Many people, myself included, frequently experience difficulties in Pranayama (breathing) practices that involve nostril control. The problem is usually due to some kind of obstacles that block or disturb the flow of air through the nostrils. This can be frustrating for people who want to pursue and develop a Pranayama practice. Fortunately there are some things you can do.
Choose an Appropriate Technique
Blocked nostrils usually inhibit inhaling more then they do exhaling. In Pranayama we are practicing lengthening the breath. When practicing with nostril control, in exhaling we use our fingers to partially block the nasal passages to control the outward flow of the breath. Blocked nasal passages work in the same direction – so in a way they are supporting the practice. The problem is usually on the inhale when we want to bring air in and blocked passages prevent us from bringing in enough. This creates physical, mental and emotional pressures and disturbance in the system. This usually leads to short and unsteady breathing.
In this series about Pranayama I have listed techniques in an order in which they are taught and should usually be practiced . The more advanced practices like Nadi Sodhana are subtle and require preparation – it is difficult to practice effectively with blocked nostrils. Alternately, a basic practice like Anuloma Ujjayi is more accessible and can be practiced even when the nostrils are partly blocked (and therefore also partly open).
Anuloma Ujjayi works within the limitations of blocked nostrils. Inhaling through both nostrils (using Ujjayi as a control) circumvents the difficulty of inhaling through one nostril. Exhaling through alternating nostrils gives us a chance to experience the more subtle qualities of nostril control. Exhaling also works in a direction that may push out mucus that may be causing blockage.
Practice Asana before Pranayama
It is useful to remember the bigger picture of what we are trying to achieve in our practice. Pranayama is intended to regulate the flow of Prana. To do that effectively Prana must first be stirred and moved – this is what Asana (physical) does. An effective Asana practice will awaken Prana inside the body, generate heat, prepare your body for comfortable sitting and by practicing with Ujjayi it will gradually prepare your breathing. Often, I find that my nasal passages are more open after Asana practice. My experience is that after Asana practice there is generally less resistance in the body and a more fluid movement of breath.
Kapalabhati and Bhastrika breathing techniques can also be used as a preparation for Pranayama. They can be very effective but they need to be taught and practiced under the guidance of a teacher. I am careful about prescribing them here because in addition to their cleansing effect they also have a potential for a strong energetic effect for which the body needs to be prepared. If not applied with care they can cause a disturbance that outweighs any beneficial effects. If you have access to a good Yoga teacher then you may consult with them on learning and using these techniques.
Give it Time
Pranayama is a subtle practice. It takes time to realize and appreciate it. My teachers have suggested that it takes 3 to 6 months of consistent & quality practice. Get yourself comfortable if you want to sustain yourself through this journey. If you constantly push beyond your limits you will experience constant friction and failure. Find a recipe that works for you (good preparation and an appropriate technique) and it will sustain you in your practice.
Pranayama is a practice of never ending cycles that go deeper into subtle aspects of breath and energy. There is no point in rushing, there is no finish line to reach.
A Little Trick
One day, not too long ago, I sat to practice Nadi Sodhana, event though my nostrils were slightly blocked. I felt I could sustain a quality practice despite the blockage. During the practice I found that I could actually use nostril control to bypass the blockage and create a better passage. I found that if I applied slight pressure on the nostril AND slightly pull it out (away from my body) – I was able to form a more open path for the breath to flow. I realized that my fingers can be used not only for closing and opening the passage, but also for slightly changing its shape.