Growing up on the arid high plain with parents who were undeterred by the forces of nature, my brothers and I spent hours tending the flow of water—the precious life-giving nectar—through variously devised channels, ditches, and hoses, in order that the cherry trees might bloom and the tomatoes bear fruit. In a subtle way, this is what many of the practices of hatha yoga aim to do—systematically control the flow of the life force (prana) through its many channels. As my brothers and I discovered, increasing the hydraulic pressure in any given channel washes out the debris blocking the flow, and when all the channels are clear and flowing equally, the whole garden blooms. Likewise, when all the subtle channels of the pranic field (nadis) are clear and responsive, our spiritual life can flourish.
The essence of hatha yoga is working with “ha” and “tha,” the two major nadis that dominate our experience of the world. In the mystical language of yoga, “ha” and “tha” are the solar and lunar currents representing the dual nature of manifestation. For the most part, our attention is focused exclusively on the manifest world, and our experience of ourselves shifts back and forth from the solar perspective (“ha”) to the lunar perspective (“tha”). This alternation is reflected in resistance to the flow of breath through the nostrils. Most of the time one nostril is flowing more freely than the other. But there is a third option: when both nostrils flow equally free. In that case, the central current (sushumna) is active, and this is the nadi that allows us to escape the mundane world of sensual experience.
The essence of hatha yoga is working with “ha” and “tha,” the two major nadis that dominate our experience of the world.
The yoga techniques for directly manipulating the pranic field are particularly powerful for balancing and equalizing the solar and lunar currents, and activating sushumna.
Ideally when the nadis are clear, the mind is clear, and the flow of energy in our being responds to mental direction and the subtle techniques of concentration and breath control (pranayama). We can then manipulate the lunar and solar nadis until they flow freely and sushumna is active. Then we can enter the realm of inner awareness and spiritual experience where meditation is joyous and fruitful. It’s like making the jump into hyperspace in the Star Wars trilogy. Unfortunately, our personal spaceships are as temperamental as the Millennium Falcon and don’t always respond to the command to accelerate into hyperspace, regardless of how urgent our desire to escape the confines of ordinary reality.
When the body and breath are not responding to the subtle use of breath and mind, perhaps, like Han Solo, we need to adopt a less subtle fix—like a swift kick to the control panel. After all, one of the often overlooked meanings of hatha is “force,” and there are times when a measure of strict discipline is required. In those cases some of the forceful, or perhaps we should say “masterful,” techniques of hatha yoga let the body know it is in the service of the mind and not vice versa. This assumes of course that we are in good health and well-practiced.
The techniques we are about to discuss are not for beginners. You’ll know you’re overdoing it if you feel tired or weak afterward. Because you are creating enormous pressure in the head and the internal abdominal organs, these practices should be strictly avoided by anyone with high blood pressure or any temporary or chronic problems in the eyes, nasal passages, or ears, such as colds, infections, or glaucoma, or any other condition aggravated by increased pressure in the abdomen or chest.
Start by sitting on the heels. Take a moment to center yourself, settling down through the sit bones onto the heels, aligning the chest over the pelvis and lengthening the back of the neck to lift up through the top of the head. Close your eyes and breathe easily and effortlessly, allowing the lower ribs and upper abdomen to expand with the inhalation. Relax any tension, and be totally aware of the body. Notice which nostril is flowing more freely (the active side) and which is relatively restricted (the passive side).
Bring the hands behind the back and grasp the wrist with the opposite hand. Exhale as you fold forward over the thighs, lowering the face to the knees or the floor. Exhale completely, lifting the arms overhead and extending them toward the floor.
Stretch the arms as far as possible, then inhale as much as you can. Retain the breath, and lengthen the torso as you lift up off the heels a little, pressing the face forward parallel to the floor. Now you can inhale a bit more, increasing the internal pressure. Continuing to retain the breath, increase that pressure even more by stretching the arms further and contracting the pelvic floor as you come slowly up, leading with the face. Keep the arms forceful and taut. Brush the face across the floor as you come up, and create as much pressure as possible.
As you settle back on the heels, still retaining the breath, lift the chest and face to the ceiling; release the hands and bring them to the knees, keeping the arms energized.
Then close the active nostril with the thumb on the same side and exhale forcefully through the passive nostril.
Use all the muscles of the abdomen, including those deep in the lower abdomen, to sharply contract the entire abdominal cavity and force all the air out. Squeeze the hips and inner thighs together and contract the pelvic floor as you exhale. Then relax the abdomen and inhale deeply through both nostrils. Close the passive side with the other thumb, and exhale in the same manner through the active nostril.
Take a few normal breaths and repeat the whole sequence, first holding the other wrist with the opposite hand, and then repeat the sequence with the hands clasped behind the back, palms together. You will thus do the exercise three times: twice holding first one wrist and then the other, and once with the hands clasped. Each time exhale first through the passive nostril, then the active.
