Alternate nostril breathing, or nadi shodhana, is a cleansing practice that helps to balance energy in the body. As you might have guessed, it involves switching the breath between the two nostrils. This pranayama (breathing technique) is a key part of many meditation and yoga practices. The term nadi can translate from Sanskrit to mean “stream”, “channel”, or “flow”, while shodhana translates to “cleansing” or “purifying.”
In order to get a full understanding of the purpose of alternate nostril breathing, it is important to establish the basics of nadis, which relate to the energy in our body. According to yogic tradition, our body has over 72,000 nadis, or energy channels through which our life force (or prana) flows. In our yoga practice, we are able to release blocks that exist in these channels to allow this energy to flow freely.
There are three main nadis: the sushumna (the center channel, ending at the base of the nose between the nostrils), the ida (the feminine side, ending at the left nostril), and the pingala (the masculine side, ending at the right nostril). Often, the energies between the left and right sides are not completely in balance. It is said that the energy ending in the left nostril (the ida nadi) is cooling, inward focused, and nurturing, and associated with cognitive senses (touch, smell, taste, sight, hearing). The energy that ends in the right nostril (the pingala nadi) is warming and more dynamic. It is associated with active senses (movement, communication, elimination, reproduction).
Pranayama plays a vital role in the function of our energy. It can calm or energize, heat or cool, and overall helps to restore and revitalize. Nadi shodhana is the key breathing technique used to cleanse the nadis and unblock anything getting in the way of the flow of energy. It serves to bring these energies into balance, bringing us into our most harmonious state of being.
Alternate Nostril Breathing Benefits
Alternate nostril breathing helps to open up any blockages that are hindering the flow of energy through the nadis. It restores the balance between the left and right side in order to cleanse and create the optimal environment for energy flow. In addition to this, however, there are many other physical and mental benefits of the pranayama practice.
Relaxation and Stress Reduction:
One of the top benefits of alternate nostril breathing is that it can calm the mind and bring our focus to the present. Yogic teachings often say that if you can control your breath, you have more control over your mind and body. By focusing on the breath and lengthening the inhalations and exhalations, the mind and body start to slow down.
Breath is a powerful tool, and many pranayama techniques are the key to bringing yourself back to the present. They are wonderful for slowing down an overactive mind filled with any thoughts about the past or future. Naturally, this also leads to reduction of stress, especially when practiced regularly. This has been scientifically backed up, with a 2013 study showing that people who practiced alternate nostril breathing were able to lower their perceived stress levels. This ability to calm the mind and quiet down any thoughts also helps to promote better sleep.
Alternate nostril breathing helps your brain send messages to your nervous system to help it relax. By blocking off your right nostril and breathing through your left, oxygen is sent to the right hemisphere of your brain. This activates the parasympathetic nervous system, helping with relaxation.
While this breathing technique can bring a sense of calm, it can also be a great resource if you are feeling sluggish and need an energy boost. This “pick me up” will calm you, but also give you the laser focused attention you need to get any necessary tasks done. Since alternate nostril breathing provides an equal amount of oxygen to both sides of your brain, it is also wonderful for sharpening your focus and bringing about mental clarity.
Physically, alternate nostril breathing helps to support our lungs, and is particularly therapeutic for the respiratory functions. A 2017 study on swimmers found that yogic breathing techniques helped the athletes increase their respiratory endurance.
It may also be beneficial for cardiovascular health. A 2006 study found that mindful yogic breathing techniques can slow down the heart rate. Another 2011 study found that a 6 week alternate nostril breathing program positively influenced blood pressure and heart rate, as well as vital capacity.
This breathing technique can also help with the regulation of body temperature. The left nostril is associated with cool temperatures, while the right nostril is associated with heat.
Whether you are feeling hazy, tired, nervous, or not focused on the present moment, nadi shodhana will help you restore balance in both your body and mind, and bring about both mental and physical benefits that enhance overall wellness.
How to Do Alternate Nostril Breathing
Nadi shodhana is a practice you can do just about anywhere, but it is best to do it in a quiet place that is free of any distractions. Follow the below steps during yoga, before a meditation, before sleep, or any other time where you feel like you need to reconnect to the present and slow down.
Find a seated position. You can move into Easy Pose, Lotus Pose, or simply rest on your heels. The point here is to be comfortable, so take whatever position works best for you. Take the time to make sure you are as comfortable as possible. Use a chair, blanket, wall, or any other supportive prop that you need. Sit with your spine extending up and your shoulders softening down your back. Do a check of your body, and let go of any tension that might be lingering.
Take a few moments to take a few deep inhalations and exhalations, releasing tension on each exhale. Ensure you are comfortable and free of any physical tension before moving on.
Once you are comfortable, you can begin nadi shodhana. Using your right hand, place your thumb on the outside of your right nostril to close it. Inhale slowly through the left nostril. At the top of your inhale, place your ring finger on the outside of your left nostril to close it. Pause for a moment, and then take your thumb off your right nostril. Exhale through your right nostril.
After your exhalation, inhale slowly through your right nostril, with your left nostril still blocked with your ring finger. At the top of this inhalation, close your right nostril with your thumb. Pause for a moment, and then take your ring finger off your left nostril to exhale through your left nostril. Again, inhale on the left, and then move on to the right.
Repeat this pattern between five to ten times. Once you are finished with the practice, release your right hand to your knee, and return to a normal breathing pattern.
Recommendations and Precautions
To get maximum results, it is best to do alternate nostril breathing twice a day. Many practitioners will use the time of the day to determine which nostril to start with—left is best in the morning when you wake up, and right is best at night as you are getting ready for bed. For the best results, you will want to do the breathing practice before eating and with an empty bladder.
While five to ten rounds is recommended above, it is possible to do the breathing for longer. If you are a beginner, start with less rounds, and then build up from there. However, do not force a longer practice if you are not comfortable with it.
It is important to put care into the quality of your breaths. The lengths of the inhalation and exhalations should be equal, and all breaths should be slow and steady.
While alternate nostril breathing is generally safe for most people, you may want to take a step away from the practice if you have a severe headache, have a fever, or have a seizure disorder. Those with high blood pressure, asthma, or any lung or heart issues may want to consult with a doctor before implementing the practice into their routine.
If you are dealing with a cold or your nasal passages are blocked in any way, you will need to wait until they clear up. If you are extremely tired or overly restless, you may want to take other steps to calm down. During the practice, if you feel lightheaded, dizzy, or nauseous, cease immediately and return to normal breathing.
Nadi shodhana is an excellent tool that is accessible for virtually anyone. Whether you use it before meditation, during your yoga practice, or just simply as a part of your daily routine, it is a wonderful practice that can balance and restore energies, and benefit both the mind and the physical body. If you are interested in harnessing the power of pranayama, try alternate nostril breathing to see how it affects your overall wellness.