Swara Yoga - Part 5: Reading the 'Daily Breath'

Swami Muktibodhananda Saraswati

If people can spend so much time reading newspapers and magazines which contribute little towards the evolution of their consciousness, then surely they can afford to spend a little time reading their own breath. The information gained in this way will be even more useful in the course of their daily affairs. According to the Shiva Swarodaya, within each breath there are hidden signs which can guide us in our daily life, and even enable us to become aware of the past and future.

Reading the breath first requires the ability to recognize the active nostril and nadi. In order to do this, exhale into the palm of the hand, and you will feel a stronger air current from the open nostril. Another way to identify the active side is to close one nostril and breathe out through the other, listening to the difference in the pitch of the sounds. The deeper pitch indicates the open nostril, and the higher pitch indicates the non-active, blocked side.

Secondly, one will have to keep in mind the specific times when ida/pingala are meant to be active; thirdly, how to regulate the flow of the nostrils and the nadis if they happen to be active at unspecified times; and fourthly, which particular types of work and swara yoga practices are consonant with the activities of each nadi.

Working in harmony with the swara

We already know the specific times when the nadis should function, and how to adjust their flow. Now we need to find out what work can best be done at these times. During the period when a particular nadi and brain hemisphere are active, the body and mind automatically fall under their influence, and are attracted to certain types of activities.

The right hemisphere, like ida, is sensitive to the vibrational realm of existence, which is not tangible or perceptible to any of the external senses. Orientation in space takes place here, and all information is processed in a diffuse manner. In the left hemisphere, which is associated with pingala, information is processed sequentially, logically, analytically and mathematically, enabling rational thought and speech. Here the awareness and body energy are extroverted so that mechanical and physical tasks can be accomplished.

On the basis of this principle, the swara shastras advise one to first read his breath and then act accordingly. The flow of ida indicates that the time is suitable for drinking water, urinating, travelling, getting out of bed, doing work of a calm, silent and artistic nature. Business can be negotiated successfully, and buildings inaugurated. Those in senior positions can be approached; religious practices, mantra sadhana, consulting the guru, marriages and all forms of initiation can be performed. One can settle disagreements, meet or make friends, or give charity. This time is most fruitful for scientific research, preparing or taking medicines, gardening, agriculture, and for women to conceive.

During the flow of pingala the body is heated and energetic, so it is an advantageous time for physical activity, dynamic forms of sadhana, challenging ventures, risky and heroic feats, warfare, intellectual study and work, eating and evacuating the bowels, and for men to engage in sexual intercourse.

When the breath flows evenly through both nostrils, and sushumna is active, it is better to do work which does not require maximum mental or physical effort. The flow of sushumna is beneficial only for spiritual sadhana and not for material gain. Yogis try to prolong and induce the flow of sushumna so that energy can travel up this nadi to invigorate the higher centres of the brain. If sushumna flows for an excessively long period of time, one should be ready to experience an altered state of consciousness. If sushumna should flow continuously for days together without any external inducement, it is an indication that the consciousness is about to depart from the physical body.

Putting the best foot forward

When one has understood and observed the flow of his swara, then he can apply further practices so that each daily affair meets with the most success. Therefore, in the swara shastras certain recommendations are given:

  • On waking from sleep, determine which nostril is open. Touch that nostril and side of the face with the corresponding hand.
  • Step out of bed on the foot that corresponds to the active nostril; make sure to place that foot on the ground first. If pingala is active, walk starting with the right foot towards the east or north. If ida is active walk with the left foot first towards the west or south. (Perhaps this explains the significance of 'getting out of bed on the wrong side'.)
  • When commencing a journey, before leaving the house or city, start with the foot that corresponds to the active nostril.
  • If you wish to amiably approach a person, especially one with whom you tend to have some conflict, start towards him with the same foot as the active nostril. Then, during your interactions with the person, keep the inactive side towards him.
  • When giving orders, face the person from the active side.
  • When accepting or offering something, use the hand corresponding to the active nostril.

Decrease the breath, increase the life

The swara yogis not only analyzed the breath in relation to the flow of the three main nadis. They also studied the nature of each and every breath. An average person breathes 15 times per minute, 900 times per hour or 21,600 times per day. Furthermore, according to these yogis, the length of a person's lifespan is predetermined by a certain allocated number of breaths, already recorded within the body. By knowing the number of breaths allotted for one lifetime, the lifespan can be calculated and also regulated. Slowing down the rate of breathing, for example, stretches out the lifespan, and vice versa.

This is not such an outrageous claim as it may appear to be. Recent neuro-physiological investigations have shown that the unconscious breathing process is tallied by the instinctive primitive area of the brain, situated in the lower cortex. Conscious breathing, on the other hand, activates the higher brain in the region behind the forehead, also known as the 'silent area' of the brain. Reports have shown that when the breathing ' process becomes a function of the higher brain, no tally or accounting of the number of breaths is kept in the lower brain.

This means that while breathing consciously one can take an infinite number of breaths without reducing the lifespan. Breathing rapidly without any awareness, on the other hand, quickly uses up the life quota and one dies much sooner. Therefore, in swara yoga we analyze the nature of the breath and check the respiratory rate. Even though it is not possible to maintain constant awareness of the breath, at least the natural process can be slowed through pranayama.

While checking the breath, it can also be noticed that each expiration has a particular length. The yogic texts state that the normal length of exhalation in a healthy person is 10 fingers or 7 inches. Examination of the length of air passed from the nose during exhalation can reveal which physical or mental process is currently functioning.

During states of emotional excitation, the length of exhalation extends to 12 fingers; while singing, 16 fingers; vomiting, 18 fingers; eating, 20 fingers; walking, 24 fingers; sleeping, 30 fingers; and copulating, 36 fingers. In the daytime, emphasis will naturally be on inhalation and at night on exhalation.

In fact, the shastras declare that decreasing the length of exhalation prolongs life. Those people who project the least amount of air during exhalation retain their vital energy and prana. In this way, the prana builds up and awakens the latent areas of the brain, thus manifesting what the yogic shastras term siddhis or super-mental powers.

Checking the length of the breath is also a means of determining whether excess energy and prana is being lost. People with weak constitutions tend to project the expiration to a greater distance. If the breath extends further than 8 inches when lying flat, this indicates loss of energy. In this case, pranayama will help to regulate it.

Keeping on the track

Swara yoga can open a whole new vista of life to the practitioner, but it is essential to remember that this science was not designed for curing or preventing disease, or for bestowing siddhis. Such side effects can certainly manifest as the power of the mind and prana is increased. Therefore, the sadhaka should keep the ultimate goal in mind, that is, to heighten his consciousness. Otherwise, he may be captivated by the grandeur of the psychic realm and lose sight of the real path.