Newsletter December 2009
Ida and Pingala:
Pathways towards balance
By Swami Muktidharma, NZ Yoga Acharya
The nose is one of the most important organs in the human being, because it is the instrument through which one of the primordial functions for human survival takes place: the breath. In yoga, learning to regulate the breath is given a lot of emphasis, because it is the bridge between the mind and the body. It also contains the subtle energy which makes existence possible. In fact, the breath relates to our physical, mental and spiritual balance at every level.
Breathing is both a physical function and a psychological one. Breathing is part of the autonomic nervous system, which means it happens automatically from birth to death without our conscious awareness. However, the breath is also one of the only autonomic functions that can be consciously influenced.
Practically, this can be seen in how our breath changes with different states of mind. If you are relaxed, the breath is deep and slow, but if you get excited or angry, immediately, the breath reflects this state of mind and becomes fast and shallow. If, in that moment of anger, you do something to slow down the breath, the anger may shift.
The quality of the breath affects a whole train of other events in the body, including the release of hormones, the heart rate and the thought process. In the same way, the thoughts also influence the breath, creating a continual cycle of experiences, most of which are unconscious. The quality of the breath will either help to maintain a healthy body and mind or create dis-ease. For example, fast breathing creates a faster heart rate, which over time strains the heart muscles. Therefore, learning about the deeper aspects of the breath is important for our mental and physical health and balance.
It must be emphasized that the breath is not just air, composed of oxygen to feed the body and brain. It also possesses a subtle nature, which carries the vital energy or prana. Science calls this bio-plasmic energy. In the nose there are two nasal passages through which the breathing process is distributed. The prana that runs through the right nostril has different effects on our human structure to the one that runs through the left nostril. The reason why we don't have just one big hole in the nose to breathe is because each nostril conducts a specific flow of prana for a particular purpose and function.
The two nostrils are the external representation of the two most important conductors of energy within our human structure. From the deep yogic point of view they are known as ida and pingala, and from the most palpable medical point of view, the physical replica is the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous system. There are about 72,000 conductors of energy or flows of prana in our human structure. From all these flows the two most important are ida and pingala.
Ida and pingala
Ida is represented externally by the function of the breath through our left nostril and pingala by the movement of the breath through our right nostril. Ida carries the energy responsible for the mental and introspective functions, and pingala is related to the external and physical functions. Ida represents the night, lunar and passive or feminine energy, while pingala corresponds to the energies of the day, solar, active or masculine aspect of our existence. In a more mechanical way, ida and pingala are the negative and positive poles of a battery.
All of our mental functions and activities are determined by ida and the physical ones by pingala. Yet there is also a constant interplay between these two forces. Mind and body cannot be separated from each other, and if they are, then we experience physical death. In order to have human existence, these two forces have to be constantly influencing each other.
Imbalance and balance
In the average human being, ida and pingala are not interrelating harmoniously. Either the physical force or the mental force is almost always dominant, and generally there is a change approximately every 95 minutes. This is reflected directly in the nostrils, where we rarely find an equal volume of breath through both nostrils. This fluctuation of the breath, or the ida and pingala dominance, is mirrored in our constantly changing states of mind and body. For example, you may be unsettled and feel a need to “do something”. This is the imbalance of pingala in that particular moment. Or alternatively, there may be tiredness in the middle of the day for no apparent reason or a mental obsession about something, which is related to ida imbalance. While I am giving separate examples, these two energies are actually always working together, so if one is imbalanced, so is the other. A sign of perfect balance could be recognized by a permanent breath with equal volume of prana through both nostrils.
Each nostril is also connected to a particular hemisphere of the brain. When we breathe through the left nostril we activate the functions of the right hemisphere, which is related to ida and the capacity for creativity, intuition and a deeper more internal way of life. Breathing through the right nostril affects the left hemisphere of the brain, which is linked to pingala and the expression of intellect, logic and rationale. Again, these two sides of our existence are often out of balance. We usually have a tendency towards creativity or logical thinking, but not often do we have the capacity to express both of these qualities simultaneously. The yogic approach to life balances the total brain.
