Cycles and Rhythms

Dr Swami Shankardevananda Saraswati, MB, BS (Syd.)

Asanas, pranayama and meditation make us sensitive to the world of energies. Gravity, electro magnetism, light, air pressure, sound waves and other unknown forces constantly bombard and affect us. The sun and moon create cycles of day and night, seasons, high and low tides, and cause gravitational effects on our bodies.

In the natural man, the cycles of the body are balanced and in tune with nature. He rises at dawn, works hard in the day, eats when he is hungry, and sleeps when darkness falls. He travels no faster than animal feet or sails can carry him. His natural inner cycles are working with the natural outer cycles so that there is no excessive strain or abnormal pull on the body and mind.

The majority of people today, however, are not in tune with the natural cycles. We travel at the speed of sound, rise late, sleep late, eat irregular meals, work in artificial light and air, and remain inactive for long periods. So our body's cycles are confused and. unnatural. It is no wonder we suffer from emotional and somatic illnesses.

Modern man is not isolated in history in terms of having to cope with chaos, disorder, disease and suffering. Over 2,000 years ago King Sucandra went to Buddha and asked him for the yoga which could save the people from the kali yuga, the age of chaos and destruction. The Buddha revealed to him that the cosmos is contained within his own body, explained the importance of sexuality, and taught him to adjust the temporal rhythms by controlling his respiration. This yogic discipline for escaping from the domination of time became known as the Kalachakra Tantra.

This text tells us how to utilize pranayama in order to progressively expand our energy and awareness in wider and wider sweeps. Inhalation and exhalation, are related to the cycles of day and night, half months, years, and so on, up to the longest cosmic cycles. The yogi relives the periodical creation and destruction of the universe. He uses his respiration as a means to become more and more aware of the inner and outer environment. Eventually, he fuses this dual awareness of inspiration/expiration, ida/pingala, sun/moon, so that unification occurs along with suspension of thought, resulting in the awakening of sushumna. Time is transcended, death is overcome, and immortality is gained.

Swara yoga

Swara yoga is a highly developed science of the changes and rhythms of the body and mind. It deals with the internal cycles, their variation from individual to individual, and the effects of the environment on individual rhythms. In this science the changes in nostril function are used as a reflection of all the processes of life, change and time. Swara yoga is not a science which aims at predicting disease or at divination, but was primarily used to awaken sushumna through the balancing of ida and pingala.

The yogis who developed swara were at an advanced state of realization and having experienced the cycles within themselves, could perceive them in every facet of life. They discovered facts which were later to be incorporated into the various religious and social systems. For example, the Ashtami festival held on the 8th day after the full moon gives the brain, which is not working to capacity on this day, a chance to rest and recuperate. When this observance was devised, the people, and especially students, were advised to stop their intellectual work on this day, and health was thereby maintained in society.

The interrelationship between the moon, emotions and brain rhythms is now being scientifically determined. Dr Arnold Leiber, in his book 'The Lunar Effect', has reported that there is a correlation between violent acts like murder and assault and the waxing and waning of the moon. He has found that the danger periods are when the moon is full or new - periods when the earth, sun and moon lie in a straight line producing maximal gravitational effects. Leiber found that out of 2,000 murders committed in a specific area in the USA, most occurred during the danger periods. The odds of this occurring by chance are more than 100 to 1.

Swara yogis also recognized that the full and new moon periods could be dangerous if not handled properly. They recommended fasting and other sadhanas at these times to lower the passions and make us more sensitive to the changes going on within. Ekadasi, the 11th day after the full moon, was also a time of fasting.

Rhythms research

Medical and traditional science has started to realize the implications of the fact that we live in time as well as in space. Researchers are collecting, correlating and developing many isolated pieces of information on body rhythms, also known as bio-rhythms, in order to assess their implications and ramifications on human development. This science, though, is still in its in fancy.

