Ever wondered why you feel so good after alternate nostril breathing ? Let me explain…
Alternate nostril breathing, or nadi shodhana prānāyāma, is the first of the prānāyāma practices described in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika (one of the ancient texts of yoga). Nadi Shodhana literally means ‘nadi purification’ and the practice is believed to balance the subtle energy, or prana, of the energetic body. It is said to do this by balancing the flow of energy through the ida and pingala nadis that wind their way up the body from the pelvis through the chakras to end in the nostrils. But how does it do this?
See Also: Prānāyāma – The Silken Thread
Ancient Wisdom vs Modern Science
Traditional texts refer to the masculine character of Pingala Nadi and the feminine character of Ida Nadi. They describe how breathing through the left nostril calms and cools us (catalysing the effect of ida nadi) while breathing through the right nostril stimulates and energises (optimising pingala nadi), with alternate nostril breathing activating both energetic aspects to achieve balance.
About 20 years ago, scientific research proved the theory behind nadi shodhana: breathing through the left nostril increases the activity in the right side of the brain while breathing through the right nostril stimulates the left side of the brain. The right side of the brain is responsible for processing our emotions and influences our creativity while the left side governs the logic and language aspects of our life.
And now to combine the ancient and modern thinking — the right side of our brain is stimulated by breathing through the left nostril. The left nostril is the end of the ida (the feminine) nadi. Breathing through the left nostril stimulates the ‘feminine’ (emotion and creativity) aspects of our body. Right nostril breathing, on the other hand, stimulates the more ‘masculine’ functions of the left brain through the pingala nadi. I love it when science proves what yogis have known for centuries, don’t you?
So, when you put that all together, science suggests that you stimulate both sides of the brain and ancient wisdom believes that you gain energetic balance in alternate nostril breathing, which sounds pretty much like the same thing to me.
So Much More Than Just Balance
Breathing exercises in general are known to have powerful effects on the autonomic nervous system and brings physiological and psychological benefits. But what about alternate nostril breathing?
One study on healthy male subjects in 2011 showed that a 6 week programme of alternate nostril breathing, with no other yogic interventions, increased lung capacity, reduced blood pressure and heart rate. These results were confirmed when another author repeated the study in 2014.
A really interesting study on healthy engineering students in 2011 demonstrated how alternate nostril breathing can be used to improve academic performance. The students practised the prānāyāma every evening after their classes for three months. At the end of the study they all reported improved feelings of well being, better memory, stress relief and improved physical relaxation.
More recently, scientists have even shown that it even makes a difference which nostril you start with. The first breath in nadi shodhana is usually through the left nostril, and this traditional variation has been shown to reduce heart rate and blood pressure while increasing reactivity. These physiological responses are the result of stimulating the parasympathetic, or calming side of our bodies. From the traditional point of view, you’re stimulating the ‘feminine’ aspects of the ida nadi.
Conversely, starting with the right nostril was shown to increase heart rate and blood pressure. In other words, all effects of stimulating the sympathetic side of the nervous system or the ‘masculine’ aspects of our energetic body in traditional thinking.
…and in Practice?
Alternate nostril breathing can be used as a stand alone practice or as part of an āsana sequence. First thing in the morning on an empty stomach (and after relieving your bowels) is a great time to practice any prānāyāma and I find this really sets me up for the day ahead. Equally, the space and flexibility that comes following āsana facilitates a more comfortable seat and greater depth of breaths so practicing your prānāyāma then can be really beneficial. There is no right or wrong — go with whatever works best for you.
Start by sitting upright in lotus, cross-legged (maybe on a bolster or blocks to help your hips open) or on a chair.
- Take a few deep belly breaths in preparation or a few rounds of kapālabhāti breathing if that is in your practice.
- Place your left hand on your left knee with your finger and thumb tips touching in cin mudra.
- Bend your right index and middle finger to your palm keeping the ring and little fingers straight.
- Place the tip of your right thumb against the outside of one nostril and inhale through the other. Traditionally you close the right nostril first and inhale through the left.
- Close the left nostril with the tip of your ring finger then move the thumb away to open the right nostril — exhale through your right nostril.
- Inhale through the right side then close off the right nostril with your thumb and open the left by moving your ring finger.
- Exhale through the left nostril. This is one round of alternate nostril breathing.
- Start again at Step 4. above by breathing in again through the left nostril.
- Repeat for up to 20 minutes at a time.
Aim for a smooth, controlled rhythm of breathing keeping your focus on the passage of air deep into your lungs and out again. Most people close their eyes for this practice to assist the inner focus and there is an unconscious tendency to turn the head to the right and down. Try to avoid this by keeping grounded through your sit bones and tall through your spine, with your face pointing straight ahead.
Make the Most of Nadi Shodhana
For anyone new to the practice, making the length of the inhale equal to that of the exhale is a good place to start. Once this becomes comfortable, moving on to a 1:2 ratio (where the exhale is twice as long as the inhale) is appropriate. From there, gradually increasing the lengths of both inhale and exhale by slowing the breath and adding a hold after each inhale (or kumbhaka) develops the practice — these progressions are best done with the guidance of an experienced prānāyāma teacher.
On a final note, use the research to your advantage and decide which nostril to start with! If you find you need calming and balancing, start inhaling through your left nostril. If you need energising and waking up, then start with the right nostril. I love the idea that this twist on manipulating the breath opens up opportunities to use the practice throughout the day in response to how you are feeling. This makes it a really great practice for anyone with a busy lifestyle as well as those of us with time in our lives for formal practice.
I love this practice and really miss it if I go too long without it, and I think you’ll love it too. Go on — treat yourself — it’s a great antidote to the stress and bustle of the festive season!