Surya Bhedana Pranayama is a yoga breathing technique that generates heat, energy, and activates the 'masculine' functions by stimulating the Pingala Nadi - the solar energy channel. Learn the procedure and benefits to add Surya Bhedana Pranayama to your yoga routine.
Pranayama puts forward three techniques – left, right, and alternate nostril breathing to communicate with the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. Of these, Surya Bhedana – right nostril breathing – is used to energize the sympathetic aspects of the body.
Before we start, stick your finger under your nose and exhale dramatically. You will notice that only one nostril is doing the heavy lifting. That's your active nostril for the moment. It plays a vital role in controlling what activities and biological functions are dominant within you.
Each nostril has a connection to various voluntary and involuntary aspects of our physiology. We can use selective breathing to communicate with or influence the autonomic nervous system. One of these is Surya Bhedana. It goes by many different names, some of which are -
Surya Anuloma-Viloma Pranayama
Surya Bhedi Pranayama
Surya Nadi or Surya Bhedi Pranayama.
In this post, we will discuss the basic procedure, contraindications, and benefits of Surya Bhedana Pranayama.
Definition: Surya Bhedana Pranayama
Surya Bhedana Pranayama is a single nostril yoga breathing technique that involves repeatedly inhaling through the right nostril and exhaling through the left after retaining the breath for as long as you can. It stimulates the left-brain hemisphere and mind/body functions associated with it. Surya Bhedana is classified as a 'warming' or energizing pranayama.
"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.
Surya (Sun) and Bhedana (to pass through) refer to a breathing procedure causing "the breath to pass through the Sun". Clearly, it is not literal. Nor is the English translation - Sun-Piercing Breath. Sun refers to Pingala Nadi or Solar Energy Channel connected to the right nostril.
Pingala-Piercing Breath would have been a more appropriate translation. Hold on to that thought. We'll get back to it when we discuss the purpose of Surya Bhedana Pranayama. First, let us take an in-depth look at the procedure and benefits.
1. Prepare: Sit in any of the five meditative asanas used for yoga breathing. We recommend Easy Pose (Sukhasana) for beginners and Accomplished Pose (Siddhasana) or Lotus Pose (Padmasana) for experienced practitioners. Breathe rhythmically for a minute or two before you start.
Form the Vishnu Mudra – a yoga hand gesture – with your right hand (see illustration). Bring your hand up to your face and press the left nostril with your ring and little finger to block it completely. Press the thumb gently against the right nostril to block it partially.
Rest your left hand on the thigh or use it to cradle/cup the right elbow to support the other hand. 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 step and add it once they are familiar with the breathing practice.
2. Inhale through the right nostril: Inhalation should be smooth (no jerks), noiseless (no hissing or whizzing sound), and deep (fill the lungs).
3. Internal Breath Retention (Optional): Retain the breath (after inhalation) for as long as you are comfortable. Skip this step if you have any health problems aggravated by breath retention i.e. hypertension or clinical anxiety. Beginners may omit this step and add it later.
4. Exhalation through the left nostril: Press the thumb against the right nostril to block it. Release the pressure of the ring and index finger on the left nostril and exhale through it. Empty the lungs. With this, you have completed one round of Surya Bhedana Pranayama.
5. Repeat for as long as desirable: Start the process again from step two by blocking the left nostril and inhaling through the right one. Inhale solely through the right and exhale through the left nostril for the entire duration of Surya Bhedana.
Duration: You can do Surya Bhedana Pranayama for 8 to 10 rounds or 3 to 10 minutes. As always, go slow when you start a new yoga practice. Surya Bhedana 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.
Awareness: Focus on the navel point or link the mind to the breath.
Summary: Inhale through the right nostril -> retain the breath as long as comfortable -> exhale through the left nostril -> Repeat for 8 to 30 rounds, as per your capacity.
Surya Bhedana Pranayama Benefits
1. Improves 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 Surya Bhedana Pranayama.
2. Better Cardiovascular Health
A study(2) on yoga asanas and yogic breathing noted that these techniques (including Surya Bhedana Pranayama) maintain good heart health and prevent cardiovascular disease. However, one must note that this benefit is attainable when the practice is a part of a larger regimen combined with a healthy lifestyle, proper diet, and regular exercise.
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 breathing.
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. 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.
Avoid Surya Bhedana Pranayama in summer (or hot weather), during indigestion or acid reflux, and if you are running a fever. Breath retention is ill-advised for people suffering from hypertension, heart problems, and anxiety. Such people may practice right nostril breathing without retention. Consult a yoga teacher and physician before you attempt the pranayama.
Additionally, observe the general guidelines associated with any traditional pranayama:
Always practice yoga breathing on an empty stomach in an appropriate posture.
The head, neck, and spine should be in a straight line – perpendicular to the floor.
The yoga practice space should be well-ventilated and pollution-free.
Do not exceed your natural capacity to inhale, exhale, or retain the breath.
Stay relaxed and breathe naturally. Stop if you feel uneasy.
What is the purpose of Surya Bhedana Pranayama
Our breathing occurs through the left and right nostrils with an ultradian rhythm. In simple words, we don't breathe simultaneously using both nostrils. We switch between the right and left nostril every 2 to 3 hours on average.
Scientific research has linked the 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 name of 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 (left or right) and Nadi Shodhana (alternate nostril) to alter, balance, or harmonize physical and mental activity by influencing the brain hemispheres. Such pranayamas allow an individual to influence the autonomic nervous system in specific ways.
What is the best time to practice Surya Bhedana?
Dusk or dawn is the ideal time to practice most pranayamas, Surya Bhedana included. However, one may practice it at any time of the day for its non-spiritual benefits. You still need to follow the general guidelines of pranayama (empty stomach, clear air, etc.). In terms of weather, avoid it in summer and during the hottest parts of the day (12 pm to 4 pm).
Who should not practice this pranayama?
Surya Bhedana Pranayama is contraindicated in epilepsy, heart disease, anxiety, and high blood pressure (hypertension). One should avoid practicing it late at night as it may make it more difficult to fall asleep. That said, always consult your yoga instructor and physician before starting a new practice if you have any underlying health conditions.
Is Surya Bhedana Pranayama dangerous?
Surya Bhedana is safe when performed using the correct procedure and keeping all contraindications in mind. Retaining the breath is the only part of the pranayama that can lead to discomfort, especially if you force yourself beyond what is natural. If you experience dizziness or feel faint, stop your Surya Bhedi practice and breathe normally while lying down.