Nāḍīśodhana Prāṇāyāma: Alternate Nostril Breathing
Very simply put, the word pranayama refers to breathing practices that play a very important role in yoga – helping to steady our minds in preparation for effective practice of meditation. But even if meditation is not a goal for you, practising pranayama brings many health benefits.
Our breath, bodies and mental state are intrinsically linked. We only need to look at what happens to our breathing when we are unwell or feeling anxious or agitated to understand this connection. Yet, if we observe our breath when we are calm, we will notice that our breath is also calmer, smoother and longer.
We can use this connection to bring our minds and bodies to a place of balance by practising pranayama. When we practice pranayama, we are consciously regulating the breath to make it smoother, calmer and longer than it usually is. This calms the nervous system and brings steadiness and clarity to our minds.
Nāḍīśodhana (nah-dee show-DAH-nah) is a type of pranayama also known as “alternate nostril breathing.” It is deeply calming to the nervous system, therefore, extremely useful as a therapeutic practice when feeling stressed or anxious provided, of course, your breath feels comfortable and easy during the practice.
When practising pranayama, we want to have good posture so that our breath can flow freely. Choose a comfortable sitting position either cross-legged on the floor sitting on a cushion or bolster to support your posture or, in a chair with your feet flat on the floor. If you are not used to sitting on the floor, I would suggest you use a chair.
Sit tall with a comfortably long spine and keep your chin slightly dipped so that you don’t create tension in the back of the neck.
Preparing the hand & fingers:
- Fold the tips of the index and middle fingers of your right hand inward until they touch the palm at the base of the right thumb. This leaves the thumb, ring and little finger free for the practice. This is called mṛgi mudra.
- Keeping your right hand in the mudra, bring it to your nose. Close the right nostril with your thumb and *partially (see note below) close the left nostril with your ring & little fingers.
Exhale gently, but fully, through the left nostril, to prepare.
Now let’s begin the practice:
- Inhale through the partially closed left nostril.
- Before the next exhale, fully close your left nostril with the ring & little fingers and simultaneously release the pressure of the thumb on the right nostril so that it is only partially closed.
- Exhale through the partially closed right nostril
- Inhale through the right nostril (keep it partially closed)
- Before the next exhale, fully close your right nostril with the ring & little fingers and simultaneously release the pressure of the thumb on the left nostril so that it is only partially closed.
- Exhale through the partially closed left nostril
You have now completed two full breaths or one round of nāḍīśodhana. This same pattern continues for each additional round.
Inhale – left nostril, Exhale – right nostril
Inhale – right nostril, Exhale – left nostril
It’s great to practice prānāyāma after your asana practice (postures) but can be done at any time, just not straight after eating.
I would suggest, as a starting point, to do 12 breaths (6 rounds) daily and gradually build up to a longer practice.
Awareness to bring to your practice:
- If you find partially closing the nostril a bit uncomfortable at first, do release it enough to be able to breathe freely and comfortably (that may even be completely to start with). As you become more comfortable, you can begin to partially close to a point that is comfortable. The partial closure, eventually, is important as it helps you to regulate the flow of air and extend your breath which is what pranayama is all about.
- Alternatively, if you don’t like regulating the nostrils at all, you can practice mentally. Imagine that you are breathing in and out of the nostrils, as if you were using your hand, and feel the breath move in either side of the body.
- Whenever you practice pranayama, or any breath awareness practice, breathing should be pleasant and comfortable. Therefore, don’t try too hard to breathe ‘well’ and if anything makes your breathing uncomfortable, stop for now and try again at a later date. With nostril breathing this especially important if your nostrils are blocked.
If you’d like to get a better understanding of pranayama, I recommend my Pranayama Workshop which runs periodically throughout the year.