Anulom Vilom Pranayam:
Ancient Yogic Breathing Techniques to Purify the Energy Body and Activate Higher Consciousness
BY ALLISON GEMMEL LAFRAMBOISE AND YOGANAND MICHAEL CARROLL
anulom vilom pranayam is an ancient yogic breathing technique designed to balance the nadis, purify the energy body and activate higher consciousness.
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.
Through that particular Nadi which Prana is released, draw in the Prana again. Retaining it with much effort, he should slowly release the Prana using the other nadi. He should not release forcefully or quickly.Here the Anulom Vilom Pranayama technique is summarized, and we learn that we are to hold with “much effort.” The effort comes from finding the fine line between holding as long as we can and maintaining the length of the holding on the other side. This requires incredible discernment. This verse also tells us we must be able to exhale slowly and with control. This helps ensure that we don’t hold too long, in which case we’d need to exhale sharply. Through the alternate nostril breath, we are building strong energy and challenging the mind to stay present so that releasing the breath is a conscious choice, not a reaction.
If one draws in the Prana through the moon Nadi, one should release the restrained Prana through the sun Nadi. If the Prana was drawn in by means of the sun Nadi, after the holding, the Prana should be released by means of the moon Nadi. As a result of the regular practice of this process, the mass of many Nadis becomes unified within three months.
The Anulom Vilom done properly will cause the nadis to “unify” or fully open within three months. According to this text, when all the nadis open, they merge to become the sushumna nadi (central channel). This is the sun and moon uniting. This is prana and apana ascending as one energy.
In the morning, at noon, and in the evening, one should offer the practice of Kumbhaka gradually building up to eighty breaths.
We are told to practice this alternate nostril breathing three times each day for maximum benefits. Some versions of this text indicate four times, adding a midnight practice. Eighty breaths, or 40 rounds, takes about an hour for most people. So the traditional teaching is to practice three or four hours of Anulom Vilom Pranayama each day for three months to purify our nadis and prepare in the best way for the pranayamas that follow.
Remember that this text was written for yogis who dedicated their lives to this practice. For most of us, a slower approach is more appropriate, and you can practive even once a day to receive the benefits of Anulom Vilom. There are those who train for marathons and those who benefit from running a mile. Still, it’s inspiring to know the history, tradition, and possibility.
The benefits of Anulom Vilom are an increased capacity to be with experience, especially uncomfortable experience; a stronger sense of self that is separate from thoughts, feelings, and events; increased introversion; a profound sense of meditative awareness, which creates an easier transition to meditation or asana practice; a sense of increased spaciousness and expansiveness; and greater distance from events happening before the practice. There is research, mostly from India, showing that Anuloma Viloma balances the two hemispheres of the brain. While we believe this could be true, the research is questionable.
Practicing Anuloma Viloma Pranayama
1. Before beginning Anulom Vilom, sit comfortably in a cross-legged position, kneeling, or on a chair. Wobble a little side to side and back to front to make sure your seat provides adequate and balanced support. If your seat does not support you properly, your abdominal muscles will have to work harder and be less available for breathing.
2. Bring your body to stillness. Feel your spine and lengthen it as much as you can by pulling your tailbone down and the back of your neck up. Pull your shoulders forward and up, then back and down. Pull your shoulder blades in toward your spine and down toward your sacrum, but keep your spine long.
3. Begin Dirgha pranayama. You may grow into Dirgha with several successively deeper breaths or go right to your deepest inhalation. Empty your lungs completely each time you exhale. Add the Ujjayi sound to help keep your mind focused.
4. Practice Dirgha pranayama for about two minutes, until it feels absorbing and there is no resistance. Then, raise either hand to your face and, when you start your next exhale, block the right nostril so that all the breath flows out slowly through your left nostril. This is the transition to Anulom Vilom Pranayama. You can continue making the Ujjayi sound if you wish. As soon as you are empty, inhale through your left nostril and immediately exhale through your right. Continue alternating breaths through your nostrils (exhale, inhale, change; exhale, inhale change, etc.) until your mind has relaxed into this level of practice (about four rounds). Make sure the breath is as deep as it can be. If you feel dizzy or nauseous, slow down. You can use any comfortable hand position to block your nostrils; the yoga tradition recommends Vishnu Mudra.5. After about five cycles of Dirgha pranayama through alternate nostrils, inhale and pause for about 10 seconds and then exhale through the other side. If the pause feels good, continue. If it doesn’t, shorten the pause. After a few rounds with the short pause, make it a few seconds longer. Very gradually lengthen the pause.You should find it sweet and absorbing at first. As you hold longer, your feelings will intensify. Let them grow as strong as you are able to witness. At the same time, progress slowly. Never hold so long that the holding on the next side must be shortened. With longer holding times, you can let your hand rest in your lap. You can also change hands as frequently as you need. If your seated position becomes uncomfortable, simply adjust and continue the pranayama.
6. After about 10 rounds of Anulom Vilom, end the pranayama on an exhale through your left nostril. Then release your hand to your lap and let your breath flow freely.
7. Let your attention drift into your body and feel the effects of what you have done. Many students report feeling energized and peaceful, with their minds expanded. Take at least three to five minutes to explore all the changes in your body, emotions, and mind. When you are ready to move, start slowly. You might feel uncoordinated for a few minutes. Do simple tasks or rest until your mind becomes active again.
