Nadi Shodhana – alternate nostril breathing

Nadi Shodhana

Alternate nostril breathing. 

Alternating nostril breathing improves the function of your vagus nerve. As I spoke about before most of our yoga practices are about the vagus nerve (This blog has in-depth information on our vagus nerve and yoga). The vagus nerve originates in the brainstem just behind the ears on both sides of the body and wanders all over the body down to your abdomen (Vagus means Wondering like a vagabond). 

The vagus nerve is always watching and monitoring your entire body sending messages upward to our brain — 80-90% of the communication in our body goes from body to brain —  which is why you want to LISTEN TO YOUR HEART and/or LISTEN TO YOUR GUT. Your heart and gut will know before your head.

What your vagus nerve senses it displays in your body — rest and digest or get up and move to save your life (aka fight or flight response). These are the two sides of your nervous system, parasympathetic and sympathetic. Why alternate nostril breathing effects the nervous system is because each nostril is governed by either your parasympathetic or your sympathetic nervous system and your vagus nerve makes up 80% of your Parasympathetic Nervous System. 

Stimulation of the vagus nerve will strengthen this side of your nervous system — the PNS, when left untrained the human body has a tendency toward being sympathetic dominant … which is just a fancy word for stressed out!

  • Your Left nostril is connected to your parasympathetic nervous system — PNS — that is the rest and digest, relax and heal, function of our nervous system.
  • Your Right nostril is connected to your sympathetic nervous system — SNS — that is the fight or flight — or what I like to call the “stress out response!”
  • The R nostril energizes the front brain (higher brain where we make good decisions), the L nostril calms the back brain (the lower brain where our habitual unconscious behaviors happen, and where our brain shifts during stress).

And equally the inhales and exhales are connected as well to these branches of your nervous system.

  • Your exhale stimulates your PNS — slow down and rest
  • Your inhale stimulates your SNS — kick into action

This is why when we take our pulse with a breathing exercise I have you count or pay attention to your heart rate on your inhale, and then again on your exhale, when you inhale your pulse picks up and when you exhale it slows down. The more fit you are the more you will be able to feel that. If you are stressed your heart rate will stay like a metronome through both the inhale and exhale. We want our heart rate to fluctuate as we go from in breath to out breath.

We are always looking to balance the two sides of the nervous system, and our body is naturally alternating our nostrils for us all day long. Inside our nostrils there is erectile tissue (same tissue as in the genitals), when the erectile tissue is engaged in one nostril you will have less air in that nostril and it will be your non-dominant nostril for awhile. 

When we are healthy this alternating happens all day long, about every 1-3 hours or so. In a perfect day we will be more Right nostril dominant during our active working hours and in the evening we will become Left nostril dominant as we wind down our days. If we are stressed or coming down with something you may have one nostril wide open for a long period of time or even both nostrils wide open — this is a clue to check in with yourself. Do you need to destress? Or perhaps go home and rest and support your immune system?

Nadi shodhana or alternate nostril breathing helps to balance the functions of your vagus nerve and entire nervous system allowing you times each day to rest and heal and rejuvenate yourself. It helps to break the stress response after a work day — whether that includes stress or not we still need to wind down from our busy days so our body can rejuvenate and renew itself. This is an important part of your health and what brings about vitality.

Practicing alternate nostril in the morning or in the evening (or both -even better) will help to balance your nervous system no matter what part of your day you are in.

To alternate the nostrils you use a special mudra — a mudra is a position that elicits energy movement in your body.  The mudra for Nadi Shodhana breathing exercises is called Vishnu Mudra — it makes the closing an opening of nostrils smooth and efficient. 

Vishnu Mudra (hand gesture of Vishnu) This is one of the hand gestures used to alternate the breath through the nostrils during Nadi Shodhana. You tuck your index and middle fingers into the base of your thumb. (Alternatively you could rest your index and middle fingers on your 3rd eye, this is called Nasagra Mudra.) The thumb and fingers rest lightly so very little movement is needed to close each side during practice.

In this mudra the right hand us used. I have heard over the years the right hand is used as it is associated with giving, while the left is associated with receiving — however the right hand is most likely used in yoga practices that originated from India because in India the right hand is not used for the “dirty work”.

As you alternate your nostrils, keep your shoulder relaxed and allow your elbow to hang relaxed straight down. Don’t hold your elbow up or squeeze it in tight. Sit straight tall with your ribs far away from your hips, and allow your muscles to relax on your bones as you hold your hand to your face.

It is interesting to note Vishnu is the Hindu god who preserves the universe.  He does this through an interplay of opposites; creation and destruction, male and female, dark and light.  Uniting these qualities through yogic practices helps us keep a balance in our lives and live with more understanding of others and how we relate to them.

Alternate nostril breathing is about bringing balance in our body and mind — balance in being extroverted and introverted, movement and rest, balance between our feminine and masculine sides which is similar to the balance between giving and receiving. 

How to Perform 

Nadi Shodhana – you place your right hand in Vishnu Mudra position on either side of your nostrils, your thumb will open and close your right nostril while your ring finger will open or close your left.  

