The first time someone taught me about Nadi Shodhana Pranayama, I was a teenager. I was a bit skeptical (I am always a bit skeptical), and requested an explanation. Here’s what I got:
"Just do it. It’s good for you—you’ll see."
To be fair, he ended up being right, but I didn't learn that until much later. Performing Nadi Shodhana Pranayama has many benefits, even without knowledge of the philosophical underpinnings of the practice. But this person wasn’t my guru, and I didn’t follow his suggestion just because he told me to.
In case you too, have wondered about what Nadi Shodhana Pranayama does, and how, here is more information that what I was initially provided with.
In our conditioned form, we spend most of our time vacillating between urgency and exhaustion. These two states are almost all we know, so even when we come to the yoga practice, we tend to apply our same tendencies to our practice.
To establish ourselves in balance is to discover a completely new way of living; something our conditioning is too strong to allow. In yoga, such conditioned patterns, which can even persist from one lifetime to another, are called samskaras.
When we feel ourselves to be prisoners of our habits and conditioning, our samskaras, what can we do?
Well, we can go around them.
We aren’t the first people to have this problem. The dedicated yogic sages discovered and described in detail the energetic system that animates our flesh bodies. They also learned and described how deliberate use of our energetic system can help us cleanse and recondition our patterns.
We can sidestep the mighty mind and our persistent conditioning to generate effective change and taste a truly new experience. Let’s talk about how this works.
Animated by Energy: The Nadis
When we talk about our bodies, we are usually referring to our physical bodies, our flesh bodies, called sthula sharira in yogic anatomy. But, if we were flesh alone, we would be inert. There would be no movement within our bodies, such as in our circulatory and lymphatic systems, and no movement of our bodies, such as breath, speech, or locomotion.
Such animation is part of the suskshma sharira, in particular the pranamaya kosha. In addition to the vasculature and lymphatic system, which carry physical matter throughout our bodies, we have a system of vessels that move prana, or energy. These vessels are called nadis (from the Sanskrit word for tubes). Though we are said to have 72,000 nadis, there are several that are of particular importance. These are Sushumna, Ida, and Pingala.
The Dance of the Sun and the Moon
Connecting our personal expression of consciousness and the Universal Consciousness is a line of energy called Sushumna nadi. For us to operate in wisdom, this channel must be clear, free of obstructions, congestion, and imbalance.
Around Sushumna nadi weave Ida and Pingala nadis, which originate at the the base, the muladhara chakra. Ida and Pingala cross at each of the chakras above the muladhara, terminating in the nostrils. (Learn more in Understanding the 7 Chakras.)
Ida nadi terminates in the left nostril and is associated with coolness, the moon, and feminine energy. This is not ‘female energy,’ but something closer to the Chinese concept of yin—a yielding energy.
Pingala nadi terminates in the right nostril and is associated with heat, the sun, and masculine energy, which in this case refers not to either sex, but to directed, purposeful action.
Sushumna nadi, where we ultimately wish to direct our energy, is without such qualities. It is neither forceful nor inert, neither hot nor cold.
The Play of the Gunas
Most of us live at the mercy of extremes. Our inclinations and our patterns often feed on one another, leaving us trapped on a sort of see-saw between frantic action (Rajas) and apathetic inactivity (Tamas). (Learn more in Why You Need to Know About the Three Gunas.)
Our minds and our best intentions aren’t always up to the task of figuring out how to bring ourselves into balance. The pranamaya kosha, the energy body, is an ideal point of intervention in such circumstances.
Going Directly to the Source—Circumventing the Trickster Mind
When we Nadi Shodhana Pranayama, we can bring ourselves into balance without needing to know where that is. When done correctly, it is a self-correcting practice that enable us to connect to the ancient and divine wisdom than animates our bodies.
Through regular practice, we establish a tendency toward balance. The natural point toward which we settle grows ever closer to sattva guna, where we are less reactive and ever-more receptive to the effects of yogic practice.
We don’t need to develop a plan or agree with a plan. There is no imperfection to diagnose or correct.
The balancing practice of Nadi Shodhana allows us to avoid the hazard of reinforcing exactly the habits we are trying to break, as long as it is done with astute listening to oneself.
As with any pranayama, it is best to learn and practice Nadi Shodhana under the supervision of a qualified teacher. (Not someone like the guy I knew as a teenager.) If no such person is near you, you can safely practice on your own by finding the best instruction you can, and by being gentle and patient.