Alternate Nostril Breathing - Nadi Shodhana - Explained & Experienced


The practice of alternate nostril breathing is common in yoga. However, it is often overlooked for its many daily benefits. This practice increases mental clarity, is a simple sedative for anxiety, can reduce blood pressure, helps strengthen lungs, balances the mind, and brings relief from stress and negative emotions. It is particularly beneficial in that is balances the left and right hemispheres of the brain and engages the Autonomic Nervous System.


The process is easy; Inhale and/or exhale in one nostril while blocking the opposite nostril. By using a series of patterns and counts, the practice can produce different effects, as you may experience in the following exercises.


The Anatomy of Alternate Nostril Breathing


In physical anatomy, within the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) is the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) and the parasympathetic Nervous System (PsNS). The SNS is our fight or flight response. It is where we gather stress. Good stress is important, like when we stress our bodies in physical exercise or mental endurance in learning new things. The SNS signals how and when certain hormones are released. When the fight-or-flight (danger mode) response activates, adrenaline is released into the bloodstream. These hormones cause physical changes in the body, such as increased heart rate, muscles tense, and other body functions like digestion and our immune systems are suppressed.


The Para Sympathetic Nervous System (PsNS) is our rest-and-digest response. It is the opposite of the SNS. Its function is to bring the body back into homeostasis. This is the body's ability to return critical body functions to a base point, such as optimal heart rate and relaxed muscles. Both of these functions are equally important, and when kept in balance help us to maintain health and wellness.


The human brain has two sides with distinct functions. The left hemisphere governs the right side of the body. This is our logical, or reasoning side, exercising thinking skills such as math and science. The right hemisphere governs the left side. This is the creative side, which exercises our imagination and artistic abilities. Each side has many functions. In yoga, we can help to strengthen these right/left connections with bilateral poses as well as in breathing (pranayama) practices.

Prana is life force energy.


In yogic terms, prana is life force energy. It is a quality within the breath that connects the physical qualities of breath with the more subtle energies of the body through channels called nadis. This is where things we cannot see, such as emotions are felt. There are three major energy channels, and many more minor channels, in which prana moves, operating on this subtle level.


The central channel is known as the Sushumna and runs the length of the spine. The left side is known as the Ida, associated with the feminine and the moon. Its qualities are restful and cooling. It begins on the right, near the base of the spine and ends in the left nostril crisscrossing the spine as it travels upward.


The right side is the Pingala, associated with the sun and masculine qualities. It heats and is energizing. It begins to the left, near the base of the spine and ends in the right nostril, also crisscrossing the spine as it travels upward. As these channels travel up the spine, they intersect with the Sushumna creating vortexes, or energy centers called chakras.


Alternate Nostril Breathing, Nadi Shodhana, is known as pranayama (breath practice). It works to balance these energy channels. This is important because the qualities of the Pingala (right side - heating) support the functions of the SNS (fight-or-flight), while the qualities of the Ida (left side - cooling) support those of the PsNS (rest-and-digest).

When either is out of balance, it can create an environment for dis-ease. If there is prolonged engagement of the SNS, the adrenaline dump can build up or malfunction causing anxiety, chronic stress, or other illness. When the PsNS is engaged for too long, it can cause us to lose motivation and even invite depression.


*Disclaimer - These practices are safe for anyone to use, however, they not intended to replace medical treatment. Always consult a qualified medical expert for diagnosis and recommended course of action.


Exercise


*See video below for more detailed instruction and to practice together.

**Clear your nasal passage before you begin*


It is important to maintain a straight spine for this practice. If you are in a chair, begin by sitting up comfortably with legs uncrossed, or if you are on the floor, sit in lotus or half-lotus, legs crossed position. You may use a back jack or sit close up to a wall for support. This practice can also be done flat on your back if sitting up is not an option.


