How Not To Be An Idiot In Pranayama – Purifying The Nervous System

Today we look at the exercise which DEFINES pranayama. Heck I would go further to say it is pranayama.  Nadhi Shodhana is the alternate nostril breathing exercise done with retentions in between nostrils. It is the exercise that purifies the nervous system and no matter how many books you look at, and study with, you will see, it all comes down to this and only this one, again and again.

Why? Because this exercise has the power to clear the nervous system AND the subtle nervous system, the one we don’t see with the naked eye, and the one that doctors do not catalogue, the one that works underneath it all and that only yogis can sense, or so we would like to think.


Why #2? Not only that but this exercise balances the activities both hemispheres of the brain leaving one in a state of peaceful alertness to meditate (satvic or intelligent, peaceful, open) as opposed to over excited (breathing too much through the right nostril), or lethargic (breathing too much through the left).

After reading and reading about pranayama I am almost tempted to say that this is the ONLY pranayama necessary. Everything else, every other pranayama exercise will either:

a) build to it ( kapalabhati, ujajji (for breath extention), bandhas, as well as all the preps, like, proper food intake, asana practice, proper sitting position, right attitude,neti and all the kryas etc), or

b) make it more powerful As in, there are other pranayama exercises which help us to come back to it and get deeper into it, faster (like bastriska which we will look at in the next chapter).

For example, when we experience body/mind imbalances we can practice other adjacent practices to heal us and return to this one (like surya bedhana or chandra bedhana which will be explored on the next chapters).

Once we are back in balance, we can also use powerful techniques, like Bhastrika (next chapter), to improve the rate of oxygen we get during this practice and advance faster. But it all ends here, it all stems from this practice and it all leads to this practice, to Nadi Shodhana.

You may wonder about the “idiot” thing in the title:

“Hatha Tatva Kaumudi says that “whoever commences practices of kumbakha [retention of breath] without nadi purification is an idiot (page 234)

My underlying on the word idiot.Gregor says this shows sense of humor on the part of teachers, and it also stresses the part where stress needs to be placed.

Without nerve purification which is what Nadhi Shodhana means (and is the topic of this chapter) we are simply not moving into higher states, we are just preparing.

CONTEXT:  This is a series I call Claudia’s Book Club.  The first book we are looking at is Pranayama The Breath Of Yoga by Gregor Maehle.

We have read most of the book so far and we are now at the ‘practices’ portion. We have gone through the preparations, the considerations on food, environment, what asana practices are necessary and lots of other details like purification of the nose and practicing stomach churning and so on and so forth, lots of wonders from previous chapters.

In the prior-to-last chapter we learned about breathing in a “wave” form which is, like everything in this book, pre-requisite for this chapter.

Now we are onto the actual IT of pranayama, the key practice of the whole book.

THIS IS IT YOU GUYS! -Now back to the chapter:



We now we find ourselves at a crossroads, do we want to continue to enjoy the healing benefits of the practice? Or do we want to go deeper into the unveiling of the blurry images that keep us from seeing reality as it is? because if we do, and if we want to pursue the higher realms of yoga, the upper four limbs, then this is it.

Take the blue pill you continue with your practice as if nothing
Take the red, you start and commit to Nadi Shodhana, and…
Down the rabbit hole you go.


The actual purification can take anywhere from 4 months to 4 years says Gregor in the book, he is mentioning teachers who said that, or implied so, here and there. In reality there is no time limit or mark, it is a very individual process.

The effects of yoga can be felt when we can retain for over 40 seconds during this practice, not something that can be done in a few weeks I would guess, not for me anyways:

A lot of the pranamaya magic, like burning karma, purging the subconscious and fixating prana to cure diseases takes place above those levels (10:40:20).  (Page 258)

The retention part in that quote is represented by the number in the middle, the 40 seconds count! The 10 at the beginning, is for the inhale, and the 20 at the end, for the exhale.

