The Great Balancing Breath
Nadi Shodhana is a wonderful breath from yoga that helps de-stress the mind and release accumulated tension and fatigue. Also known as Alternate Nostril Breath, its Sanskrit name translates to ‘subtle energy channel purification’ for its use in unblocking and balancing the flow of vital energy. It is also said to help harmonize the left and right hemispheres of the brain, which correlate to the logical and emotional sides of our personality. It’s also believed to balance the sympathetic (fight or flight) and parasympathetic (relaxation response) branches of the autonomic nervous system. It’s a great mind balancer and very calming & centering. It brings us into the present and away from the pull of the past or worry about the future. I practiced it for several years as a beginning to my meditation and found it an excellent way to enter into that as well.
The left nostril is described as the lunar channel, named Ida (eeda) and the right nostril allows the air to pass through the solar channel, Pingala. Although the initial focus of almost any pranayama is purification of the nadis (subtle energy channels), it can also be used to arouse or calm, produce heat or inner cooling, or direct energy to specific locations for the restoration of health and longevity.
Nadi Shodana is one of the easiest of pranayamas to learn and has no contraindications, short of a seizure disorder. With regular practice you’ll find it bestows many benefits. If you are in a period of stress, it is advised to practice a couple of times a day. Otherwise once a day or even several times a week for a few minutes will be helpful. Don’t practice if you have a headache, fever, or are in the middle of feeling anxious.
There are various ways to practice this breath, but the following is my favourite.
Sit comfortably with an elongated spine and head resting right on top (watch your head doesn’t fall forward once you start the nostril alternating, although it can tip slightly, lowering your chin). You may want to prop a pillow on your lap to support your arms, particularly if you have neck or shoulder tension. Begin to fall into a comfortable rhythm of breathing. Let the breath drop below your chest so you feel your lower ribs moving. This is a silent breath so skip the ujjayi if that is what you typically do. Keep your focus soft and the breath gentle – never use force with breath. Allow the breath to enter both nostrils in a soft, caressing way. You may notice one nostril more open than the other which is common. Even as you begin alternating nostrils, keep up the lower rib/diaphragmatic breathing.
Bring your right hand (optional right elbow propped on pillow) toward your face and take Vishnu mudra – index and middle fingers bend toward heel of hand or rest between your eyebrows. On your next exhale, gently close the right nostril with your thumb just enough that the exhale will only flow through the left nostril. Then inhale slowly through the left nostril and gently close with your ring finger. Exhale through right nostril.. then inhale through right and cross over. Each nostril has an exhale followed by an inhale and then cross over to the opposite nostril.
After a few minutes of practice (or to the degree you are comfortable), lower your hand and bring attention to the breath flowing into the nostril that feels most open. Relax and feel the breath move through this nostril for a number of breaths. Next switch focus to the other nostril and stay attentive here for several breaths, simply sensing and feeling. Finally, merge these two streams in your awareness, sensing the breath as if it is flowing as one. Let your mind, breath and attention merge as one.
Over time, your practice of this breath will become deeply centering. Thoughts will still come and go but with less frequency and more in the background of your mind. Even your fingers will move effortlessly. Your breath will naturally deepen, slow down, and feel effortless.
There are couple of interesting additions to this breath for those who would like to explore further. I’ll include them in a future blog soon. For now, happy practicing and let me know how it goes.