People often speak of getting balanced or centered. The mental and subtle energies in the body get out of alignment and cause disturbances in the body and mind. Being centered has to do with balancing the energy on the left or right sides of the body. Many of that practices deal directly or indirectly with this process.
Essential for meditation: For advanced meditation, it is essential that one balance the breath and these energies, along with the mind.
Alternate Nostril breathing:
When the energy is not balanced, one of the most visible ways in which this is seen, is in the nostrils. Most of the time, one or the other nostril is more dominant, allowing air to move more freely. This is quite a natural process. However, when they are flowing evenly, the mind really likes to be quiet and meditate.
Alternate Nostril breathing is a method where you consciously work with that energy by regulating the physical breath in one or the other nostril. This in turn effects the energy and mind. It brings balance, and allows the energy to flow in the center, rather than on the left or right side.
To control the flow of breath, one usually begins by using their fingers to block off one nostril so as to allow the other to flow. Then, the fingers are moved so as to block the opposite nostril, and allow the previously blocked nostril to flow. This cycle will be repeated several times.
One method of alternate nostril breathing that is easy to understand (when written down like this) is to exhale and inhale from one nostril five times. Then, do five times with the other nostril. That is called a “round.” Doing three rounds is a complete practice. There are a variety of different patterns of doing alternate nostril breathing (such as the five on each side method).
This physical act really does have an effect on the autonomic nervous system, and allows one to become “centered” in such a way that both nostrils are flowing smoothly. In this state, the mind is also quite relaxed.
Gradually, one learns to do this with attention, not the fingers, allowing attention to move from one to the other nostril. One sits quietly, with eyes closed, and simply places attention on the nostril.
Balancing breath by using the mind:
Going along with the Alternate Nostril breathing exercise, is the gradually acquired skill of opening a blocked nostril with the mind. Attention is directed to the nostril which is more closed, and in a short time it will open and flow freely. Then, one can shift to the other nostril and open it a bit more as well.
In this way, the mind is used directly to regulate the breath and the energy flow that is more subtle than the physical breath. This is a real key to learning how to self-regulate your own energy system, whether used for meditation (which is what it is intended for), or for improving one’s physical health. It is an important part of self-healing.
In practicing basic breathing, you first learn to make the exhalation and inhalation of equal length, and then eliminate the irregularities mentioned above.
Then, you practice making exhalation twice as long as the inhalation. For example, you may time your breath so that you exhale for a count of 6 seconds, and inhale for a count of 3 seconds, or about 6-7 breaths per minute.
You work with the rates of breathing to find the most comfortable speed for you. For example, 4:2, 6:3, 8:4, 10:5, 12:6, where the first number is the number of seconds of exhalation, and the second (smaller) number is the number of seconds of inhalation. You can simply count internally for a minute or so, and then let go of the counting so as to just practice and observe the breathing.
Two-to-One breathing has a very relaxing effect on the autonomic nervous system and is great preparation for meditation.