Nadi Shodhana Pranayama, also known as Alternate Nostril Breathing, is one of the breathing practices we explored in recent months in our yoga group classes.
Nadi is a Sanskrit word meaning “channel” or “flow” and shodhana means “purification.” According to the traditional yoga texts, Nadi Shodhana is primarily aimed at clearing and purifying the subtle energy channels of the mind-body organism, right and left sides of your brain while bringing balance to the system as a whole.
From the modern scientific perspective, there are some important benefits of alternate-nostril breathing for the mind and the body:
It evens out the nasal flow in both nostrils. At any given time, people do about 75% of their breathing from one nostril and 25% from the other. The dominant nostril switches throughout the day – every 1.5-2 hours. This is called the nasal cycle. Although we don't usually notice it, during the nasal cycle one nostril becomes congested and thus contributes less to airflow, while the other becomes decongested.
It regulates the nervous system. Stress activates the nervous system. The body interprets stress as danger and reacts - organs send out certain hormones that make the heart beat faster, breathing quickens, the muscles tighten, and the senses sharpen. This is called the stress response. Controlled deep breathing engages the rest and repair state that starts the relaxation response. This can bring better balance to the nervous system and less stress response and activity over time
It improves breathing capacity. Alternate nostril breathing specifically can help to breathe better. The research found that over one month of practice, people had better oxygen flow and could exhale more oxygen. Deep breathing also seems to clear secretions such as mucus out of the lungs.
It lowers fear and anxiety. The basis of alternate nostril breathing is controlling your breath with focused attention. It improves interospection, makes you more centered and clears emotions. This can help manage the feelings and lower anxiety.
From the yoga perspective, Nadi Shodhana prepares the ground for mediation:
The breath is a vehicle for deepening concentration. If you’re too weak or tired to focus, or if the mind is too active to keep stable on one thing, meditation is not going to work. One must spend a little time preparing the mind before meditating and doing things that help the mind become directable. For example, bringing attention to the breath, making it a bit longer and smoother restores your system through rest, and keeps you calm, then the mind starts to be a bit more directable and balanced – revealing quiet sources of joy and positivity.
How to - the technique of Nadi Shodana:
Choose a comfortable sitting position - either cross-legged on the floor (with a cushion or blanket to support the spine), or in a chair with your feet flat on the floor. Allow your spine to lengthen so that your back, neck, and head are erect throughout the practice. Gently close your eyes.
Create Mrigi Mudra (Deer Seal) – a hand gesture. Ball your right hand into a fist. Press your index and middle fingers into the base of your thumb, so they’re held firmly in their curled position. Stretch out the ring, pinkie fingers and the thumb. You will alternately use the thumb to close the right nostril and the ring and pinkie fingers (together) to close the left nostril.
Connect to your breath. Begin by taking a full, deep inhalation followed by a slow, gentle exhalation. In this way, practice several rounds of breath. When ready to do the alternate nostril breathing, use the thumb to close the right nostril.
Exhale through the left nostril. Exhale through the left nostril, surrendering the breath back down the left side of the body. Pause briefly at the bottom of the exhalation.
Inhale through the left nostril. Keeping the right nostril closed, inhale through the left nostril, deep and slowly. As you inhale, allow the breath to travel upward along the left side of the body. Pause gently at the crown of the head.
Exhale through the right nostril. Use the ring and pinkie fingers to gently close the left nostril and simultaneously release the right nostril. Exhale through the right nostril, surrendering the breath down the right side of the body. Pause briefly at the bottom of the exhalation.
Inhale through the right nostril. Keeping the left nostril closed, inhale once again through the right nostril, allowing the breath to travel up the right side of the body. Retain your breath after a full, slow inhale.
This completes one round of Nadi Shodhana. The same pattern continues for each additional round:
exhale through the left nostril,
inhale through the left nostril,
exhale through the right nostril,
inhale through the right nostril…
Repeat this alternating pattern for several more rounds, focusing your awareness on the pathway of the breath - up one side of the body (from the pelvic floor to the crown of the head) and back down the other side of the body (from the crown of the head to the pelvic floor). Keep the breath slow, gentle, fluid, and relaxed throughout the practice.
When you are ready to close your practice, complete your final round with an inhalation through the right nostril. Relax your right hand and place it comfortably in your lap as you allow your breath to return to normal. As you do, notice your state of mind. Quietly observe the effects of the practice. Then, gently open your eyes, continuing to focus some of your awareness within.
If you want to practice this pranayama more like breathing meditation, you would need to bring to your mind a positive image or a feeling state to cultivate over time when you breathe. For example, drawing the light and warmth of the sun as you inhale, and on exhale allowing that light to penetrate you/heal you. It will link your mind with a positive outcome and influence your system toward balance.