One of the eight arms of yoga is pranayama, the practice of controlling the breath. By controlling our breath in different ways, we can create different effects in the body.
One of my favorite of these breath techniques is alternate nostril breathing, or nadi shodhana (literally, the sweet breath). This is a very simple breath practice to learn, but it has a number of very positive effects. As with all deep, nostril breathing, it is calming to the mind, which can help decrease anxiety and stress levels. In addition, by actively breathing through the different nostrils in turn, we balance the two sides of the brain for clearer thought.
Research indicates that as we breathe in through the right nostril, we promote activity in the left side of the brain that tends toward logical, analytical thought. As we breathe in through the left nostril, we promote activity in the right side of the brain that tends toward creative, intuitive thought. Throughout a normal day, our breathing naturally switches from one nostril to the other every four hours or so. The practice of switching nostrils for each breath as this practice does provides a more immediate balance between the two sides.
To perform alternate nostril breathing:
- Gently curl the index and middle fingers of your right hand toward the base of your thumb. Place your thumb against the right side of your nose near the opening of the right nostril, and place your ring and little fingers against the left side of your nose near the opening of your left nostril.
- Gently press with your thumb to close the right nostril, and inhale deeply through the left nostril.
- Release the pressure on the right nostril, and gently press on the left nostril with your ring and little fingers to close the left nostril. Exhale completely through the right nostril.
- Inhale deeply through the right nostril.
- Release the pressure on the left nostril, and gently press on the right nostril with your thumb to close it. Exhale completely through the left nostril.
- Inhale deeply through the left nostril.
- Repeat steps 3-6 until you have completed the desired number of breaths, then remove your hand from your nose and allow your breath to return to normal.
To start with, aim for repeating the full cycle (steps 3-6) 5 to 10 times. Remember to breathe slowly and deeply to completely fill the lungs on each inhale and to exhale slowly and fully to completely empty the lungs each time. If possible, keep the length of the exhale as long as or slightly longer than the inhale, and only continue for as long as the breath remains slow and even. If at any time you are struggling to maintain an even breath, take a break.
I find this breathing technique to be a great help when I’m facing a stressful situation and need to calm and focus my thoughts. In addition, the calming focus on the breath can also be a great way to help me prepare for meditation. I hope you find it as helpful as I have!
For more information on this practice, read more at The Yoga Site.