What is Anuloma Viloma or alternate nostril breathing?
Conscious breath regulation or control of vital energy, also called pranayama, is one of the essential techniques of yoga, particularly when working with people who are experiencing stress or anxiety. To most people in the so called Western civilization, the most commonly known breathing technique is diaphragmatic breathing. However, more recently other pranayama techniques and their benefits are being recognized as well.
The reason why the process of breathing is such a powerful act is because it establishes a direct connection between our voluntary nervous system (aspects of our physiology under our conscious control) and our autonomic nervous system (aspects generally not under conscious control). It is a form of direct communication between our brain and our body. Moreover, it offers a direct link for balancing the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches of the nervous system. The sympathetic branch of our nervous system is responsible for our fight-or-flight reactions, while the parasympathetic branch is reserved for rest and relaxation/repair of our body.
Anuloma Viloma Pranayama is one of the main practices of Pranayama. It is mentioned in the yogic texts Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Gheranda Samhita, Tirumandiram, Siva Samhita, Puranas and in the Upanishads.
In Sanskrit, Anuloma means ‘successive’ (continuous) or in ‘accordance with the natural order’, Viloma means ‘produced in reverse order’ or ‘against the natural order’, and pranayama means control of breath or vital energy, and is an extension of the breath or life.
One form of Anuloma Viloma is Nadi Shodhana, meaning ‘purification of nadiis’ and is normally referred to as alternate nostril breathing. Generally speaking, alternate nostril breathing should be taught to students who have practiced asanas for a considerable time on a regular basis. It should not be taught to complete beginners of yoga.
Normal breathing does alternate from one nostril to the other at various times during the day being more predominant through one particular nostril at a time. This has been termed as the ‘nasal cycle’ by scientists who recently discovered it, even though this phenomenon has been known to yogis ever since pranayama was invented by Shiva about 7000 years ago.
The Nasal Cycle
In a healthy person the breath will alternate between nostrils about every two hours – this is called the nasal cycle. Since most people are not in optimum health, this time period varies considerably from person to person and the longer it takes to switch from one nostril to the other the more it is a sign of decreased vitality. When the breath continues to flow through one nostril for more than two hours, it will have an adverse effect on our health. If the right nostril is involved, it will result in a mental and nervous disturbance. If the left nostril is involved, it will result in chronic fatigue and reduced brain function. The longer the flow of breath through one nostril, the more serious a certain illness will be.
In the practice of pranayama, inhalation (called Puraka), retention (called Kumbhaka) and exhalation (called Rechaka) is used. Anuloma Viloma pranayama can be practiced with or without Kumbhaka (holding of breath). In the beginning it is taught without breath retention.
How Can You Benefit?
Nadi shodhana has a long history in Ayurvedic medicine and yoga. It is thought to harmonize the two hemispheres of the brain. This results in a balanced sense of well-being, in physical and mental, as well as in emotional terms. In fact, the term Nadi Shodhana means “clearing the channels of the circulation of prana.”
When practiced correctly, it introduces the practitioner to all the processes that will be encountered on the pranayama path: heightened sun energy activated by the breath retention and the sweet flow of relaxation that comes with slowly releasing the breath.
Clinical psychologist Dr. Paula Watkins gives three good reasons for practicing this pranayama:
Basically, it is good for our heart, lungs, and our brain.
There are also the following benefits:
Anuloma Viloma Practice
This is an advanced practice (especially when done with retention of breath). It has to be learned from a yoga expert.
Those suffering from heart ailments or blood pressure problems (high as well as low) should avoid retention of breath. Consult a doctor if you have any medical condition before taking up the practice.
The purpose of Pranayama is to control the breathing mechanism which is an involuntary process. In the yoga text Hatha Yoga Pradipika, the breath is compared to a wild animal. Just as elephants, lions and tigers can be controlled with steady and prolonged training, the yogi also brings the breath under his control with constant practice.
The practice of Pranayama should be taken up with care. Do not overdo the practice.
It is said that pranayama can cure all diseases. But, if done improperly, it may create diseases, which cannot be cured easily even with medical treatment. Hence one should proceed very cautiously. In fact it should be learned from a teacher.
Anuloma Viloma pranayama should be done on an empty stomach, preferably in the morning after evacuation. It can also be done in the evening before dinner or with a gap of 4 hours after the last meal. Also, avoid doing this practice with retention of breath when your body temperature is high.
How to do it?
Sit in any comfortable seated position. Padmasana is most suited for the practice. Siddhasana may also be used but is prescribed only for men. Relax the body and breathe naturally for a few moments, allowing your mind and body to settle. The spine must be straight. Several tongue gestures can be included (khechari mudra, kaki mudra or jiva bandha).
Rest your left hand on your lap or knee in Jinana Mudra – connecting index finger and thumb. Make a “peace sign” with your right hand and then curl in the index and middle fingers toward your palm, in Vishnu Mudra. Inhale first keeping both nostrils open and clear, then exhale through the left nostril by placing your thumb gently onto your right nostril thereby closing it.
Close your eyes and inhale slowly, deeply, smoothly, gently and without strain through your left nostril. Do this as slowly as you can, till your lungs are full. Close your left nostril (using your ring and little fingers) and release closure of your right. Exhale through your right nostril. Inhale through your right nostril. Close your right nostril and release closure of your left. Exhale through your left nostril. This completes one round. The ratio is 4:16:8. Inhaling on 4, holding the breath on 16 and exhaling on 8.
Continue this pattern for as long as you wish.
The duration of inhalation and expiration depends entirely on the capacity of the practitioner. Start with whatever you are comfortable with – say 4 seconds inhalation and 4 seconds exhalation. Later it can be increased up to 20 seconds or even more.
Ratio of Inhalation, Retention and Exhalation Pranayama practitioners start with the ratio of 1:1 for inhalation and exhalation (if you inhale for 4 seconds through one nostril, then the exhalation from the other nostril is also 4 seconds). As you progress, the ratio can be changed to 1:2 (if inhalation is 4 seconds, exhalation is 8 seconds). Once you add Kumbhaka (retention of breath), the ratio can start with 1:1:1. With further progress, the ratio can be increased to 1:1:2, 1:2:2, 1:4:2. The actual Anuloma Viloma starts with a ratio of 4:16:8 and can be increased to 5:20:10, 6:24:12. Experienced Pranayama practitioner will increase the ratio as instructed by a teacher.
When you have finished: relax both arms, sit and breathe naturally for a few moments before opening your eyes.
You can do one sitting in the morning and one in the evening. For advanced practitioners, the yogic texts recommend four sittings – one in the morning, one at noon, one in the evening and one at midnight. But for all practical purposes for most people, two sittings (one in morning and one in evening) are enough.