The breath is a vehicle for deepening concentration and revealing quiet sources of joy. Two techniques that can have far-reaching effects are nadi shodhana and sushumna breathing. In these practices, the two great modes of energy within the body–mind are coordinated, and attention is focused on the central stream of the breath. By sustaining awareness on this central stream, a process of transformation begins, leading to a steady and tranquil mind. In this post, we will focus on sushumna breathing.
Sushumna: An Introduction
The word sushumna can be divided into three parts, although to an English speaker, they hardly look meaningful. The division is su-su-mna. “Wait a minute,” you may say, “the spelling of the second su is changed, and mna seems rather peculiar, too.” Well, you’re right. Su is a prefix that often changes to shu. It means “good, beautiful, virtuous, sweet, and well” (and it is also found in the English word sugar). Mna is an infrequently used verb root with the same meaning as its more common root form, man, which means “to think.”
Sushumna can be interpreted as sukha-mana or “joyful mind.”
When su and mna are joined (shumna, “good thoughts”), the result is translated as “kind or gracious”—at least that is what can be found in Sanskrit dictionaries. Doubling the prefix (su-shumna) conveys these qualities in the superlative. We might say, “very kind or very gracious.”
Yoga adepts, however, give us an alternative meaning. They explain that sushumna also can be interpreted as sukha-mana—that is, “joyful” (sukha) “mind” (mana). In this new compound, the first word, sukha, which is normally translated as “happy” or “joyful,” also contains the prefix su—this time added to the short noun kha. Among the many definitions for kha (which is generally related to the concept of space) is the meaning, “the space at the center of a wheel.” The implication of su-kha, then, is that at the center of any wheel is a place of balance and tranquility. Thus, sukha means “well-centered, running smoothly”—or, more commonly, “happy” and “joyful.” It reminds us that there is a hub at the center of every human life that is the source of inner delight.
We have seen that variations in nostril dominance are expected and welcome in everyday life, but that meditation practice is enhanced when the right and left nostrils flow equally. We can help this take place by concentrating on the stream of energy flowing at the nose. Adepts have called this process “establishing sushumna,” and when it is accomplished, attention moves inward along a central channel leading from the base of the nose to the center between the eyebrows and down along the spine.
Ideally, when sushumna is established, the two nostrils will follow the lead of the mind and begin to flow equally, but this is often difficult to achieve in practice. One nostril may feel plugged and be unwilling to open. The other may stream open with no hint of moderating its activity. Does this mean that our practice is doomed to failure? It is good to remember that establishing sushumna has as much to do with the ability to remain focused on the sensation of breath as with actual changes in nostril dominance. When attention is firmly rested in the central stream of energy along the nose bridge, meditation will naturally deepen. It would be helpful if the two nostrils were to flow equally, but the act of focusing attention is the primary ingredient of this practice.
A Beginning Practice
- Sit erect with your eyes closed. Breathe 5 to 10 times as if your whole body breathes. Feel the cleansing and nourishing sensations of each breath. Practice one or more rounds of nadi shodhana, if you like.
- Now bring your attention to the touch of breath in the active nostril. Focus on the breath as if it is flowing only through the active side. Maintain your attention there until it has become steady and you can feel the breath without interruption. Let your thoughts come and go without giving them energy or attention. Simply maintain your focus on the breath in the active nostril, letting your nervous system relax.
- Next, bring your attention to the breath in the passive nostril. Again feel the flow of the breath until you can maintain your focus without interruption. Remain here longer than you remained on the active side. By maintaining the focus, the nostril may open.
- Finally, mentally merge these two streams into one single, central stream. Inhaling, breathe as if the breath flows from the base of the nostrils inward to the point between the eyebrows (the ajna chakra). Exhaling, let the breath flow from the ajna chakra back to the base of the nostrils. Breathe back and forth along this central stream as you gradually relax your mind.
- Sit as long as you like, resting your attention on the flow of the breath. Relax your body, breathing, and mind.
A Calm Center
Like the eye of a hurricane, sushumna, the channel of energy flowing in the core of the spine, is said to be unaffected by the powerful energies of ida (the left channel) and pingala (the right channel) swirling around it. Sushumna is the center of the wheel of life. During meditation, the mind rests from its outer activity and is naturally drawn toward this central channel of energy. With attention anchored in it, an experience of deep joy illumines the mind.
Following meditation practice, attention turns outward again and an active interest in worldly affairs is restored, often with more enthusiasm than before. The charm of the meditative experience is that it continues to create a subtle mood of happiness and contentment, much like the joy of having witnessed a beautiful sunrise or sunset. This memory infuses consciousness with reassurance, optimism, and good cheer.
Source: Moving Inward: The Journey to Meditation (Rolf Sovik, PsyD)