Yogic breathing exercises (“pranayama,” in Sanskrit) are one of the most important parts of a well-rounded yoga practice. The ancient yoga text known as the Yoga Sutras, compiled by the sage Patanjali in 150 BCE, considers pranayama as one of the eight major limbs of yoga. Adding pranayama to your regular practice of yoga poses (asanas) and meditation will benefit your mind, body, and spirit.
Alternate Nostril Breathing — Nadi Shodhana (NAH-dee shoh-DAH-nuh) — is a purifying pranayama that alternates the blockage of each nostril, channeling the air throughout your body in a concentrated flow. It balances the nadis, or channels of energy throughout the body, and harmonizes the left and right hemispheres of the brain, easing stress and anxiety. Its name comes from two Sanskrit words:
- “Nadi” — meaning “channel”
- “Shodhana” — meaning “cleansing” or “purifying”
In yoga, it is believed that practicing Nadi Shodhana will cleanse and purify the nadis, which will allow for a smoother flow of “prana,” (meaning, “life force energy”) throughout the body, mind, and spirit. When prana becomes unbalanced, due to mental and physical stress, the nadis become blocked, which can lead to illness and disease. Keeping the nadis cleansed will lead to overall wellness and peace in all areas of life.
Benefits of Nadi Shodhana
Practicing Nadi Shodhana balances and harmonizes your nadis and both hemispheres of your brain. This balance helps to reduce stress and anxiety. It lowers your heart rate and helps to relieve mental tension. As you practice Nadi Shodhana, shifting your awareness between your left and right nostrils, your mind naturally becomes more centered and focused. With regular practice, your attention span and ability to focus for long periods may be positively affected.
Happiness is not a matter of intensity but of balance, order, rhythm, and harmony.
Those with high blood pressure should not hold their breath at any time during this practice. As with all breathing exercises, always approach the practice with caution, especially if you have a respiratory condition, such as asthma or emphysema. Never attempt any pranayama for the first time without the guidance of a qualified and knowledgeable teacher. Stop the exercise if you become faint or dizzy. Always work within your own range of limits and abilities. If you have any medical concerns, talk with your doctor before practicing yoga.
- Begin in a comfortable, cross-legged position, such as Easy Pose (Sukhasana). You may choose to sit on a folded blanket, bolster, or block to elevate your hips and reduce knee pressure. Sit up straight, but relax your body. Soften your jaw and breathe naturally.
- With your right hand, bend your index and middle fingers, keeping your ring finger, pinkie finger, and thumb extended. This hand position, or mudra, is called Mrigi Mudra.
- Close your right nostril with your right thumb.
- Inhale deeply through your left nostril.
- At the top of your inhalation, close your left nostril with the ring finger of your right hand as you release the right nostril.
- Exhale through your right nostril.
- Keeping the left nostril closed, inhale deeply through your right nostril.
- Seal your right nostril again with your thumb, then release your left nostril.
- Exhale out of your left nostril. You should now be in the original position, with your thumb sealing your right nostril. This is one cycle.
- Balance your inhalations and exhalations so they are the same length through both nostrils.
- Repeat up to 10 full cycles, gradually increasing the number of repetitions as you gain experience.
Modifications & Variations
If you have a shoulder or neck injury, or have not built up enough strength, it might be difficult to keep your right arm raised throughout the exercise. To remedy this, prop your right elbow up on a bolster, or rest it on the seat of a chair placed next to you.
The right hand is traditionally used for the seal. However, those who are left-handed might find it more comfortable to perform the exercise with their left hand.
When practiced correctly, Nadi Shodhana will balance and rejuvenate the body, mind, and spirit. Keep your breath steady, rhythmic, and smooth throughout the practice. As you gain experience, you will be able to balance your inhalations and exhalations so they each last for a count of eight.
Remember not to push it, though. If your breath becomes strained or if you start feeling anxious, stop the exercise and return to your normal breathing pattern before attempting it again.
Find Balance with Your Breath
Practicing Nadi Shodhana can be a simple way to bring awareness and harmony into your life. You can practice it many times throughout the day! Regular pranayama practice will help ease mental tension and stress, and it will help you move through your day with balance, grace, and equanimity.