Nadi Śodhana Prānāyāma

Alternate Nostril Breathing

Benefits Nadi śodhana is a balancing breath aimed at addressing internal (physical or mental) imbalance and discord, and restoring harmony. Through regulation of the breath we vitalise pranic energies, release blockages, and come to a place of equilibrium between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, so that lifes situations can be handled better. As a theraputic tool, it can be applied for almost all physical and mental dis-ease - however one should take guidance when treating severe symptomology. When practiced regularly and with proper commitment, nadi śodhana prānāyāma can become a spiritual practice within itself, and can be utilised to awaken dormant shakti and achieve advanced levels of meditation.

Important Note: Kevala Kumbhaka 

The classical texts emphasise that the purification of the nadis (energy channels) is essential to realise the true goal of prānāyāma: achieving kevala kumbhaka (spontaneous rentention of breath). There are three components of respiration: pūraka (inspiration); rechaka (expiration); and kumbhaka (retention). The classical texts recognise kumbhaka to be true prānāyāma, as inspiration and expiration are natural processes - however, they must be employed in order to achieve kumbhaka. We practice sahita kumbhaka, which is deliberately holding the breath, but the goal of prānāyāma is to eventually reach the state of kevala kumbhaka, spontaneous breath retention - which is the equivalent to the state of Samadhi (the culmination of meditation; state of unity with the object of meditation and universal consciousness).

“That is called kumbhaka when there is no expiration or inspiration and the body is motionless, remaining still in one state. Then he sees forms like the blind, hears sounds like the deaf, and feels the body like wood. This is the characteristic of one who has attained so much quiescence.”
Amritananda Upanishad (v. 13-14)

Here I am presenting the practice in three levels, to suit a range of experience, however, proper advice should be taken before practicing any of these levels, and as with all practices, each stage should be mastered before moving on to the next.

Level One
+ Take a comfortable seat, either cross-legged on the floor, or on a chair with the feet flat on the ground.
+ With the palms of the hands face down on the thighs, gently close the eyes and begin taking deep inhales and exhales through the nose. While inhaling count mentally up from 1 until the inhale reaches its natural end. While exhale repeat the count, keeping the length of inhale and exhale equal.
+ Continue for a few minutes. You may notice the length of inhale and exhale naturally increases comfortably. + Next, leaving the left palm on the thigh, raise the right hand. Take the index and middle finger and rest them gently at the point between the eyebrows.
+ Close off the right nostril using the thumb, and inhale through the left nostril. At the top of the inhale, release the right nostril and close off the left nostril using the ring finger. Exhale through the right nostril for an equal length.
+ Inhale back through the right nostril, and at the top, release the ring finger and close off the right nostril using the thumb. Exhale through the left nostril.
+ Continue this practice for several minutes keeping the inhales and exhales equal with a ratio of 1:1. Over time, you should feel comfortable counting to 8 on the inhale and exhale.
+ Work up to practicing this for 10 minutes at a time.

Level Two
At this stage we introduce antar kumbhaka (inner breath retention).
+ Expanding from the level one practice, here we will begin to incorporate a period of breath retention at the top of the inhale, working with a ration of 2:1:2. So for example, inhale through the left nostril for 8 counts, close off both nostrils and retain the breath for 4 counts, then exhale through the right nostril for 8 counts.
+ Continue practicing the alternate nostril breathing with the ratio of 2:1:2 until it feels comfortable in the body and mind. Once you have mastered this practice, work with the ratio of 1:1:1 - so an inhale of 8 counts, followed by retention for 8 counts, followed by an exhale for 8 counts.
+ Continue this practice for 10 minutes

Level Three
At this stage we introduce antar and bahir kumbhaka (internal and external breath retention) as well as engaging mūla, uddiyana and jalandhara bandhas (root lock, abdominal lock, and throat lock).
+ Expanding from the level two practice, we now incorporate an external breath retention - meaning we hold the breath out at the bottom of the exhale, as well as holding in at the top of the inhale. Begin by practicing with a ration of 2:2:2:1 - meaning, inhale left nostril for 8 counts, hold for 8 counts, exhale right nostril for 8 counts, and hold out for 4 counts. Continue like this until it feels natural and easy, then work on a ratio of 1:1:1:1.
+ Once you have mastered the alternate breathing incorporating antar and bahir kumbhaka, you can begin to practice engaging the bandhas. You may find that you need to reduce the ratio and/or count of the prānāyāma when you intially begin work with the bandhas.
+ At the very bottom of the exhale, draw the stomach in, engaging the core (uddiyana bandha). At the same time squeeze and pull up from the perineum, engaging the area just behind the genitals (mūla bandha). Simultaneously, drop the chin slightly and engage the area in the throat (jalandhara bandha), restricting any passageof air. Keep the bandhas engaged throughout the external retention. Gently releasing them as you inhale.
+ When you reach the top of the inhale, again engage all three bandhas for the duration of the internal retention. Gently releasing as you exhale.

Once you have mastered all of these stages, there are ways in which you can progress the practice even further, however I would recommend doing so under the guidance of an experienced teacher.