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Alternate Nostril Breathing

Updated: Mar 25

Nadi Shodhana or alternate nostril breathing is a pranayama practice that focuses the mind, regulates the nervous system and results in feeling calm and ready.

What is Nadi Shodhana?

From the Sanskrit, Nadi Shodhana translates roughly as "channel cleaning". That sounds more like TV for the really neat and tidy than a yoga practice, right?!

In yoga, the Nadis are energy channels distributed throughout the body. We connect with and through them when we send our attention to different parts. One way to send attention to different parts of the body is using our breath. There are two major Nadis or energy channels running up the right and left side of the body, respectively, and Nadi Shodhana connects us to these by focusing our breath in and out of each nostril independently.

What are the benefits of alternate nostril breathing?

The breath offers us a direct link into nervous system regulation. That is to say, to the system that ties together our body and mind, conscious and unconscious. When the nervous system is in a state of agitation (often referred to as sympathetic activation) our bodies will generally be poised ready for action and our minds will be on high alert looking for danger. When the nervous system is in a relaxed state (usually called parasympathetic activation) our bodies will be looser and restful and our minds will be calmer and ready to make deep connections.

The breath acts as a bridge because we can agitate the nervous system by elevating the breath to make ourselves feel alert (think about a heating breath practice like the breath of fire, or just how you feel having done something that made you slightly out of breath) or de-escalate the nervous system by consciously bringing the breath into a slow and even rhythm (the classic example being breathing into a paper bag when feeling nauseous or panic stricken!).

A long way round to explain that Nadi Shodhana, being a balanced breath between the left and right and roughly balanced too between inhale and exhale, helps to regulate the nervous system into an ideal in between state where we should be alert and ready but also calm and fairly relaxed. Whether we start off by being too anxious or by not being alert enough, practicing Nadi Shodhana can help us find mind and body equilibrium.

When do you practice Nadi Shodhana?

In yoga class, we usually take Nadi Shodhana at the start of the class in order to feel relaxed and alert ready to be immersed in the yoga practices that follow on.

But practicing alternate nostril breathing doesn't just have to be during yoga class. It's a good technique to use in between challenging tasks or parts of the day that make very different demands of us.

Many people find benefit from using Nadi Shodhana to prepare for a big event, such as just before going into an exam or right before speaking in public. The practice brings equilibrium and allows more focus in the present moment, which is very useful in such situations. Equally, if something isn't going to plan, taking a break and trying some alternative nostril breathing may provide perspective and composure (Hilary Clinton famously said that it helped her to recover from losing the US presidential race).

Those of us who experience regular anxiety or issues with mood regulation will usually benefit most from having a consistent Nadi Shodhana practice, where we usher our bodies back towards homeostasis on a regular basis.

I often experience anxiety in the early morning and can feel lethargy and/or apathy in the late morning and early afternoon, so I find that practicing most days between those times is most beneficial.

How do you practice Nadi Shodhana?

There are two main approaches to Nadi Shodhana, one using a mudra or hand gesture and the other purely using the focus of attention.

Using the mudra, known as mrigi mudra, we take the first and middle fingers of the right hand and place their tips between the eyebrows around the location of the third eye. We can then press the thumb tip to close off the right nostril and breathe in through the left nostril. Having reached the top of the inhale, we release the thumb from the right nostril and use the tip of the fourth finger to press closed the left nostril, keeping the index and middle fingers in place. We exhale through the right nostril, then from the bottom of the exhale inhale again through the right nostril before pressing the thumb tip back in place over the right nostril, releasing the fourth finger from the left nostril and exhaling through the left. This is one round of breath; we usually complete Nadi Shodhana in multiples of five rounds.

Using the focus of attention or "psychic Nadi Shodhana" method, we don't use the hand to alter the flow of breath from the nostrils but instead focus on feeling the inhale and subsequent exhale from the left then the right nostril, inhaling consciously from the right nostril, then focusing the exhale from the left nostril for the initial round of breath. Focusing on breathing through one nostril at a time might include noticing the change in temperature as we inhale and exhale, noticing a different sense of space in the nose and throat for each part of the breath and or simply noticing the air moving across the skin immediately beneath the nostril. For the "psychic" version, we also usually complete Nadi Shodhana in multiples of five rounds.

Is there anyone who shouldn't practice alternative nostril breath?

Honestly, a LOT of people struggle with the version of Nadi Shodhana that uses mrigi mudra. From holding your arm up for so long, to having cold or even just feeling that you don't breathe well from one side (yes, there is a nasal cycle, you're not just imagining it), there are many reasons why this version of alternate nostril breath may not be right for you. If you have athsma or COPD or an obstruction in the nasal passage then trying to use the mudra may make you feel anything but calm, in which case it is best to try the "psychic" version only. Some days, even seasoned practitioners find that they may connect more with one version than the other, and that should be noted and respected.

In general, there are no reasons why the "psychic" version cannot be practiced by anyone who is willing to try it (there's even a version for kids).

If you want to be guided through the practice of Nadi Shodhana, book a class or a 1-1 with me and together we can let life flow!

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