In the process of human life, if we are able to master and harmonize the two forces of ida and pingala by the means applying a discipline like yoga, then we will experience the super-human aspect of existence. When ida and pingala become balanced and the flow of prana or vital energy becomes equal in both these nadis, the opening of a third flow of energy takes place, through sushumna nadi, the most important nadi of all. This paves the way for the powerful prana, called kundalini energy, to enter the brain, activating all the dormant brain centres to produce a state of enlightenment.
A deep and peaceful mental state of being is the result of a balanced pingala relating to a balanced ida. A perfect physical health is the result of a balanced ida interrelating to a receptive and well-established pingala. A lasting and sound mental state of being is very difficult and almost impossible without a proper physical health and long-term physical health is impossible without the backing of a peaceful and harmonious mind.
The lack of balance in ida and pingala is reflected in the unstable and changeable world, in which humanity expresses mental and physical restlessness or the other extreme, depression; an over-heated pingala is the cause of restlessness and an over-activated ida with only a small amount of activation in pingala is the basis of depression.
Testing the balance
A practical experiment that you can do in order to understand ida and pingala within yourself is to observe your dominant nostril during an active time and again when you feel sleepy or introverted. Use of a piece of mirror under both nostrils, and observe which side creates more moisture on the mirror.
The process of harmonizing ida and pingala is a challenging one, as most of us are not even aware of our breathing patterns, physiological responses or thoughts. Achieving this balance is the work of a lifetime and is the deeper purpose of the yogic and tantric sciences. Asanas, pranayamas and meditation techniques combined with yogic attitudes and disciplines, gradually unfold the possibility of a balanced and highly creative existence.
Some dynamic asanas, for example salute to the sun, are solar practices that activate the flow of pingala. If there is a tendency to lethargy or low energy, then this practice helps to shift that. Equally, a posture such as shashankasana or child’s pose, activates ida, calming the mind and body and creating more internalization.
The use of the breath as a tool for bringing mental and physical balance is so important in yoga and often not given enough prominence in this day and age of fast food and instant enlightenment. Because of their different orientations, manipulation of left and right nostril breathing gives us the capacity to create a harmonious relationship between the feminine and masculine forces ruling our lives. Nadi Shodhana, “psychic network purification” is a highly recommended pranayama practice to begin to cleanse and balance the ida and pingala nadis.
The place of retreat
It is also very important to find a supportive atmosphere in which to cultivate personal balance. It is recommended to periodically spend time out in a yoga ashram or a residential retreat setting. The systems of these environments are designed to unfold the different expressions shaped either by ida or pingala.
Everything in this life is conditioning, but we have to overcome negative conditioning with positive conditioning. In a conducive environment, we learn to detect our ego-oriented tendencies. When we act through an unrefined ego, there is a tendency to over-activate one of the flows of energy; therefore we may experience a life out of balance. In a proper ashram setting, one is trained to witness the fluctuations of body and mind without being affected so much by them. The ashram offers tools for retreatants to integrate in their regular lives, gradually fine-tuning themselves to a state of balance.
The masculine and feminine energies that sustain and shape human life should not be divorced from each other because this will create disharmonious results for our lives. They should be married and supported by a yogic lifestyle that will gradually unfold in us an experience of balance. Balance is the purpose of yoga.
Disclaimer: Please receive proper guidance in the above-mentioned techniques by a trained yoga teacher, as the practices are powerful and need to be done correctly.
Books recommended on this subject: Swara Yoga and Kundalini Tantra by Swami Satyananda. Prana, Pranayama, Prana Vidya by Swami Niranjanananda. Available from Anahata Yoga Retreat's on-line shop.
Swami Muktidharma has a 40-year history with yoga, having spent 16 years in India living directly with Yoga and Tantra Master Paramahamsa Satyananda. He is based at Anahata Yoga Retreat, New Zealand where he works therapeutically with people and trains residents in a yogic lifestyle. Swami Muktidharma travels throughout the world sharing inspiration, knowledge, and practical techniques to inspire and uplift humanity.