What is alternate nostril breathing?
Known as Nadi Shodhana Pranayama or Anulom Vilom in Sanskrit, Alternate Nostril Breathing is a balancing breathing technique in yoga. It has a strong positive impact on the body and mind. Its impact on the nervous system is so effective that practitioners immediately feel calm and relaxed. The practice aims to purify the body and mind of toxins and impurities.
The term ‘nadi’ means channel and ‘shodhana’ means purification. Channels refer to the subtle energy passageways in the body that carry ‘prana’ or life force. When learning about the incredible Kundalini, you will find that three of these nadis run through the seven chakras (centers or wheels of energy) present in the human body. When you pay close attention, you will find that one nostril is active or dominant at a certain point in time. Whichever nostril is dominant has some effect on which parts of your nervous system and brain are more stimulated. This impacts mental stability, focus, balance and relaxation.
The Ida nadi, the feminine, cooler energy channel, is associated with the left nostril. And the Pingala nadi, the masculine, hearty channel is connected to the right nostril. When the ida nadi is blocked, one may experience low energy and fatigue, sluggish digestion. A blocked pingala nadi leads to quick temper, irritability, itchy skin and excessive physical energy. One way to see which nostril is active, is to place your index finger below the nostril. Breathe in gently and when breathing out, notice where you are feeling the exhalation. Is it below the left nostril or below the right nostril?
What is the starting position for alternate nostril breathing?
To begin the practice, sit comfortably with your spine erect. Sit in the Easy Pose, Lotus Pose or Thunderbolt Pose - whichever is most comfortable for you. Make sure your upper body is straight, shoulders are pushed back and back is relaxed. You may also sit on a chair with your feet on the ground if you are unable to sit on your mat.
How to do alternate nostril breathing?
- Once you are sitting comfortably in one of the postures mentioned above, bring the right hand into Vishnu Mudra. That is, place the thumb on the right nostril and ring finger on the left nostril. Place the index and middle finger at the eyebrow center (Ajna chakra).
- Exhale completely. Now, gently close the right nostril and inhale from the left.
- Now, release the right nostril and exhale from the right, while blocking the left.
- Inhale from the right, close the right, and exhale from the left.
- This completes one full round.
- Repeat this for a few minutes.
Advanced practitioners can also practice with breath retention (Khumbak). For internal retention, after inhaling, hold the breath for 4-6 counts and then slowly exhale. For external retention, hold the breath out after exhaling. Retention will help improve lung capacity and stamina. It's also good to note here that when you practice with breath retention, the practice is called Nadi Shodhana and when you practice without retention, it is Anulom Vilom.
When to practice Nadi Shodhana pranayama?
You can practice alternate nostril breathing any time of the day. It’s a wonderful practice to begin your day with as it purifies the mind and body, and helps you stay balanced throughout the day. You can practice this at night, before going to bed as it will help you calm the nervous system and sleep better. If you’re feeling stressed at any time during the day, pause for a few minutes and do a few rounds of Nadi Shodhana pranayama. It will immediately help you relax and focus better.
Benefits of Nadi Shodhana pranayama
Apart from being a practice that purifies the mind and body, alternate nostril breathing or Anulom Vilom pranayama improves blood circulation and oxygen supply. It is beneficial for circulatory and respiratory problems. It clears out the nadis or energy channels, encouraging the free flow of prana. This improves energy levels. It is also beneficial in releasing tension and fatigue. The impact on the nervous system helps soothe the nerves, reduce stress and promote a sense of peace and calm within the mind and body. It helps to improve mindfulness by bringing the mind to the present. It’s beneficial in bringing harmony and balance between the left and right brain hemispheres. Furthermore, breathing from the left nostril impacts the right brain hemisphere, while breathing from the right nostril activates the left brain hemisphere. This breathing technique is also wonderful to do before meditation as it makes the mind calm and relaxed, helping stay more focused in meditation.
Several studies have been conducted to review the impact of alternate nostril breathing on the human body. A 2020 study assessed the cardiovascular benefits of alternate nostril breathing in 100 healthy medical students. After 4 weeks of practice, the participants showed improvement in pulse and blood pressure biomarkers at the completion of the study. These studies suggest that alternate nostril breathing could potentially help reduce risk factors associated with cardiovascular disease (CVD), such as stress. Another 2017 study examined the effects of pranayama practice on the lung functions of competitive swimmers and found that it had a positive effect on respiratory endurance.
Contraindications of Nadi Shodhana pranayama
For anyone with high BP or hypertension, practicing with retention is not recommended. Apart from this, there are no other contraindications and anyone can practice alternate nostril breathing.
Watch this video on how to practice Nadi Shodhana Pranayama
Shvasa tips for Nadi Shodhana pranayama
- Ensure your breath is soft and gentle. Do not force it or make any loud noise when inhaling or exhaling. Visualize your breath as if it is a gentle light moving along a river.
- Avoid breathing from the mouth or using Ujjayi breath.
- When placing the fingers on the forehead and nostril, be gentle. Do not apply pressure or be forceful.
- Try to make your exhalations longer than your inhalations. This way you are removing more carbon dioxide and energizing the body.
The nadis or energy channels can get blocked due to stress, build up of toxins and tension. To unblock and create harmony in the system, you need to practice in the right way, under the guidance of a certified teacher and give yourself time. Practice regularly for a few days to continuously maintain this harmony and balance in the system. This is also a powerful practice and must be done in the right way. Join a live yoga class on Shvasa to learn the right techniques and practice with experienced teachers.