not in any way disturb the breath. The recommended ratio between the durations of inhalation, retention, and exhalation is 1:4:2. After mastering the retention of breath after inhalation, the student attempts retention after exhalation, again by gradually increasing the length of time the breath is held.

Such an advanced technique should not be attempted purely on the basis of instructions found in books. Unless one has done the prerequisites for such advanced techniques, more harm than good will result, for the aspirant will have awakened the energies of prana to a degree that is beyond his capacity to contain and control.

Editor’s note: In the next post in this series, Swami Rama describes vigorous, calming, and cooling pranayamas as well as a few more advanced pranayamas requiring expert guidance.

Source: Science of Breath by Swami Rama, Rudolph Ballentine, MD, and Alan Hymes, MD
Further Reading

Science of Breath

by Swami Rama, Rudolph Ballentine, MD,
Alan Hymes, MD

This book presents knowledge and practices regarding the breath in a way that can be applied to personal growth. It is a masterful guide to systematically identifying bad breathing habits, replacing those habits with healthy breathing patterns, and developing control over pranic flow. Learn how to develop and master the link between your body and mind through the understanding of the breath.

More in this Series

The Science of Breath: Portal to Higher Awareness