The Tranquility of Nadi Shoddhanam

It was late spring of my fourth grade year and I was leaving to catch my bus to go home when I realized it was friday and I had left my baseball glove in my desk.  A weekend without my baseball glove was unimaginable.  I raced back to my classroom, but fearful of missing the bus I looked back to see if it was still there, and when I turned back I ran full speed into a door.  I retrieved my glove despite bleeding profusely. 

On the bus, my nose began to swell and when I arrived home, in order to avoid the doctor I assured my parents that I was fine.  I wasn't.  I had sustained a broken nose and from that moment on my left nostril was 90% closed. I was already a somewhat anxious child, but my personality became even more rajasic (active).  In class I was restless--hyperactive almost. 

I experienced what I now know were panic attacks that to me were inexplicable and terrifying.  I remember at times running with my mouth wide-open trying to get enough air, followed by holding on to trees trying to anchor and calm the inner-storm, a sight my friends found bizarre and amusing. 

Due to the nose injury I often was a mouth-breather and I would eat and swallow food very rapidly so I could catch a breath.  My mind seemed to constantly be racing and I had difficulty falling asleep.  These patterns continued into my twenties when I met Dr. Arya (now Swami Veda Bharati), and took my first yoga class.  I learned several pranayama techniques, most notably Nadi Shodhanam (alternate nostril breathing). 

I began practicing alternate nostril breathing regularly, and I became much more aware of the left nostril blockage due to a deviated septum.  I told Dr. Arya that I was considering surgery, and he encouraged me to delay the surgery and continue Nadi Shodhanam.  I practiced at least two times a day, and sometimes a half dozen or more.  The left nostril began to open up, though it never the natural alternating dominance between left and right nostril that most people experience never fully returned. 

Over time, I noticed subtle changes in my personality: I was less restless, my emotions became more balanced, and my mind was more serene and alert.  I became a nose-breather, and ate and talked slower.  All of these changes took place in the first year. 

I did alternate nostril breathing between classes at school, in the car. I learned to alternately close of one then the other nostril without using my fingers, and was able to do nadi shodhanam in public places (my city council meetings) when issues heated up. 

Eventually I had  the surgery, and for the first time experienced the natural switching of nostril dominance during the day, and my meditation experience deepened. Three weeks after the surgery I prematurely took to the tennis courts and was hit on the nose by a high powered tennis ball. The benefits of my surgery were reduced about 50%, but I accepted this as some sort of karmic sign and continued my  Nadi Shodhanam practice in earnest. 

I learned some alternative methods, including adding 2 for 1 breathing (exhalation twice as long as inhalation) with alternate nostril breathing.  The two together brought subtle but additional benefits.  Now, when I am tired, emotionally unsettled, or mentally agitated, I practice. Even after twenty-five years I am a beginner's beginner in my yoga practice.  I needed something very simple and practical that I could consistently practice. 

There are many times now where my nostrils not only alternate but flow equally facilitating sushumna breath (even flow through both nostrils) and meditation.  It's interesting how seemily painful moments of our past can be springboards for change.  My forgotten glove, broken nose and  the additional restlessness that ensued were all gifts that led me to the Himalayan Tradition and the tranquility of Nadi Shodhanam.
Jim Nelson is a licensed clinical psychologist living in Minneapolis, MN. He works with emotionally and behaviorally disturbed youth in a post high school program, called Transitions Plus, that helps them learn social, vocational and living skills to help build a better future.  He also works as a Psychologist at a Mental Health Center specializing in anxiety disorders.