As we saw in our Pranayama series, breath is the link between body and spirit. The word spirit itself comes from the Latin spiritus which means breath. We have also seen that breath is not reduced to breathing but is associated with the pulsation of life (Prana) in the subtle body:
- distributed through channels (nadi) and energy hubs (chakra, marma);
- moving in several ways related to the five elements (pancha vayu) and the different phases of breathing (inspiration, expiration and retention).
At a spiritual level, the goal of Pranayama is to purify both Ida and Pingala nadi, activate the central Sushumna nadi to boost the Kundalini energy and achieve enlightenment.
Now let’s discuss the science of Svara Yoga which concerns the nasal breath and its synchronization with cosmic rhythms. This article is just an introduction to shed some light on this little-known topic. Indeed, we do not claim to master the Svara and thus only summarize here what we understood of it in practical but also theoretical way.
The brain breathes
The rishi and the tantric masters knew by vision and empiricism the fundamental aspect of the brain: lateralization. Neurologists have rediscovered the existence of hemispheres in the neocortex. Being symmetrical but not identical these two areas are complementary:
- the right hemisphere is related to intuitive functions, emotions, imagination and art, associative thinking, the left part of the human body and the parasympathetic nervous system;
- the left hemisphere is related to logical and verbal functions, rational and deductive thinking, the right part of the human body and the sympathetic nervous system.
Modern science also converges with Svara Yoga with the rediscovery of the nasal cycle (or nasal dominance): there is an alternation between nostrils activity throughout the day and night. It follows a periodic rhythm of congestion and de-congestion which means that at one point one nostril is always more active than the other. This is a phenomenon known to yogis for a long time that everybody can easily verify by oneself. It is now also proven that the right nostril is linked to the left hemisphere of the brain and vice versa.
This alternation between the two brain hemispheres is linked to the nasal cycle which allows the parasympathetic and sympathetic systems to function in a rhythmic manner. This influences the rhythm and behavior of other organs and creates a balance in the body.
We saw in the first article of the Pranayama series that the nose is a gateway to the brain, a peripheral organ of the autonomic nervous system. It is an interface between the outer and inner worlds, on a physical level but also on a subtle one. The nostrils and more precisely the air flows and Prana in the nostrils act as switches of the cerebral hemispheres and electromagnetic phenomena in the body.
The nasal cycle has an impact on brain activity and on which hemisphere is the most active for a period of 60 to 90 minutes. When the cycle ends, there is a transfer of energy for a few minutes between the two hemispheres.
Regarding this phenomenon the science of Svara Yoga associates the left nostril with Ida nadi (lunar, magnetic), the right nostril to Pingala nadi (solar, electric), and the period of transition and equilibrium between the two to Sushumna nadi (central channel).
The Sanskrit term Svara means “the sound of his own breathing”. It is the sound produced by the passage of the air flow through the nostrils, by extension it designates this flow. Svara Yoga can be defined in many ways and from different angles. One way is to study the control of movement of the Prana in the body from the breath.
Traditionally this knowledge is reserved by the guru for qualified disciples and its transmission has been kept secret. There is little writing on the subject, the reference texts are Shiva Swarodaya, Swara Chintamani and Gyana Swarodaya. Knowledge of Svara Yoga goes further than nasal dominance and extends to the rhythms of Prana in the body and their synchronization with cosmic rhythms.
This science has been kept secret because practitioners who are not sufficiently prepared and detached can very quickly fall into down to earth uses, applying magical recipes without real understanding or awareness. This same phenomenon can be observed with other yoga techniques such as mantra (read our series of articles on the subject).
Science of rhythms
Another definition of Svara Yoga is the science of biological and cosmic rhythms and their alignment. Chronobiology, which identifies biological rhythms, classifies them as follows:
- ultradian rhythms (period of less than 24 hours): for example paradoxical sleep or nasal cycle;
- circadian rhythms (period of about 24 hours): like alternation between wakefulness and sleep, core temperature or basal metabolism;
- infradian rhythms (period longer than 24 hours): like menstrual cycle, birth and death.
Svara Yoga associates these internal rhythms with external rhythms such as those of the sun, moon and planets. The study of these cosmic influences comes close to astrology which some say is useless without the knowledge of the Svara.