If retaining the breath or creating pressure in the abdomen, chest, or head is not advisable, try this alternative: instead of inhaling completely in the folded-over position, inhale smoothly, deeply, and slowly as you come up. Coordinate the movement so you finish the inhalation as you sit back on the heels. Immediately begin a smooth, slow, and complete exhalation through the passive nostril, using the deep abdominal muscles as described above. Relax and inhale deeply through both nostrils, and then exhale completely in the same way through the active nostril. This less intense version is still cleansing, opens the abdomen and chest, and activates the navel center.
Now we’ve opened the channels of energy flow on the grosser level, and hopefully are feeling more energized and centered. A more subtle method of cleansing and energizing is the practice of bhastrika with the legs in position forgomukhasana (the cow-face pose). First assume gomukhasana from vajrasana by crossing the right leg over the left, bringing the right foot near the outside of the left hip. Remain sitting on the left heel.
Bring the right arm overhead and bend the elbow, reaching down the upper back with the forearm. Fold the left arm behind the waist and bend the elbow to clasp the hands along the spine. Use a strap if your hands don’t reach. Sit up straight, reaching from the base of the spine through the top of the head. Be careful not to duck the head or overarch the lower back. Feel the rib cage lifting, and notice how sitting on the foot keeps the base of the spine and pelvic floor alert. Bring your attention to the full easy flow of the breath as it expands in the midsection of the body. Switch arms, so the left arm is overhead, and hold for a few breaths. Notice the subtle changes in the lungs and chest and nostrils.
After establishing which side is passive, drop the hands to the knees, close the eyes, and begin bhastrika—a rapid, forceful inhalation and exhalation through the nose.
Keep the body as still as possible without restricting the breath, and make sure there is no tension in the face, jaw, throat, or chest. Continue for a minute, or to your capacity.
Pay particular attention to the vibration at the base of the spine if you’re doing bhastrika, and the pressure and massaging effect of the tailbone on your foot. Take a few normal breaths when you’re finished and again notice which side is passive. For beginners, three rounds of eleven breaths each is plenty. If you don’t know bhastrika, use deep diaphragmatic breathing or make the exhalation twice as long as the inhalation.
Now shift your weight so you’re sitting between the heels with your weight evenly distributed between both buttocks, and lift the arms out to the side. Bend the elbows keeping the forearms in the plane of the torso. Fold the index finger to the tip of the thumb (jñana mudra). Draw the shoulder blades down and toward each other.
Close the eyes and focus on the breath. Focus first at the base of the spine and then at the lower abdomen. Then bring your attention to the heart center, to the center between the eyebrows, and finally to the breath in the nostrils. Notice which nostril is flowing more freely.
Repeat the whole sequence on the other side with the left leg on top, paying special attention once again to the passive and active nostrils relative to the leg position and the effects in the lower abdomen. When the pranic field is clear and responsive you’ll notice that a subtle shift in energy originates with the leg position alone, and that it is reflected in the flow in the nostrils. The flow through the lunar current is increased when the right leg is over the left, so the practice of bhastrika in this position diverts the energy generated to the left, increasing the flow through the left side, helping to clear and activate the lunar energy field. Of course the opposite happens with the left leg on top.
With both “ha” and “tha” active and clear, we’re ready to increase the flow of prana with one more difficult but powerful technique that rapidly alternates the flow of the breath from right to left. This time the sitting posture should be as symmetrical and stable as possible. Use padmasana (the lotus pose) if it’s comfortable and both knees and buttocks are firmly grounded. Otherwise use your best symmetrical sitting posture. Start by folding the forearms into the lower abdomen and pull the belly up. Exhale and fold forward over your arms, bringing the face to the floor.
Now inhale as deeply as possible, just as we did in vajrasana, and retain the breath as long as it’s comfortable. Then stretch out from the tailbone through the top of the head, holding the breath and keeping the spine straight as you return to sitting. Tuck the chin toward the notch in the throat, close the active nostril with your thumb, and exhale forcefully through the passive nostril in the same manner as in vajrasana. Release, inhale through both nostrils, and exhale forcefully through the active side.
Repeat the sequence as many times as you like, or until both sides are flowing freely. Note that you can use the deep complete breath described as an alternative in vajrasana instead of breath retention and forceful exhalation.
By now both nostrils are probably flowing freely, and you’re ready for surya bhedi, an advanced pranayama practice that activates both sides even further. Sit firmly and very steadily, exhaling and inhaling quickly as in bhastrika, two times through first one nostril and then the other in rapid succession. Direct your attention first to the base of the spine and lower abdomen. Your symmetrical sitting posture will prevent the loss of energy through the lower body and direct it toward the central channel.
These practices are both cleansing and strengthening at the subtle level. Essentially, the techniques of retaining the breath and creating internal pressure on the physical and subtle levels demand an extraordinary response from the circulatory and nervous systems. Done systematically, regularly, and voluntarily, without emotional arousal, this increases the capacity of the body/mind to handle such a demand without upsetting the intrinsic equilibrium and sense of well-being. Then, when buffeted by the pains and pleasures of life or chased by the evil empire’s storm troopers, our nervous system can handle the request for evasive action quickly and easily, and we’ll find ourselves being able to shift smoothly into the inner state of equilibrium and peace.