Alternate Nostril Breathing Instructional Video
1. Lengthened holdings. With practice, breath retentions in Anulom Vilom will lengthen and become more meditative. Some old texts indicate that when your nadis are fully open, you can hold your breath for three hours. They probably meant that it feels like three hours, because you are so absorbed.
2. Visualizations. Visualizations are prescribed in some texts during Anulom Vilom, often based on chakras. Here are several ways to work with this:
+ Memorize each chakra’s shape and color and visualize it while you hold your breath. For example, spend the first five rounds focusing on the pelvic chakra (muladhara). For the next five rounds, focus on the lower abdominal chakra (svadhisthana) and so on.
+ Open your eyes and stare at a drawing of a chakra as you inhale. Then, close your eyes and visualize it inside you as you hold the breath and exhale.
+ As you inhale, visualize white light flowing into your nostril, over the top of your head, and down your spine. As you hold, visualize a red light glowing in your lower abdomen. Exhale the red light up your spine, over the top of your head, and out the nostril. This visualization in Anulom Vilom supports balance, with the red light representing the sun (passion) and the white light representing the moon (cooling). The balance and integration comes from the merging of the sun and moon.
+ A visualization to support purification would be to imagine that you are inhaling white light flowing in the nostril and down the spine to your pelvis. Exhale smoky or grey light out the same path in reverse.
3. Mantras and affirmations. The hatha yoga traditions used mantras extensively with meditative pranayamas like Anulom Vilom. Here are several ways to work with this:
+ Repeat the same mantra the entire time you practice Anuloma Viloma. A longer mantra might last for the whole round as you inhale, hold, and exhale. For example, you could use the Gayatri mantra:
Inhale: Om bhur bhuvah svah
Hold: Tat savitur vareniyam
Bhargo devasya dhimahi
Exhale: Dhiyo yo nah pracodayat
One translation of the Gayatri mantra is “We meditate on the glory of that Being who has created this universe. May He enlighten our minds.”
+ A shorter mantra might be repeated three times in each round: once for the inhale, once for the holding, and once for the exhale. An example here would be Om Namah Shivaya, meaning “I surrender to that which is benevolent” or “I open myself to you.”
Affirmations can be used in the same way as mantras to receive the benefits of Anulom Vilom. Here are some examples:
+ Recite a long affirmation as you inhale, hold, and exhale. For example, you could use this mantra from the Ashtavakra Gitra:
Inhale: “In me the boundless ocean” Hold: “the boat of the universe moves here and there, driven by the wind of its own inherent nature”
Exhale: “I am not affected.”
+ A shorter affirmation might be repeated once for the inhale, once for the holding. and once for the exhale.
Example: “I am fully alive in this moment.”
+ Use a different affirmation for each stage of the pranayama. Example: Inhale: “I take in all that is”; hold: “I am strong enough to see my whole self”; exhale: “I let go of everything that isn’t me.”
Practice Anulom Vilom until you feel very comfortable with it. It should make you more sensitive and generate an inner strength through challenging you to be present with uncomfortable experience. A traditional way to practice would be to do Dirgha, Ujjayi, and Anuloma Viloma until you feel that this inner strength has been attained. Then, drop Anuloma Viloma, and move to the energy-activating pranayamas (taught in the next section) after Dirgha and Ujjayi.
Another way to practice alternate nostril breathing would be to do Dirgha, Ujjayi, and Anulom Vilom, then move into the energy activating pranayamas without dropping Anuloma Viloma. Many modern practitioners choose this option, incorporating Anuloma Viloma in their regular practice.
Traditionally, these Anulom Vilom practices were done by monks who had teachers to tell them what to practice and when to move on. If you are practicing on your own, you need to decide for yourself how to practice, when you are ready to move onto the next technique, and which sequences to use.
This article on the benefits of Anulom Vilom pranayam is excerpted with permission from Pranayama by Allison Gemmel LaFramboise and Yoganand Michael Carroll.
About The Authors
Allison Gemmel LaFramboise trained with Yoganand to become a yoga teacher at Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health. She has since studied in numerous depth trainings, and holds a professional level teaching certification. Allison graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Boston University and has experience in psychology and public health research. Today her work is a combination of her life’s true callings—teaching yoga and African-style hand drumming; running her yoga-inspired jewelry line, Prasada; helping to manage the yoga team at Kripalu; and her greatest passion of all, mothering her sons, Kai and Tayo. For workshops, blog and free yoga resources from Allison, go to AllisonGemmelLaframboise.com
Yoganand Michael Carroll is Dean of the Kripalu School of Yoga, leads Pranakriya Yoga teacher trainings and other programs around the country, and is a member of the International Association of Yoga Therapists. He is a masterful storyteller—through many years of intensive study and practice, he has gained a profound ability to distill and interpret esoteric yoga texts and techniques, making complex philosophical concepts accessible and engaging. When he’s at home in South Florida, Yoganand spends time cultivating his collection of close to 500 orchids, whose ability to blossom and thrive in harsh environments amazes and inspires him. For workshops with Yoganand, go to Kripalu.org and Pranakriya.com