For example Shyamji Bhatnagar links the circadian sleep-wake rhythm to the pineal gland in charge of melatonin production. He recommends going to bed and waking up in sync with the sun (and not only with light) so as not to disrupt biological and solar cycles.
Svara Yoga associates the nasal cycle with the Moon and the Sun. Together they determine which nostril should be dominant at sunrise:
- after a new moon, the left nostril should be active for the next three sunrises (before the nasal cycle sets in for the rest of the day);
- after a full moon, the right nostril should be active on the next three sunrises;
- between these two lunar phases, the dominant nostril at sunrise alternates three days on the right and three days on the left.
To be able to observe the dominant nostril and possibly correct it, it is therefore necessary to rise before the Sun. On this basis it is possible to establish a precise calendar of the dominant nostril. The Chakra Institute provides every year the Prana Calendar to help balance the soli-lunar energetic currents, harmonize the two cerebral hemispheres and nourish the pineal gland.
Our lifestyles and our behaviors constantly influence this alternation just as an activity or an emotion can change the dominant nostril. The objective of the Svara Yoga morning practice is to balance the natural cycles which otherwise have repercussions on our physiology an our psychology.
To do so, Svara Yoga teaches several techniques to intentionally modify the dominant nostril:
- the easiest way is to lie on the side opposite the nostril to activate, with a hand or a cushion under the armpit and wait a few minutes;
- if this does not work, plug the nostril with cotton or practice alternate breathing by exhaling through the dominant nostril and exhaling through the nostril that you want to activate;
- it is also possible to practice certain postures such as Padadhirasana;
- a special stick, named Yoga Danda, can be placed under the armpit;
- more advanced practitioners can activate the nostril through concentration and visualization on their nose.
When both nostrils are active at the same time, the Prana circulates in Sushumna nadi. It is then a perfect time for meditation and spiritual work. This state lasts only a few minutes during the transition from one nostril to the other in the nasal cycle and is longer at sunrise and sunset. This also why it is recommended to get up before the Sun and practice at that time. The Svara yogi seek to balance the nostrils, cerebral hemispheres and nadi to increase the duration of the Svara in Sushumna. The Sun salutation Surya namaskara is also practiced at these times because it cleans the nadi and acts on Sushumna.
During the 24 hours of the day, the Prana energy circulates twice through the different chakras. Each chakra successively becomes the most active, which has consequences on our physiology and our psychology. This ultradian rhythm is associated with the energies of the planets transiting from the subtle to the gross and vice versa.
For example, in the morning at the time of the first chakra (two hours before sunrise when one is at the equator), the energy descends from the seventh chakra to the first. This is the perfect time according to Shyamji Bhatnagar to empty the intestines with the help of the Apana vital breath. Twenty minutes before sunrise begins the hour of the second chakra, ideal for balancing the three bodies and for meditation. Another example: the time of the fourth chakra and the energy of the heart will be favorable to communication and conflict resolution. The Prana Calendar cited above also provides the times of predominance of the different chakras.
The practitioners of Svara Yoga regularly observe the dominant nostril to synchronize the energy mode of their bodies (solar or lunar) with their activities. We will come back to this point a little later.
In Svara Yoga, the duration of dominance of each nostril should naturally be one hour.
Svara Yoga goes even further in the study of the ultradian rhythms of Svara. Traditional texts specify that during a nostril cycle, the breath goes through different phases corresponding to the five elements (pancha tattva). Each element vibrates at a specific pranic frequency and affects our thought patterns, our physical abilities, our interactions with others and more generally all situations. By observing the Svara and the Tattva it is therefore possible to anticipate certain situations and develop mastery of the elements.
The text Shiva Swarodaya specifies that during a nostril cycle of a nostril the order and rhythm of the elements is as follows:
- Air element for 8 minutes;
- Fire element for 12 minutes;
- Water element for 16 minutes;
- Earth element for 20 minutes;
- Ether element for 4 minutes.
Each element has a specific influence on the flow in the nostrils: the length of expiration (distance measured in angula or fingers) and its direction.
There are several techniques to detect which element is active at a given time:
- area of the nostrils from which the Svara and the direction of flow;
- length of the flow leaving the nostrils;
- shape of the element: detectable by exhaling on a mirror and observing the shape of the mist;
- color: observed when practicing Shanmukti mudra;
- taste of the element: detectable in the mouth and which is an indication of biochemical change in the body.
