Ready for news that’ll feel like a breath of fresh air? Simply focusing on each inhale and exhale can have amazing effects on the body. But why stop there? One yoga breathing exercise, or pranayama, has the power to do even more: helping to balance the nervous system and reduce stress hormones.
A little lesson on nasal breathing
Is anyone looking? Even if they are, go ahead and inhale deeply through your nose. You’re taking in air through both nostrils at the same time—right? While it sure feels that way, that’s actually not the case for most people.
The truth is: with every inhale, the majority of air comes in through one side of your nose. After a while, the autonomic nervous system tells the body to switch to the other nostril. Just how long do you spend breathing through each side? Because we’re all unique, that varies. Nasal cycles are influenced by a number of personal traits, including whether you’re right- or left-handed and even your age. Other factors, like sleep, humidity, exercise, and even estrogen, can also alter the nasal cycle.
As fascinating as that is, it’s not the best part. Get this: your nasal cycle influences which side of your brain is more active. When your right nostril is in charge, the left hemisphere of your brain becomes dominant. (Now maybe we know what to blame for writer’s block.) If the left nostril is “on,” the right side of the brain lights up. So how do you better balance the two? Nadi shodhana.
Getting to know nadi shodhana
Remember that pranayama, or breathing exercise, we mentioned? That’s nadi shodhana. In nadi shodhana, you consciously direct the breath through one nostril. Then, unlike your regular nasal cycle, you switch right away and redirect the breath through the other side.
The theory behind nadi shodhana
Understanding nadi shodhana means knowing that in yogic philosophy and many forms of ancient Eastern medicine, there’s an emphasis on prana, or life force. (Think: vital nutrients, blood, energy.) Prana travels through nadis, or energy channels, in the body. For a number of reasons, nadis can become clogged or blocked. When prana can’t get where it needs to go, illnesses and diseases take hold.
But, when you manage the flow of oxygen throughout those nadis, or channels, you can help prevent blockages. Nadi shodhana is Sanskrit for “flow purification.” By controlling how air enters the body, nadi shodhana ensures prana travels evenly through nadis, so it can reach cells and give them what they need to thrive.
How nadi shodhana creates balance
In yoga class, your instructor should always be tuned into counterbalance, or pratikriya. Of course, you’re performing the same asanas, or postures, on each side of the body. But there are also counterposes. For example, post-backbend, you’ll make your way to a pose that rounds the spine. Or, after an outer hip-opener like pigeon (eka pada rajakapotasana), you’ll find yourself doing an inner hip stretch, such as bound-angle (baddha konasana). This counteraction in yoga asanas helps you achieve physical balance in muscle strength and flexibility.
Nadi shodhana is also an example of pratikriya, or counteraction. But its benefits are both mental and physiological. By breathing through one nostril and then the other, you activate one side of the brain and then immediately counterbalance it by activating the other hemisphere. This allows us to feel centered yet attentive and also calms the nervous system. As a result, we feel less anxious and are better able to manage stress and our stress response. This does wonders for stress hormones, which benefits levels of thyroid hormones and progesterone, too.
Ready to try nadi shodhana?
Just a gentle reminder first: your body isn’t used to breathing this way. As with starting and trying any pranayama practice, take it easy. Changing the way you take in oxygen can sometimes bring on dizziness. It’s important to keep it short and let yourself get acclimated. Take note of how your body feels during nadi shodhana, and aim to gradually build up the amount of time you spend with this breath technique—slowly working your way to five or ten minutes.
To try nadi shodhana, pick a time in between meals. Ideally, you should have a near-empty stomach and not be on your period. You’ll start by positioning your right hand into a Vishnu mudra.
Position your hand into Vishnu mudra
- Hold out your hand like you’re about to give a high-five.
- Bring your index and middle fingers together, so they’re touching. (You won’t use these two fingers, so bend them toward your palm while keeping your other three fingers straight (thumb, ring, and pinky).
Here’s what it should look like:
To start nadi shodhana
- Place your thumb on the outer right side of your nose to close off the right nostril.
- Breathe in through the left nostril. Pause at the top of your inhale.
- Remove your thumb from the right side of your nose. Using your ring finger, close off the left nostril.
- Now, exhale through the right side. Then, inhale in through the right nostril. Pause, holding the air for a moment.
- Close off the right nostril with your thumb.
- Exhale through the left nostril.
- Inhale through the left nostril and pause. Close off the left nostril with your ring finger.
- Exhale through the right. Repeat.
Cautions with nadi shodhana
Nadi shodhana is generally safe, and most people report immediate feelings of calmness. However, there are a few contraindications. Anyone with a deviated septum, hypertension (high blood pressure), chronic headaches or migraines, upper respiratory infections, or who is pregnant should hold off on practicing alternate-nostril breathing. However, hands-free nadi shodhana is an alternative that’s safe for almost everyone, but you should consult with a healthcare provider to be sure. And, always: stop if you’re feeling intensely physical or emotional during pranayama.