How we get there is slowly, of course, and first we learn nadhi shodhana without retention, which is called nadi shudhini:


Nadhi Shuddhi, is just like Nadi Shodhana but it does not have retentions.  It is the practice that comes right before it. The Technque includes:

– Both Nadhi Shuddhi and Shodhana always commence with an inhalation through the left nostril and finish with the exhalation through the same. (Page 239)

– For breathing we use the three stage double up wave within the complete yogic breathing cycle (see this chapter)

– We start with the 1:1 ratio (page 240). This means that we start with the same count for inhale and exhale, a recommended starting point could be 4 or 5 counts, something easy from where we can build up without straining. In that case it would be inhale through the left for 5 counts and exhale through the right for 5 counts, see how that feels.

Here is a drawing I made, it starts on the first and goes on in order, it also tells you what to visualize and the mantra that goes with the lunar cycle (first two) and the mantra that goes with the solar cycle (3rd and 4th).  All together these four form one full cycle.

– We inhale through the left by covering the right nostril (using the Shanka Mudra see photo below), then cover the left nostril and exhale through the right.  That is the lunar cycle, then inhale through the right (covering left nostril) and exhale through the left (covering the right nostril)

Shanka Mudra, used for alternate nostril blocking while
practicing nadi shudhini or shodhana
from Gregor’s book

Visualization: Gregor suggests visualizing the moon during the lunar cycle (inhaling through the left nostril and exhaling through the right) and pronouncing the syllable that goes with it Vam.  Then visualizing the sun during the solar cycle (inhaling through the right and exhaling left), and mentally repeating the mantra Ram.  There is a beautiful explanation in the book on page 241, which is way beyond the scope of a post and should be read in full.

When are we ready to move on to the final practice?

– “You can go on to the next technique once you can comfortably, without straining, practise daily for around 15 minutes at the 20:40 ratio ([inhaling for 20 counts, exhaling for 40]. Alternatively your teacher may let you move on faster particularly if he notices about you the signs that Vasishta speaks about which are lightness and effulgence of body and increased agni” (page 243)

And so, once you get there, finally!


So, here we are finally, feeling the lightness and effulgence of the body, with increased inner fire, and ready for the complete nerve purification.

The chapter goes on to explain nadi shodhana which is simply inhale through the left nostril, retain (with all bandhas, see chapter on bandhas) and then lift up your chin and exhale through the right.  That is one round.  That is the lunar cycle.

Then you do the same but in reverse inhaling through the right nostril, retaining and exhaling through the left. That is the solar cycle. And once you have done both you complete one round.

There is an in-depth discussion of rations and on how to improve the practice until you can get to the golden place of 20:80:40, inhaling for 20 counts, retaining for 80 and exhaling for 40,  at which point you can also add the “external” retentions, meaning retentions of breath done after exhaling and on empty.

I do sincerely hope that if you want to practice that you will a) read the book and b) do all preparatory practices and take it one step at the time, something that Gregor keeps on repeating throughout the book. I hope that you will also find a teacher for the beginning practices so that you ensure to set the odds in your favor and for success.

Let me leave you with the closing paragraph on this amazing chapter:

“The royal ratio for this most important of all pranayama techniques, Nadi Shodhana, is 1:4:2:2. It should form the foundation of every pranayama practice and be practiced daily. Only after a certain proficiency in Nadi Shodhana has been achieved should one move on to practice other pranayamas. The reason for achieving proficiency in Nadi Shodhana frst is the injunction of the shastras [yoga authoritative scriptures] that higher yoga can only succeed if the nadis are purified beforehand. Nadi Shodhana is the main method for achieving this aim.”


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3 Responses to How Not To Be An Idiot In Pranayama – Purifying The Nervous System

  1. Claudia January 4, 2013 at 10:43 pm #

    thanks for sharing<a href="; title="徵信社" rel="nofollow">.</a>

  2. Claudia January 5, 2013 at 2:05 pm #

    Nice post, Claudia. Do you ever do any kundalini breathing techniques? Just curious.

  3. Claudia February 1, 2013 at 11:29 am #

    must be different dialects, that image looks like vishnu mudra. also some deeper reading for pranayama for free from the divine life society