After a reclining yoga pose, students are generally instructed to roll to the right side before coming up to a seated position. One of my students recently asked me to explain why we roll to the right. I know of three reasons for this. One is physiological, one is cultural, and one is esoteric.
The physiological reason has to do with the structure of the heart and lungs. The heart lies in the left side of the rib cage. The left lung has two lobes rather than three as on the right, so there is less breathing capacity on the left side. Rolling to right side helps to avoid compressing the cardiac center and allows the free flow of breath into the left lung. The heart remains above the other organs, making it easier for the heart to supply them with oxygenated blood.
The cultural reason has to do with certain norms in Indian society, with the right hand used for eating, greeting, and giving gifts, and the left hand reserved for personal hygiene. It is considered auspicious to enter a building with the right foot. In Indian culture, the right represents auspiciousness, good luck, virtue and uprightness.
The esoteric reason is the most interesting one to me. According to yogic subtle anatomy, the physical body is supported and sustained by a series of invisible energetic centers called cakras, and these wheels of light are connected by energetic channels called nadis. The yogic texts say that the nadis penetrate the body from the soles of the feet to the crown of the head. They are the conduits of prana, the fundamental vital life force. There are three primary nadis that correspond to the spine.
On the right side is the pingala nadi. It controls the right side of the body and the left side of the brain. The pingala nadi channels the solar energy, called surya (sun). It is warming, active and energetic. It is associated with rajas, the tendency in nature toward movement and activity. This nadi is activated by breathing through the right nostril.
On the left side is the ida nadi. It controls the left side of the body and the right side of the brain. The ida nadi channels the lunar energy, called chandra (moon). It is cooling, still and calm. It is associated with tamas, the tendency in nature toward stillness and stability. This nadi is activated by breathing through the left nostril.
By rolling to the right side of the body, we would tend to breathe through the left nostril, and thereby experience the cooling, calming effect of the ida nadi and reduce the influence of the energizing pingala nadi.
The central channel, called susumna, represents the perfect balance of the solar and lunar energies, bringing about the quality called sattva. Cultivating sattva means to practice experiencing a state which is calm, harmonious, illuminated, balanced and pure. Building up sattva is one of the main purposes of yoga practice. The central channel is associated with fire, agni, which represents divine power that purifies us and rises up like a flame.
Rolling to the right is a general practice, but there are some exceptions. During pregnancy, we have the expectant mother roll to her left side. She may also do Savasana lying on her left side after the first trimester. Lying on the left side helps to avoid compressing the inferior vena cava, a large vessel running slightly to the right of the spine, that returns blood from the lower extremities to the heart. Being on the left side also relieves the pressure of the uterus from lying on top of the liver.
I have also been in classes at the Iyengar institute in India in which we rolled to right side and rested there, returned to our backs, then rolled to the left and rested there. Yet we still returned to our backs and rolled again to the right before sitting up.
It is always good to have something that we do routinely demystified, so we understand why it is being done. Try lying on each side for a minute or two, getting comfortable in a side-lying Savasana with a blanket under your head and another blanket in between your knees. Observe any differences between your experience of lying on your right and left side.
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