The techniques to identify the elements vary according to the texts and the traditions, in particular regarding the activated zones in the nose and the flow direction (as shown in the image above). In the end, these are indications to help the practitioner to develop his own feelings and connect to his intuition (vijnanamaya kosha). The table below summarizes some of these indications.
(angula / cm)
|Earth||12 (22 cm)||Center||Square||Yellow||Sugar||20 min|
|Water||16 (30 cm)||Down||Increasing||White||Salty|
|Fire||4 (8 cm)||To the top||Triangle||Red||Spicy||12 min|
|Air||8 (15 cm)||On the coast||Oval||Green||Acid||8 min|
|Ether||0||Circular||Oval with dots||Purple||Bitter||4 min|
Link with Pranayama
Both Pranayama and Svara Yoga take care of Prana. Pranayama focuses on redirecting, controlling and storing it while Svara Yoga analyzes the breath and aligns it with cosmic rhythms.
Svara Yoga considers Pranayama as a prerequisite which makes it possible to control the breath and in particular to act on its length, increase the Prana (with retentions, mudra and bandha) and activate Sushumna nadi.
The awareness of the Svara and the associated rhythms give a more subtle dimension. For example Nadi Shodhana can be used to check and modify the Svara.
Uses of Svara Yoga
What practical uses have the yogis of this knowledge of Svara and rhythms synchronization?
Depending on the dominant nostril and element as well as cosmic rhythms, the tradition of Svara Yoga deduces certain actions considered as auspicious or not to undertake. For example the first 36 minutes (Earth 20 min and Water 16 min period) in the nostril cycle are considered auspicious for actions with stable effects for the left and difficult actions for the right.
Traditional texts give details and examples of auspicious synchronization between actions and Svara. Knowledge of Svara is also useful in the field of health to anticipate problems or facilitate diagnosis.
There are two ways to synchronize internal and external rhythms:
- calibrate its actions according to the Svara of the moment: this may mean, for example, to wait for a more auspicious period;
- modify the Svara depending on the actions you want to take: for example by voluntarily modifying the dominant nostril (with the techniques described above).
More than applying ready-made recipes that can lead to superstition, Svara Yoga is about developing sensitivity and intuition to adjust with the rhythms and cosmic flows. Our lifestyle has a major impact on the alignment between microcosm and macrocosm. This concerns activities such as sleeping or eating, but also our psychological behavior. As such, the disciplines (yama) and observances (niyama) of Ashtanga Yoga are very good practices to protect our Prana and preserve our energy for spiritual work.
Just like the final purpose of Hatha Yoga is not to increase physical strength and vitality, Svara Yoga is about realizing the Self and transcending the elements. It aims is to increase the period when the Svara is in Sushumna to lead the Prana towards the higher centers. This is part of the holistic approach of Yoga which is the fusion of personal consciousness with universal consciousness:
- cleaning and balancing solar and lunar nadi;
- activation of Sushumna nadi;
- activation, purification and opening of the various chakras using the breath and mastery of the elements;
- activation of the Kundalini and ascension in Sushumna nadi.
The following practices are related to Svara Yoga:
- in continuity of Pranayama, reduction of the respiratory flow by trying to make it almost inaudible and by reducing the length of the Svara while maintaining a slow, deep and even flow;
- combination of So Ham meditation and observation of Svara to use conscious breathing to activate sleeping areas of the brain;
- meditation on the chakras with visualization of their attributes (bija mantra, yantra, petals and associated sounds, symbolic animals, deities, etc.), awareness of Svara and alignment with the order of the elements in the nasal cycle to reach the higher centers on an auspicious moment for Sushumna nadi.
This concludes this brief and humble introduction to Svara Yoga, an ancestral but little-known science which – in the continuity of Pranayama– strives to increase the level of consciousness of the practitioner through observation and control of the Prana flow and the elements, and their alignment with cosmic rhythms.
To go further and for more details on Svara Yoga we recommend, in addition to the transmission by a guru (outside as inside), the following books:
- “Swara Yoga” by Swami Muktibodhananda and Swami Satyananda;
- “Microchakras” by Shyamji Bhatnagar;
- “Secret Power of Tantrik Breathing” by Swami Sivapriyananda;
- “Breath, Mind, and Consciousness” by Harish Johari.