The following is from Advanced Yoga Practices and describes the procedure and benefits of alternate nostril breathing:
Alternate nostril breathing is one of the most basic breathing techniques, and is usually the first breathing method taught to beginning students in yoga classes. These days it is also taught by mental health professionals due to its calming influence on the nervous system. Alternate nostril breathing is done by breathing slowly out and then in with one nostril blocked by the thumb of one hand, and then slowly out and in with the other nostril blocked by the middle finger of the same hand. That is all there is to it. It is a well-known practice that brings almost immediate relaxation.
The calming effects of alternate nostril breathing come primarily from a reduction of the breath rate by using one nostril at a time – restraint of breath.
There is a great natural principle at work here. It is why pranayama is so effective for cultivating the nervous system. “Pranayama” means “restraint of the life force.” When we restrain the life force in a simple unforced way, something is created. The gentle restraint of breath creates a biological vacuum effect, a small suction on the life force in us. The body must deal with this gentle deficit of life force in some way. It does so by pulling from the vast storehouse of prana within the body, and this prana flows out from deep within the nervous system. This is a new dynamic in the nervous system, and the outflow of prana from within plays on the nerves with a great loosening and purifying effect. This process is at the heart of all the effects that come up from pranayama. Right behind the flow of prana coming up in pranayama is the bounteous flow of pure bliss consciousness, assuming we are practicing our meditation every day.
We are all familiar with the benefits of applying the principle of restraint in various areas of our life. If we gently restrain what seems to be our immediate need, we invariably benefit in some way. This is particularly true if we have been overdoing in terms of fulfilling our perceived needs, as we are prone to do in our consumption-oriented western lifestyle. There is great wisdom in the saying, “Moderation in all things.”
A very simple and obvious example is eating. If we gently restrain our food intake, we begin to burn the fat in our body to replace the reduction in food intake. This has an overall purifying effect in the body, and will improve our health as long as we don’t take the process to an extreme and become anorexic.
The principle of restraint operates in many areas of life. If we restrain our spending, even a little, we find that we have more money. If we lose our job, which is not always perceived as a positive event, very often we end up in a better one. Life has a way of compensating for whatever is restrained, often with something better. There is no doubt that if we moderate our excesses, we find more in life. In many areas of life, we find that less is more. This principle is also operating in meditation. As we easily favor the mantra, we are gently restraining the endless streams of thoughts that we are almost always immersed in. In meditation, we create a state in the mind where the attention is not focused on meaning. Yet, we are keeping the mind active with the mantra. We have not put the mind to sleep. So, with less opportunity for attention to cling to meaning there is a kind of vacuum created in the mind. What happens? Well, you know what. The attention goes to quieter and quieter levels, until the mind becomes completely still in the great silent expanse of pure bliss consciousness. By gently restraining the flow of mind, we create a vacuum that draws pure bliss consciousness into us.
It has been said, “Nature abhors a vacuum, and rushes to fill it.” It is true. Much of yoga is based on the application of this principle to stimulate the human nervous system to a higher level of functioning and experience. We are not usually inclined to voluntarily restrain things that we consider basic to our existence. Yet, if we understand the principle of compensation that is operating everywhere, we will find opportunities to move forward in our lives with greater skill. Pranayama is one shining example of the application of this principle. As you will see, pranayama reaches far into the essence of what we are, and plays a major role in pulling us out, enabling us to become ecstatically radiant.
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