Practice 1 - Breath Evaluation

This practice is intended to see on which side the breath is stronger. Once evaluated, performing more breaths on the weaker side can help balance both sides.


Use your thumb and pointer finger to pinch closed each nostril in turn.

  • Single nostril left 5 x - Close the right nostril. Inhale and exhale through the left nostril 5 times. Take your time maintaining smooth even breaths.

  • Switch sides

  • Single nostril right 5 x - Close the left nostril. Inhale and exhale through the right nostril 5 times. Take your time maintaining smooth even breaths.

  • Breathe in and out both sides open 5 x

Balance time on breath, making each inhale and exhale the same length.


Sit quietly and notice the effects on your body and how you feel overall. Notice if one side felt easier.


Practice 2 - Alternating Breath Part 1

This practice is intended to bring balance to the breath. Moving from side to side creates a rhythm that is picked up throughout the body and brings a sense of calm. Imagine it as gentle rocking, like a mother rocks her child.

  • Close the right nostril. Inhale and exhale through the left nostril one time.

  • Switch sides

  • Close the left nostril. Inhale and exhale through the right nostril one time.

This is one round, Left to Right. Repeat 5 times

  • Reverse

  • Close the left nostril. Inhale and exhale through the right nostril one time.

  • Switch sides

  • Close the right nostril. Inhale and exhale through the left nostril one time.

This is one round, Right to Left. Repeat 5 times


Practice moving back and forth starting with 5 rounds. Then sit quietly and notice the effects on your body and how you feel overall. Observe if the practice felt stronger left to right, or right to left. Notice any emotions you may be experiencing.


Practice 3 - Alternating Breath part 2 - Advancing the Practice

This practice is intended to advance the previous exercises by adding additional points of concentration. By directing the breath at different intervals, incorporating counting sequences and hand positions (mudras) we can short circuit and reset the Autonomic Nervous System. It takes time and patience to cultivate this exercise, (why it is called “a practice”) but its effects can be experienced immediately.

  • Close the right nostril and inhale through the left nostril.

  • Close the left nostril

  • Briefly hold both nostrils retaining the breath.

  • Open the right nostril to exhale.

  • Keep the left nostril closed while inhaling through the right nostril.

  • Close the right nostril

  • Briefly hold both nostrils retaining the breath.

  • Open the left nostril to exhale.

This is one round.


Once you are comfortable with moving the breath this way from side to side, you can begin to add counting patterns. For Example;

  • Inhale left to the count of 4 (Increase to 8 counts or higher with practice)

  • Close and retain to the count of 4 (Increase to 8, 12, 16 counts or higher with practice)

  • Exhale right to the count of 4 (Increase to 8 counts or higher with practice)

Additionally, hand positions (mudras) can enhance the practice. By touching specific fingers to each other, or other energy (marma) points, subtle energy can be channeled to flow in a direction for optimal wellness.


It can be helpful to journal with these practices. Write down how you feel before practicing, and then post-practice. Track your progress noting physical, mental and emotional aspects with this pranayama.


*Note… at 1.48 I say inhale right, but the corrected text on the screen tells you to inhale left. My bad! Do as I do, not as I say! ~ Peace


My Story


This practice has had a very profound effect on my life. As a child, I was diagnosed with dyslexia. For me, that meant that I had difficulty telling my right from left, and found reading and comprehension impossible. Yoga has helped me to deal with and even surpass these challenges, and in a future post, we will explore specific poses (asanas) that are helpful for dyslexia.


Alternate nostril breathing has helped me most in the areas of cognition and concentration. It has made it easier for me to accomplish some simple things that I had once found challenging. Those included hand-eye coordination, gross motor skills, and even mathematics.


Dyslexia is a very complicated condition and affects every person who has it differently. I am not offering medical advice I am simply sharing my experience and how this practice has helped me. I encourage anyone who has difficulty with mental concentration, whether it is from dyslexia, traumatic brain energy, or any ADD related challenges to give it a try.


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