There are times in our lives when we suffer from stress, anxiety, being too busy and other issues associated with our modern lifestyle. Because life has become so fast paced, most of modern yoga is about slowing and calming.
However, there are also times when we feel depressed, sad, with low energy, or just “numbed out” to the day to day sensations that can sometimes become overwhelming. Suicide rates increased by 25% across the United States over nearly two decades ending in 2016, according to research published by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Although we don’t hear about them as often, there are also yoga techniques for raising our energy and helping us become more resilient so that we don’t want or need to numb ourselves or shut down.
ANULOMA VILOMA is an ancient breathing practice from the Tantric Hatha Yoga tradition. It is described in detail in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika (HYP), a 15th century text written by Yogi Swatmarama. Said to be the oldest surviving text on Hatha Yoga, the HYP one of the three classic texts of Hatha Yoga, the other two being the Gheranda Samhita and the Shiva Samhita.
Anuloma viloma is a form of alternate nostril breathing. It is used to raise energy in the central energy channel (sushumna nadi) which runs through the body from tailbone to crown. The ancients believed that when performed properly, this pranayama (breathing technique) could completely purify the energy body and activate higher consciousness.
In the HYP, the technique is referred to as Nadi Shodhana. Over time, perhaps because of necessity, Nadi Shodhana evolved into a calming pranayama. Because of the popularity of the more widely known slow version of the practice, the original the version (as it is described in the HYP) has been re-named Anuloma Viloma. The Sanskrit name translates to “with the grain, against the grain”.
HOW TO PRACTICE
ONE ROUND = INHALE left, retain the breath, EXHALE right.
INHALE right, retain the breath, EXHALE left.
The thumb of the right hand is used to manipulate the right nostril, while the pinky and ring finger are used to control the left nostril. The practice of a kumbhaka or retention is encouraged as students advance at the practice; first at the end of the inhale and eventually also at the end of the exhale.
The length of the holding systematically increases, eventually holding "with much effort”. The exhale should be performed slowly and with control. There should be no gasping for air. Both inhalation and exhalation are a choice vs. a necessity or reaction.
Breath retention raises our energy. It is important not to “check out” during retentions, but to fully experience the accompanying sensations. Release allows for sweet relief and the opportunity to sit in a state of peaceful euphoria.
When we repeatedly alternate between tension and release, our reaction to each extreme becomes less which allows us to sit with increasingly strong sensation over time.
When practiced as Sama Vrtti the inhalation, retention and exhalation are of equal duration. More advanced students may employ Visama Vrtti or uneven breath, using ratios such as 4:2:8 (four count inhale, two count retention, and an 8 count exhale).
We must remember that at the time the HYP was written, yogis were ascetic seekers who did not maintain a household or have a family. They practiced anuloma viloma as a means to explore the limits of the energetic system. It is written in the text that one should practice anuloma viloma 3 times per day (morning, noon, evening) for 3 months to completely purify the energy body. The ancients would build up to 80 breaths (40 rounds) which takes about an hour. That’s 3 hours of breathwork per day!
NOTE: This much pranayama of ANY kind is TOO MUCH for most people living in the “real world.” According to many traditions, anuloma viloma is not recommended for beginners (or anyone) to practice without the guidance of an experienced teacher.
My personal recommendation is to start with 10 rounds once per day and be observant of the effects the practice has throughout the rest of your day. Start with 1-2 second retentions and increase ONLY if you feel comfortable and have no negative side effects. You should have the guidance of a qualified teacher with whom you can consult as you progress.
1. Increased ability to witness (rather than react), even in difficult situations
2. Increased sense of self as something separate from thoughts, feelings, and circumstances
3. Balance between right and left brain
4. Meditative awareness
5. Removal from daily drama
6. New perspective on life circumstances
7. Increased energy due to oxygenation of the blood
8. Relief from tension
9. Increased sensitivity
Do not practice if you have heart problems, high blood pressure, history of emotional or physical trauma, sinus infection, abdominal pain, appendicitis, delicate bowels/intestinal pain, throat infection, blocked nasal passages.
Readers should exercise precaution when practicing yoga postures and breathing techniques. To avoid any problems it is advised that you consult your physician or therapist before starting a pranayama practice. The responsibility lies solely with the reader and not with this site or the writer.
Jessica Lohrey, E-RYT 500 is a TREE PERSON! She specializes in yoga teacher training, mentorship, and using yoga as a therapeutic tool for maintaining physical and emotional balance in our busy modern society. Jessica teaches in Asheville, NC.