This week a student in the Gentle Breath Practice / Chair Yoga class asked, “Why is Nadi Shodhana considered the most powerful yoga practice?” (Nadi Shodhana is a slow-paced breath practice where you alternate which nostril you are breathing through.)
First of all, who is it that considers this true? You could say that it is a widely held truth, by those who range from ancient Yoga Masters to contemporary students – they are reporting their personal experience. There are also many explanations given from numerous sources, including modern medical research, about the profound benefits of slow alternate nostril pranayama, Nadi Shodhana breath.
To begin to address the student’s inquiry, there are a few topics to explore.
- Why is pranayama considered to be so important?
- How does pranayama impact the physical body?
- How does pranayama impact the nervous system?
Why is Pranayama so Important?
Let’s consider just the first question regarding the impact of pranayama in general, trusting the personal experience of countless practitioners, including a yoga master who spent years in silence to dedicate himself to this practice. Swami Kripalu taught, “Pranayama is the soul of yoga. It is yoga itself.”
Thought Activity is Ever Present
When practicing yoga, the destination is meditation. That is, settling the mind. When one observes mind activity closely, as meditators do, it becomes apparent that “thought activity” is ever present. In the practice of yoga, though we hope for that calming of the mind, generally we start with the physical practice, movement and asana (postures).
Relaxing the Muscles
The physical practices of asana and associated movements release the tensions of the physical body, loosen stiff joints, relax tight muscles and help to rehydrate connective tissue. We build breath practice into asana practice to stimulate energy (on inhalations) and relax muscles (on exhalations).
In most classes, when we complete asana practice (savasana being the final posture, the posture of fully letting go) we move on to seated pranayama practice. This may include the energizing practices of kapalabhati and bhastrika. Nadi Shodhana is typically practiced at the end of a yoga practice.
Breath, the Nervous System and our Thoughts
This slow alternate nostril breath (as well as the others) helps release the tensions that are present in our breath patterns. It is the tensions and areas of blocked energy that contribute to the stimulation of the nervous system in a way that generates the quality of mental thought activity. This tension can travel in both directions. The tension in the body and breath can affect the thinking center. And the tensions in our thoughts can certainly affect our breath rate, breath quality and tensions in the body.
Calm for Meditation
The practices of asana and pranayama will generally calm the nervous system, preparing the mind to settle into the one-pointed focus that begins the practice of meditation, by releasing the tensions in the physical body and the breath. In my experience, as confirmed by so many Gentle Yogis students who show up regularly for Breath Practice / Chair Yoga, Nadi Shodhana is powerful in its ability to create balance and calm. It’s a great way to start the day!