Lawd knows I love me some pranayam. Sitali for cooling, ujjayi for warming, and anuloma viloma for boosting your energy (prana), focusing the mind and balancing the nervous system. I find the practice is best done in the morning, bringing clarity and concentration for the rest of the day. It’s been absolutely indispensable in this transition phase, a time full of visitors, traveling, meticulous logistics of moving, and the inevitable emotional fluctuations that follow.
Here’s how to do it:
1. Sit very comfortably. This could mean any number of seated postures: padmasana, virasana, swastikasana, or even sitting on a chair. If you’d like more room for your hip flexors to breathe, place a pillow under you sit bones. Ideally, your spine is straight, giving your diaphragm and ribcage maximum mobility – thereby giving your lungs the space to expand (and contract) fully.
2. Close the eyes. Tune into the breath. Relax all the muscles of the face from the top of the forehead, systematically relaxing all the way down to the chin. Relax the tongue, but allow the tip to make contact with the back of the two front teeth, right where they meet the gums. Keep the eyes closed but bring your gaze to the space between the brows.
3. Bring your left hand to chin mudra (the connection between the thumb and index finger symbolizes the unification of self with greater Consciousness).
4. Bring your right hand to Vishnu mudra. Vishnu Mudra is meant to bring the three bodies (spiritual, mental, and physical) into alignment. While the index and mid-finger are drawn into the palm, the remaining digits, associated with Earth, Air and Fire are left extended and engaged which can bring a sense of stability and focus.
5. Inhale in abundance, filling the belly, ribcage and chest. Exhale in gratitude.
6. Bring your right thumb to cover the right nostril and inhale through the left. Try inhaling for 4 seconds to begin with, then you can progress toward 5, 6, 7, 8 seconds. This might elicit more ease-full concentration, and is a nice alternative if Vishnu mudra is not compatible with your hands.
7. Hold both nostrils and retain for 16 seconds. The retention – khumbaka – is held for four times the length of the inhale.
8. Exhale right for 8 seconds, twice the amount of the inhale.
9. Inhale same side (right) – 4 seconds
10. Retain – 16 seconds
11. Exhale left – 8 seconds
12. Inhale left – 4 seconds, and continue like this.
Start out doing four rounds. If that feels comfortable, add more rounds. The more rounds you do, the more significant the benefits. According to Prahlad, the head of asana at Sivananda, it’s best to do more rounds of anuloma viloma than to try and add seconds to the counts. Remember, the ratio to inhale-retention-exhale is 1-4-2.
You may wish to skip retentions, and simply inhale left – exhale right – inhale right – exhale left. If you are 100% new to the pranayam, this is probably a good place to start.
In these directions, I’ve asked you to start inhaling through the left side; to finish the round you will end with an exhale on the left. Other schools begin with an inhale on the left side; just be sure both sides are balanced when you’ve completed the cycle.
Be sure to keep the shoulder relaxed away from the ear; feel free to adjust if the body becomes uncomfortable.
Just what are the benefits?
The left nostril correlates to the parasympathetic nervous system. Breathing in and out through this nostril will calm your nervous system, creating feelings of peace and spaciousness. In yogic philosophy, this side stimulates the ida channel and is associated with moon energy, the cooling calming yin to the yang. The right nostril is said to stimulate the pingala channel in yoga, igniting firey energy, more closely associated with yang.
Anuloma viloma balances the nervous system, trains one’s ability to focus, and increases lung capacity.
Science for the curious and skeptics
If you’re interested in reading studies on pranayam techniques from an empirical point of view check out a few from PubMed here:
- Immediate effect of chandra nadi pranayama (left unilateral forced nostril breathing) on cardiovascular parameters in hypertensive patients.
- Unilateral nostril breathing influences lateralized cognitive performance.
- Yoga breathing through a particular nostril increases spatial memory scores without lateralized effects.