Anuloma Viloma purifies the nadis (energetic channels in the body) and makes Prana (life-force energy) flow into sushumna (the central energy channel of the spine). These are the two purposes for practicing pranayama (breathing techniques), according to the Hatha Yoga Pradipika.
Anulom Vilom is a modern name used by Swami Kripalu and several other teachers. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika calls this pranayama Nadi Shodhana (nadi meaning “channel” and shodhana meaning “to purify”) since this is the pranayama for purifying the nadis.
Some traditions call this pranayama Surya Bedhana, which is actually the name of a different pranayama that we will discuss later. It seems the two techniques go by the same name because of vague descriptions in the ancient texts.
Anulom Vilom Pranayama is also called Sahita Kumbhaka, meaning broken or interrupted breath retention. The practitioner inhales and holds, breaks the hold to exhale, then inhales and holds again. All of these names refer to the same practice as distinguished by different yoga schools. The spelling varies as well, and we’ve used both variations here.
In short, Anulom Vilom is a form of alternate nostril breathing—inhaling through the left nostril, holding the breath in, then exhaling through the right nostril. The sequence is then reversed: inhale through the right nostril, hold the breath in, and exhale through the left nostril. The name Anuloma Viloma means “with the grain and against the grain.” This is a reference to one nostril usually being more open than the other.
Breathing through the more open nostril is breathing “with the grain” and breathing through the less open nostril is breathing “against the grain.”
Swami Kripalu was adamant that Anulom Vilom Pranayama was extremely important and that all yogis should learn it early in their pranayama studies. This is because, when practiced correctly, it introduces the practitioner to all the processes that will be encountered on the pranayama path: heightened sun energy activated by the breath retention and the sweet flow of sensation that comes with slowly releasing the breath. As one repeatedly practices oscillating between the intensity of breath retention and the relief of the exhale, the reaction to each gradually minimizes, and the practitioner becomes able to sit with increasingly strong sensation.
In this process of alternate nostril breathing, Anulom Vilom, the nadis are purified, and the witness for inner experience grows strong and steady; the practitioner learns to watch intense energy and emotion without reacting to it. It’s important to distinguish here that being present to intensity by shutting down is not the true witness. To be fully open, even vulnerable, and not react is the true witness.The Hatha Yoga Pradipika considers this Anulom Vilom Pranayama conditioning essential in order for pranayama to have its full effect. The energy-activating pranayamas stir up emotion and passions. The full benefit comes in witnessing this process, without becoming restless or judgmental or turning the attention outward.
Another way of looking at purification of the nadis is that the student’s prana (attention flowing inward) grows strong and apana (attention flowing outward) becomes weak. When our attention flows outward, it increases our identification with the outer world. When our attention flows inward, we have the experience of being part of something beyond our ego mind.
Over time, the traditional alternate nostril breathing practice of Anulom Vilom evolved into something quite different than what we’ve just described, as the Kripalu School of Yoga and other traditions reduced or eliminated the breath retention. What is often taught today is a meditative breath done through alternating nostrils. This can be calming and balancing, but it’s completely different from the original practice. In the Kripalu tradition, the pranayama without the breath retention came to be called Nadi Shodhana, and the pranayama with the breath retention was called Anuloma Viloma.
Here, we are teaching the traditional pranayama, with the breath retention, as it was originally taught in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika.
Practicing the Breathing Technique
The Hatha Yoga Pradipika uses the name Nadi Shodhana for Anulom Vilom Pranayama and describes it in the following way:
The Yogi seated in Padmasana should draw in the Prana through the moon Nadi (left nostril) and having retained it according to his capacity, should release it through the sun Nadi (right nostril).
The above verse tells us to inhale through the left nostril, hold to our capacity, then exhale through the right nostril.
Again, drawing in the Prana through the sun Nadi, he should inhale to his capacity and hold the Prana in the abdomen. Having systematically and correctly performed Kumbhaka (breath retention), he should release it through the moon Nadi.
Here we are told to repeat the Anulom Vilom sequence going the other way, and we learn more about the inhalation and holding. The text says to inhale to our capacity, which means inhale fully enough to feel a stretch in the belly. Our holding must be systematic, which means we must be able to repeat it again and again. If you hold your breath too long on one side, your retention will be shorter on the other side. Holding to capacity, then, is the longest you can hold without compromising the sequence on the other side.