Take your breath deep and slow like we do in padmasana in closing in our yoga practice — start with a 5 second inhale and a 5 second exhale (you can download an app to help you with this):

Lets start by practicing just breathing through one nostril, setting your timer for 1 or 2 minutes:

  • Using your thumb to hold your Right nostril closed – Inhale and exhale through your left nostril for 2 minutes
  • Relax your arm down and take 5 slow breaths at the same 5:5 ratio
  • Using your ring finger close your left nostril — Inhale and exhale through your Right nostril for 2 minutes
  • Relax your arm down and take 5 slow breaths

This can be useful if you are particularly stressed out or anxious; sit for 1-2 minutes and breathe through your left nostril. And if want to add some additional stress or anxiety support whiff lavender through your left nostril for 2-3 breaths.

Conversely if you are hitting a mid afternoon slug feeling, sit and breathe through your right nostril. If you wanted to add aromatherapy to this also, citrus scents or mints are particularly energizing, you could take 2-3 breaths while sniffing lemon or peppermint.

You can use the breathing through 1 nostril as you need it, or do a daily practice of 2 minutes of breathing through each nostril, however we usually progress it.

From there we go into the pranayama called Nadi Shodhana. In Nadi Shodhana we are alternating which nostril we are inhaling and exhaling through – taking one breath in through the left and out through the right nostril, the next breath is the opposite — in right and out left. We just keep alternating back and forth from there.

Nadi means channel with something flowing in it (an empty channel is a nada), Shodhana means cleansing, inferring that we are cleansing all the tubes in our body that are carrying something … blood vessels, lymph vessels, nerves, and our digestive tract could also be a nadi when food, liquid, or even air is moving through it. Most yogis refer to this as nerve cleansing, while a nadi is a nerve it is also all those other vessels in our body.

  • Inhale Left (closing the right nostril with your thumb), 
  • exhale Right (closing the the left nostril with your ring finger), 
  • Inhale Right
  • Exhale Left

Think L R R L. This is one round.  Start by performing 10 rounds and gradually increase to what is comfortable for you.

You can use your left hand for counting, at the start of each round use a finger to keep track of how many you have done.

Try to keep the sound of your breath even and smooth, like the wind blowing through leaves on a tree or waves washing through your body. Make a nice sound with your breath, you want the sound to be calming and soothing.

We start and end on the left as we want to start and end with stimulating our parasympathetic nervous system. However in the ashtanga pranayamas we start and end the nadi shodhana pranayama on the right. I’m not sure why other than I have heard Nancy say Pattabhi Jois used to say starting with the right is always better.

What to do if your nose is stuffy? See the very end of this article, I have included some ways you can unstuffy a stuffy nostril.

To Advance:

As you get more advanced with nadi shodhana, you can change your ratio — try repeating the pranayama with a 5:7 ration — inhaling for 5 seconds and exhaling for 7 seconds.

And when you are ready you can add a retention on the inhales as follows. Sometimes this practice is also called anuloma viloma. We work with a ration of 1:4:2 meaning we will inhale in 4 counts quickly filling our lungs : retain the breath in for 16 counts : slowly exhale for 8 counts. It looks like this:

  • Inhale Left 4 counts
  • Hold in 16 counts
  • Exhale Right 8 counts
  • Inhale Right 4 counts
  • Hold in 16 counts
  • Exhale Left 8 counts

That equals 1 round. 3-5 rounds is sufficient most days (except when you’re really busy then a longer practice is needed 😉

After some time working with this nadi shodhana, you may be ready for the more advanced nadi shodhana done within the ashtanga practices which includes some more challenging breath holding, holding after both inhale and exhale every breath.

Pay attention to how you feel after this practice~

Calm. You know, the yoga high.  Ahhhh.

Are there ways you can have this feeling while you are at work? Or driving? Cooking dinner … shopping …?

You want to pay attention to not get too far from this feeling in your everyday life. 

When you feel like this, your heart is more efficient, your breath is deeper and slower, your body heals, repairs, fights disease. 

The farther away you get from this feeling, the less your body can repair and take care of itself.  And you could experience more emotional disturbances.

Find ways in your life to operate like this.  And KNOW WHEN YOU SLIP AWAY FROM THIS INTO A STRESS RESPONSE. 

And remember your tools to slip out of the stress response … your thoughts, your breath, your posture, or simply RELAX & BREATHE.

This is what all this yoga is about.  Your nervous system — especially your vagus nerve, and ultimately your thoughts — as your thoughts will effect this balance. Think pleasant thoughts.

There are 5 options you can try to clear the nostrils  At the beginning the air current need not be the same on both sides — only a severe blocking can prevent you practicing pranayama

  • First, if your left nostril is clogged lie down on your right side and relax for 1-3 minutes — and vice versa.
  • Second, Find a spot on the back of your neck near the base of your skull and press on it with your thumbs — use a gentle but firm pressure, with both thumbs somewhere on either side of your spinal column.
  • Third, Find a similar spot under your arm, place your armpit firmly on the back of a chair. If your right side is blocked place your left arm over the chair and vice versa.  This spot will be easy to find as it is tender.
    • There is a yoga pose called Padadhirasana – which means breath balancing pose.  You sit in vajrasana aka virasana, cross your arms in front of your chest placing your hands with firm pressure under the
      opposite armpits.  You can do it with a flat hand or make a fist for even more pressure.  The pressure under both the armpits helps to open the nostrils to facilitate better breathing for a pranayama practice.
  • The last is my favorite 🙂  Use the power of your mind to open the nostril.  Sit and breathe for a moment, which side is dominant?  Put your attention on the other side for a good 5-8 breaths and see it opening in your mind’ eye.  Now flare your  nostrils and breathe taking in the air, feel the 3 streams of air coming in, 2 going down your throat, and one little one going up to your brain.

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