Surya Bhedana Pranayama in Yoga - Steps, Benefits, and Precautions
Surya Bhedana is a yoga breathing technique (pranayama) to generate heat and energize the Pingala Nadi - the Sun energy channel. Learn the steps, benefits, and precautions before you add this energizing exercise to your daily practice.
Before we start, go ahead and stick a finger under your nose and exhale. You'll notice only one nostril is doing the heavy lifting. That's your active nostril at the moment. It plays a vital role in controlling what activities and biological functions are dominant within you.
Both nostrils have a connection to different aspects of our physiology. In Yoga, the right nostril is called Surya or Pingala Nadi and the left is called Chandra or Ida Nadi. The Surya Nadi is associated with activity and the Chandra Nadi is associated with rest.
For instance, if you are breathing through the left nostril, prana (life-energy) is in the Ida Nadi and parasympathetic aspects are predominant. That's called Chandra Bhedana Pranayama. We've discussed the steps, benefits, and variations of it in a previous post.
Yogis discovered that selective breathing can influence the flow of prana. Meaning you can block the left nostril and breath in through the right to energize Surya Nadi and alter the natural pattern. This forced, single nostril will activate the sympathetic aspects of the body.
Thereby, pranayama has left, right, and alternate-nostril breathing techniques to influence the Ida, Pingala and Sushumna nadis. Here, we will focus on Surya Bhedana, a yoga pranayama that goes by a few other names, some of which are:
Sun Piercing breath
Surya Bhedi Pranayama
Surya Nadi Pranayama
Definition: Surya Bhedana Pranayama
Surya Bhedana or Surya Bhedi is a warming/energizing pranayama practiced in a seated meditation posture. Using Vishnu Mudra (hand gesture), you block the left nostril, inhale through the right, retain the breath for as long as you can, and block the right nostril to exhale through the left nostril. The same steps are repeated to peform forced right-nostril breathing.
The Sanskrit word Surya translates to the Sun and bhedana means to piere or pass through. Put together, Surya Bhedana refers to a pranayama where "the breath passes through the Sun". Clearly, it is not literal. Nor is the English translation - Sun-Piercing Breath.
Sun refers to Pingala Nadi connected to the right nostril as per yoga theory. In yoga texts, Surya Bhedana is used to stimulate the Surya Nadi and bring the body into activity mode. It stimulates the left-brain hemisphere and the mind/body functions associated with it.
"Inspire with all your strength the external air through the sun-tube (right nostril): retain this air with the greatest care, performing Jalandhara Bandha. Let the Kumbhaka be kept up so long as the sweat does not burst forth from the tips of the nails and roots of the hair" - Surya Bhedana Kumbhaka Pranayama in Gheranda Samhita Chapter 4, Verse 68-69.
Step One: Prepare
Sit in any meditative asanas used for yoga breathing. We recommend Easy Pose for beginners and Accomplished Pose or Lotus Pose for experienced practitioners. Form the Vishnu Mudra with your right hand before you start.
Bring the mudra up to your face and press the left nostril shut with your ring finger. Press the thumb gently against the right nostril to block it partially. When you are ready to start, expel all the air from your lungs with a deep exhale.
Partially blocking the right nostril is optional. Beginners can skip this and add it later.
Step Two: Inhale through the right nostril
Inhalation should be smooth (no jerks) and noiseless (no hissing or whizzing sound). Take a deep breath and fill the lungs. Press down on the right nostril with your thumb after inhalation.
Step Three: Internal Breath Retention
Retain the breath for as long as you are comfortable. Skip this step of the pranayama if you have health problems aggravated by breath retention i.e. hypertension or anxiety. Beginners may also omit this step and add it after a week of practicing Surya Bhedana.
Step Four: Exhale through the left nostril
Release the pressure of the ring and index finger on the left nostril to exhale and empty the lungs. At this point you have completed one round of Surya Bhedana Pranayama.
Step Five: Repeat for as long as desirable
Start the pranayama again from step two by blocking the left and inhaling through the right. Remember, we always inhale through the right and exhale through the left during Surya Bhedana. Don't confuse it with Nadi Shodhana Pranayama where we alternate nostrils.
Duration: You can do Surya Bhedana for 8 to 10 rounds or 3 to 5 minutes. The pranayama can be done at any time during the day keeping the contraindications in mind. The first half of the day is ideal. Avoid doing it after dusk as it can hamper the process of winding down for bedtime.
Summary: Inhale through the right nostril -> retain the breath as long as comfortable -> exhale through the left nostril -> Repeat the pranayama for 8 to 30 rounds, as per your capacity.