Our body temperature, blood pressure, respiration, pulse, blood sugar, hemoglobin, amino acid and adrenal hormone levels, rate of urine production, cell division and emotional moods are part of daily cycles which, have been charted by man. These findings are part of the growing awareness of internal cycles which vary from the very rapid microsecond rhythms of enzymes of brain ceils to monthly cycles and the more complicated yearly cycles.

We know that some people can set their own internal alarm to wake them at whatever time they desire. Children show bursts of growth in spring. We all secrete thyroid hormone known as summer hormone, which reduces body heat during the hot months, though how the body anticipates hot weather is not understood.

We also know certain facts which relate more closely to yoga:

  1. Human heart attacks and births are more common between the hours of midnight and. 6 a.m., the time when body energy is at a low. Yogis perform their spiritual sadhana at this time because when the forces of the body are weak, introversion is easier and rebalancing of the brain, hormonal and metabolic patterns meets less resistance.
  2. During the day, skin temperature on the right side of the body is higher than on the left and during the night it is reversed. This corresponds to the yogic view that in the normal person the day period is governed by pingala nadi, extroversion, the right side of the body; while during the night ida nadi, introversion, the left side of the body, is dominant. It is said, however, that this is reversed in yogis who have purified the nadis and awakened sushumna; ida flows during the day and pingala at night.
  3. Man breathes predominantly through one nostril for 3 hours while the other nostril is slightly engorged, and then they change over. Researchers believe that these 3 hour rhythms may be among the most basic subunits in our body (when compared with hunger contraction and certain rhythms in the brains of animals which show 2 to 4 hourly cycles). Yogis state that this 3 hour cycle is too slow and that it should be a 1½ hour cycle.
  4. Every 90 minutes when we sleep the brain moves into a special type of fast brain wave pattern that is associated with rapid eyeball movement and dreams. This 90 minute cycle corresponds to the time of changeover when yogis state that both nostrils and both hemispheres of the brain are equalized and sushumna is open.

The connection between, the breath and rehabilitation of disturbed rhythms can be easily demonstrated when we examine the relationship between the heart and the breath, two closely linked systems which both reach a peak of activity during the day and subside at night, Respiration is normally 4 times slower than the heart and proper timing is obviously a sign of health. Dr Hildebrandt of Marburg University studied cardiac patients undergoing balneotherapy (spa treatments) and found that they often had a heart beat to respiration ratio of 6:1.*1 After therapy, which follows the classical ideas of the ancients that harmony is restored to the body by a regular schedule including sleep, meals, immersion in natural spring waters and carbon dioxide baths, they regained their normal 4:1 ratio.

Finding the point of balance

Yogis state that present day scientific studies are merely the reflections of an unbalanced society, and not 'ideals'. To rebalance the body rhythms, we need a more practical, approach. For this they prescribe asanas such as surya namaskara, pawanmuktasana, padadirasana and siddhasana; pranayamas such as nadi shodhana, bhastrika and ujjayi, especially combined with bandhas during retention; and meditation on the flow of the breath in the nostrils and various psychic 'passages. These along with a simple lifestyle, which allows regularity in eating and sleeping habits form the basis for rapid spiritual progress.

Nadi shodhana is perhaps one of the easiest and most practical ways to rebalance our cycles, and in its simplest from can be practised by anyone. The length of respiration is set according to our individual capacity and equalized on both sides with exhalation twice as long as inhalation. This relaxes tensions within the brain because exhalation is a movement which requires no muscular effort and the heart slows automatically during this period. The regular super-imposition of this cycle on the brain's normal rhythms has a gradual cumulative effect which balances the body organs.

Karma yoga, of a physical nature, is essential for intellectual and sedentary people so that the poisons and hormones generated in the brain through excessive ida (mental) activity can be eliminated. Body and mind must be balanced to achieve equalized brain function. When the whole brain is set into motion and acts as one unit, there is an experience of incredible bliss, and one acquires abilities which were previously not believed possible. After this, one acts in accordance with his higher nature not worrying about himself or what his limits might be.


*1. G. Hildebrandt, 'Balneologie and Rhyth-musforschung', Allegemeine Therapeutik, 6(7), 1961.