As the season of finding comfort underneath a warm sweater, a hot cup of cocoa and a robust glass of wine comes to an end, and the new season of flowers, change and longer days arises upon us, I invite you to explore breathing as a way of both revitalizing and and detoxifying your body, mind and soul.
The word ‘pranayama’ as we use in the west, means a ‘rhythmic control of breath.’ This form of breathwork originated in ancient India and has been practiced for thousands of years with the intent to extend the ‘life force’ of the yogis who practice it. Various studies have shown that pranayama is beneficial in the treatment of many physical and mental ailments.
Practices can be very simple (such as the yogic ujjayi breath) or very complicated. Out of the many forms of pranayama I have studied, Nadi Shodhana Pranayama (Alternate Nostril Breathing) is the one technique that has always remained with me for its immediate benefits and versatility.
Nadi is a Sanskrit word meaning ‘channel’ or ‘flow’. Shodhana means ‘purification’ or ‘cleansing.’ Therefore, Nadi Shodhana is aimed at purifying our subtle body. This is a suitable practice for most people.
Allow me to share this technique with you in the hopes that you too become nourished by this practice. I found it to be particularly useful in moments of stress, anxiety, low energy, and mental fatigue.
Infuses the body with oxygen
Clears and releases toxins
Reduces stress and anxiety
Calms and rejuvenates the nervous system
Helps to balance hormones
Supports clear and balanced respiratory channels
Helps to alleviate respiratory allergies that cause hay fever, sneezing or wheezing
Balances the masculine and feminine energies
Fosters mental clarity and an alert mind
Enhances the ability to concentrate
Brings balance to the left and right hemispheres of the brain
Persons with high blood pressure, heart problems or who are pregnant should not attempt to hold their breath (kumbhaka). They can practice Nadi Shodhana without retention with beneficial effects.
Persons suffering from low blood pressure can do this pranayama with retention after inhalation ONLY.
How to Practice:
According to my teacher’s teacher, B.K.S. Iyengar, any form of pranayama or breathwork is best practiced early morning or after sunset on an empty stomach (if that is difficult a glass of water or milk can be ingested).
Choose a comfortable sitting position – either cross-legged on a cushion on the floor, or on a chair with your feet flat on the floor. Maintain a lengthened spine and gently close your eyes.
Begin by taking a full, deep inhalation followed by a slow, gentle exhalation to clear any obstructions that might inhibit the practice of pranayama.
Bring the right hand into Vishnu mudra by folding the left index and middle fingers inward until they touch the palm. During this practice, you will alternately use the right thumb to close the right nostril and the right ring and pinky fingers (together) to close the left nostril (like a ‘hang loose’ hand sign but instead using the ring finger as well as the pinky).
Using the right thumb, close the right nostril. Exhale gently and completely through the left nostril. Keeping the right nostril closed, inhale through the left nostril and deep into the belly. As you inhale, allow the breath to travel upward from the pelvic floor, up through the organs of reproduction and elimination, through the kidneys, the spleen, the lungs, the heart, and up through the throat, face and head. Pause briefly at the crown of the head.
Next, use the ring and pinky fingers of the right hand to gently close the left nostril and simultaneously release the right nostril. Exhale through the right nostril, surrendering the breath downwards from your head, face and throat, down through your heart, lungs, liver, kidneys, reproductive and eliminatory organs, and down to your pelvic floor. Pause at the bottom of the exhalation.
Keeping the left nostril closed, inhale once again through the right nostril, drawing the breath back up from the pelvic floor up through the organs of reproduction and elimination, the kidneys, the liver, the lungs, the heart, and up through the throat, face, and head, pausing briefly at the crown of the head.
Then again, use the right thumb to close the right nostril as you release the left nostril. Exhale through the left nostril, surrendering the breath back down your body in the same wave you inhaled upwards. Pause gently at the bottom of the exhalation.
This completes one round of Nadi Shodhana. The same pattern continues for each additional round: inhale through the left nostril, exhale through the right nostril, inhale through the right nostril, exhale through the left nostril. Repeat this alternating pattern for several more rounds, focusing your awareness on the pathway of the breath – It is important that the breath remain slow, gentle, fluid, and relaxed throughout the practice.
Relax your right hand and place it comfortably in your lap as you take several cycles of full and relaxed breaths. Then, allow your breath to return to normal. As you do so, notice your state of mind. How are you feeling? Just quietly observe the effects of the practice for a few moments. Then, gently open your eyes, continuing to focus some of your awareness within. When you feel ready, slowly get up and offer your full presence to the rest of your day as it unfolds.
Start by practicing it 5 minutes each day and work your way up to 15 minutes per day. This technique is also helpful to use in moments of chaos. Even a few cycles is beneficial in slowing your heart and mind down.
There are many variations of Nadi Shodhana. Some more advanced techniques incorporate breath retention and specific duration ratios for the inhalation and exhalation.