Breath Awareness Part 4: Alternate Nostril Breathing
This week we are looking at a really powerful breathing technique referred to as Alternate Nostril Breathing, or in Sanskrit Nadi Shodhana. Nadi means “channel”, and Shodhana means “cleaning” or “purifying”.
As with the previous blog posts in this series, we will look at:
- What is Nadi Shodhana?
- What are the benefits (and contraindications) of Nadi Shodhana?
- How do I do Nadi Shodhana?
Let’s get right into it, then.
What is Nadi Shodhana?
First, we need to understand what is meant by Nadis, or channels. The ancient yogis believed there to be anywhere between 70,000 – 150,000 energy channels running through the body. These channels transported Prana, or what we roughly translate into English as “life force” throughout the body. This prana is more than just the biological components of blood, oxygen, and nutrients, but goes beyond that to include energetic forces that we cannot see and oftentimes may not be aware of, a cosmic energy. In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), this is referred to as “Chi”, with the same philosophy of energy channels traversing our physical bodies, though in TCM these are called Meridians.
At certain points along these channels, the energy (the prana) pools and flows through energetic centers called chakras. Chakra is the Sanskrit for “wheel”. There are seven major chakras that are located along the spine, going from the base of the spine up to the crown, with one chakra located just above the crown of the head. There are three channels that we need to be aware of when talking about Nadi Shodhana. These are the Ida, the Pingala, and the Sushumna Channels.
The Ida and Pingala channels travel up the spine from the base to the head, crossing over each other at ache chakra along the way. The Ida channel terminates at the left nostril and the Pingala at the right nostril. The table below explains this a little more succinctly. When Ida and Pingala are balanced, prana can run smoothly up the third channel, Sushumna Nadi, which is said to be when we achieve states of pure bliss and inner peace.
|Terminates at the left nostril, which is connected to the right hemisphere of the brain (associated with the parasympathetic nervous system
||Terminates at the right nostril, which is connected to the left hemisphere of the brain (associated with the sympathetic nervous system)
|Associated with cooling properties and feminine energies
||Associated with heating properties and masculine energies.
|If we feel anger or irritation, or experience hot flashes or overheating, breathing in and out through this nostril for a few rounds enhances cooling properties, and sedates heating properties, activating the parasympathetic nervous system.
||If we experience cold limbs, are lacking in heat, or feel depressed and disconnected, breathing in and out through the right nostril enhances heating properties and sedates cooling properties, activating the sympathetic nervous system.
What the ancient yogis also knew, and that modern science has now proven, is that air flows into alternating nostrils. The right nostril will be more dominant than the left for two to three hours then it will switch. You can test this out yourself:
- Place your finger under your nose.
- Breathe out, and notice which one you feel more air coming out of.
- Try again tomorrow at several points in the day.
There is so much more to learn about nadis and chakras, but that is for another blog series. For now, all we need to know is that in order to maintain vitality, it is important to keep these channels and wheels, these nadis and chakras, clear of blockages, be they mental, emotional, spiritual, or physical. Breathing techniques such as those that we are learning in this series, help with this and include a plethora of physical and mental benefits that the ancient yogis knew about long before modern science started to catch up.
What are the benefits of Nadi Shodhana?
As with everything I describe here, I recommend speaking to a qualified, trusted medical professional before attempting these breathing techniques. The benefits and contraindications listed here are from several sources including this post from Tummee, this book about Pranayama, and this book about yoga.
According to Tummee (2022), Swami (1969) and Swami (2009), some of the benefits include, but are not limited to:
- Aiding in digestion
- Helping to balance the logical brain with the emotional brain
- Brings the parasympathetic nervous system and sympathetic nervous system into harmony
- Purifies the nasal passage of dust and allergens.
- It is a calming practice that relieves anxiety and tension.
Some of the contraindications laid out by Tummee (2022) include:
- hypertension, migraines, currently have an infection or are practicing on a full stomach.
How do I do Nadi Shodhana?
Once you have clearance from your trusted medical professional, then you are ready to set yourself up for Nadi Shodhana. If you have access to a yoga teacher who can guide you through this process in real time, then I strongly recommend doing that before attempting to follow the instructions below. As always, use your discretion here, do what you feel is right for you, stop if you feel something is off and return to regular breathing.
I will list some step-by-step instructions below, but if you’d prefer to follow along with a video, scroll down to find a great
- Come to a comfortable seated position. Make sure your knees are in line with or lower than your hips, and you are comfortable enough to stay seated for the next few minutes.
- Breathe into your belly, ribs, and chest and out again. Repeat for a few breaths to settle yourself. Keep your gaze down, eyes open.
- Place your left hand on your left leg or knee. Bring your right hand up into Nasagra Mudra: place your index and middle finger on your forehead between your eyebrows, or on the base of your thumb. Place the thumb on the soft skin below the ridge of your right nostril. Your ring finger will be used to close the left nostril. If your arm gets tired, support it with your left hand.
- Close the right nostril with the thumb. Inhale and exhale through the left nostril five times. If you feel congestion, roll up a blanket and place it under your right armpit. It should clear up after a few moments. Repeat for the left nostril using the ring finger. Keep inhales and exhales the same in length.
- Now, close the right nostril, and inhale for 3. Close the left nostril, and exhale for three. Inhale for three. Close the right nostril, and exhale for three. This is one round, repeat this for four more rounds.
- Return your hands to your lap and just observe without judgment. How do you feel physically, emotionally, and mentally? If nothing has changed, that is OK, as, with everything, this takes practice.
For a video version, watch this fantastic explanation and demonstration by Shimrad Rajchandra Mission Dharampur. I recommend watching the video once or twice first before following along to get the full benefits.
And that’s it for this week. Next week we will look at one more final breathing technique that I absolutely love and find myself doing on autopilot sometimes. Until then, check out my Instagram for more useful tidbits about all things yoga, and sign up for my newsletter by filling in your info below (a little freebie gift will land in your inbox as a thank you).
Swami, N. S. (2009). Prana and Pranayama. Bihar School of Yoga, Yoga Publications Trust.
Swami, S.S. (1969). Asana, Pranayama, Mudra, Bandha. Bihar School of Yoga, Yoga Publications Trust.
Tummee. (2022). Alternate Nostril Breathing Benefits. https://www.tummee.com/yoga-poses/alternate-nostril-breathing#benefits
Tummee. (2022). Alternate Nostril Breathing Contraindications. https://www.tummee.com/yoga-poses/alternate-nostril-breathing#contraindications