Dear Willow: Which Breathing Should I Use in Yoga?
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I practice a lot with breath in yoga. I have heard of Surya Bhedana Pranayama, but am not sure what it is and how it is used. I understand it is similar to Anuloma Viloma (alternate nostril breathing). When would you use Surya Bhedana? I'm only ever worked with alternate nostril, as I'm not confident enough knowing when and why to use Surya Bhedana. Are there any conditions that it works particularly well to balance?
Stuffed in Seattle
Dear Stuffed in Seattle,
That is a great question. First, let’s review alternate nostril breathing, or Anuloma Viloma, to ensure we are both speaking of the same Pranayama.
Anuloma Viloma - Alternate Nostril Breathing:
- Sit cross-legged.
- Right palm faces you, fold over first two fingers into palm of hand.
- Place thumb on right nostril and begin Anuloma Viloma through left nostril.
- Cadence: Inhale left nostril for four counts. Pause, then pinch left nostril closed with ring finger to close off both nostrils simultaneously. Hold the breath for sixteen, then release thumb from right nostril and exhale through right nostril for eight.
- Now do the other side: Keep ring finger on left nostril, inhale through right nostril for four counts. Pause, then pinch right nostril closed with thumb to close off both nostrils simultaneously. Hold the breath for sixteen, then release ring finger from left nostril and exhale through left nostril for eight.
- Repeat, alternating between the sides doing a total of three rounds.
Have you ever practiced Surya Bhedana? If not, that might be a great starting point. Familiarize yourself with this Pranayama first hand and notice what the similarities and differences are between Surya Bhedana and alternate nostril breathing.
Surya Bhedana - Sun Piercing and Moon Piercing:
- Assume same leg and hand position as with alternate nostril breathing.
- Place ring finger on left nostril and inhale through right nostril for ten counts. Pause, then hold for ten. Exhale through left nostril for ten. Repeat 3-5 times.
- Next, switch and inhale through left nostril for ten counts. Pause, then hold for ten. Exhale through right nostril for ten. Repeat 3-5 times.
Surya Bhedana can be used to help balance out both nostrils and both sides of the brain. You will gain a rhythm with beginning with one nostril and continue that rhythm for 3 rounds, then switch to the other side for 3 rounds. You could also do more than 3 rounds initially - start with 5-8 to notice more subtle differences between the sides of nostrils and how it lights up parts of your body.
Join these rounds with the setting of your intent or focus and you may reveal some great tools for teaching. For instance, one nostril being easier to breathe through than the other. You might notice through a week of practicing Surya Bhedana that the right nostril is continuously stuffed up and challenging to get breath through. This may indicate that you are left brain focused (logic centered) or have "too much in-your-head thinking." If this is true, you might want to spend some time going for walks, drawing, writing, reading, or cooking. The idea is to create something through using your inner vision.
Also, letting go of a need to control will help release pressure on your left brain. Too much focus, especially the narrowing of the eyes one does to concentrate, flexes muscles around the face and squeezes the cranial bones closer together. This squeeze creates pressure on the cranial cerebral fluids and can reduce the amount of oxygen the brain receives.
For you to best understand the effects of these two Pranayamas, or breathing strategies, implement them into your regular routines with yoga. Become a witness to what works and what does not give you the benefit you seek. This will give you practice, not just with regards to Asana, but also in getting to know yourself.