Safety and Precautions
Surya Bhedana Pranayama in contraindicated in the following conditions:
In summer (or hot weather),
During indigestion, diarrhoea, or acid reflux.
Ilness and fever.
Hypertension or cadiovascular problems
Furthermore, skip the breath retention step if you have hypertension, heart problems, and anxiety. Discuss the pranayama with your physician if you are on heavy medication or have chronic health conditions.
Surya Bhedana Benefits
1. May improve physical performance
Breathing selectively through the right nostril stimulates the body and improves physical performance. A small scientific study(1) conducted on ten basketball players noted a significant improvement in shooting performance after 10 minutes of yoga and Surya Bhedana pranayama.
2. Better Cardiovascular Health
A study(2) on yoga poses and yoga breathing noted that these techniques (including Surya Bhedana Pranayama) maintain good heart health and prevent cardiovascular disease. Please note this benefit is attainable when yoga is combined with a healthy lifestyle and diet.
3. Activates the sympathetic nervous system.
A study(3) conducted on unilateral breathing in yoga noted a 37% increase in baseline oxygen consumption in the participants and an increased sympathetic discharge to the adrenal medulla after Surya Bhedana Pranayama. Other studies(4, 5) have observed similar results and suggest possible therapeutic implications of selective breathing yoga techniques.
4. Clears Sinuses
The heating and warming properties of Surya Bhedana pranayama are used in yoga to clear frontal sinuses during cold/humid weather. As per Hatha yoga, the full benefits of right nostril breathing are obtained in conjunction with breath retention (kumbhaka). These claims are largely anecdotal. No studies are available to verify these aspects of Surya Bhedana.
5. Aids Weight Loss
The study published in the Indian Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology (referenced above) noted that Surya Bhedana pranayama has therapeutic value in weight loss. The was a significant weight reduction in the participants after 27 rounds of selective right nostril breathing four times a day for one month. The study suggests that this may be due to the change in diet and increased metabolism caused by Surya Bhedana pranayama.
6. Balances Vata Dosha
In Ayurveda, Surya Bhedana Pranayama helps balance Vata Dosha (described as “destroys excess wind” in Hatha Yoga Pradipika). Conversely, it aggravates Pitta Dosha. Vata, Pitta, and Kapha Dosha are three imbalances in body humors as per Ayurveda - a sister science of yoga. It is a vast subject. We encourage readers to consult an Ayurvedic practitioner for an expert assessment.
7. Awakens Kundalini
In Tantra Yoga and Hatha Yoga, forced or selective breathing has long been used as a way to awaken Kundalini. Hatha Yoga Pradipika states that it can be combined with bandhas (internal locks) to force prana into Sushumna – the central channel. Intermediate or advanced practitioners can add Uddiyana Bandha or a combination of Mula and Jalandhara bandhas to Surya Bhedana pranayama while retaining the breath inside the body.
Purpose of Surya Bhedana Pranayama
Modern science has noted that we don't breathe simultaneously using both nostrils for the most part. We breathe through either the left or right nostril with an ultradian rhythm. In simple words, we switch between the right and left nostril every 2 to 3 hours on average.
Scientific research links these cyclic nasal patterns with an activity-rest cycle of the autonomic nervous system that switches between the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems. Generally, right nostril breathing occurs when we are active, and left-side breathing occurs at rest.
Did you know in Hindu mythology Pingala is the door-keeper of the Sun God?
The same understanding of breathing and nasal laterality is described in yoga literature, albeit using observational research and very different language.
Yogis practice selective breathing and Nadi Shodhana Pranayama (alternate nostril) to alter, balance, or harmonize physical and mental activity by influencing the brain hemispheres. Such pranayamas influence the autonomic nervous system in specific ways.
What is the best time to practice Surya Bhedana pranayama?
The ideal time to practice Surya Bhedana is in the early morning on an empty stomach. You can practice it anytime as long as you follow the guidelines of pranayama. However, one should avoid it in summer, during the hottest part of the day, and after sunset.
Who should not practice Surya Bhedana pranayama?
Surya Bhedana Pranayama is contraindicated in epilepsy, heart disease, anxiety, and high blood pressure. Avoid it at night as it may lead to difficulty in falling asleep. Consult a yoga instructor and physician before starting a new practice if you have any chronic health conditions.
Is Surya Bhedana pranayama dangerous?
Surya Bhedana is safe when performed correctly keeping the contraindications in mind. Retaining the breath is the only part of the pranayama that can cause discomfort, especially if you push beyond your natural limit. If you feel dizzy or faint, stop your Surya Bhedana practice and breathe normally while lying down in Corpse's Pose.