A Breathing Practice for the Next Time You’re Stressed
At one time or another, we’ve all experienced the “s” word—stress. These are moments when the mind is racing, breath is short, and it feels like you’re all over the place, yet the physical body is still. Sometimes stress likes to arrive unannounced. Other times it can be seen from a mile away. From simple everyday things, to complex issues, this buzzing energy can be situationally blind. If we could arrange our reality so that we would never experience stress again, life would be a box of coconut bliss balls. Sounds ideal, but likely not realistic. Stress happens. What we can try to do is recognize it in the early stages and find tools to cope when a stressful situation arises. Stress is usually connected to one or more dosha that is out of balance. This short dosha quiz can help you see if any of the doshas are creating issues for you.
Pranayama to the Rescue
One practice I have found helpful in recognizing “the stress buzz” sooner than later, or even when stress crash lands at the front door, is pranayama. Pranayama, an intentional practice of restraining and expanding the breath, is one of the eight limbs of yoga. There are many forms of pranayama, or breathing exercises, and each has its own benefits in supporting various physical, emotional, and mental imbalances. One benefit all forms share is bringing a greater awareness to the breath.
Changes in breathing patterns can be an early indicator of stress. In the beginning stages of stress, the changes can be subtle and not apparent until the level of irritation increases or other imbalances related to stress alert our attention. Often, when we are preoccupied by whatever may be feeding the stress, how we are breathing can be the last thing on our minds. What I find with a pranayama practice is that the shifts in breathing patterns become noticeable earlier.
The practice of pranayama is similar to how a regular yoga or stretching practice can create sensitivity around muscular tension. Yoga or stretching can put us in touch with how the body feels, and intentional daily breathing can connect us to our breath. With practice, how we breathe subtly begins to move to the forefront of our thoughts. When shifts in our breathing patterns occur, we become more conscious of the changes, enabling us to detect stress earlier through awareness of the breath.
Finding Balance with Nadi Shodhana
Although there are various forms of pranayama, for stress, anxiety, and nervous energy imbalances related to vata dosha, nadi shodhana, or alternate nostril breathing, is a personal favorite of mine. Nadi shodhana, which literally means clearing and purifying the subtle channels in Sanskrit, involves taking inhalation through one nostril, retaining the breath comfortably for a few seconds, and then exhaling through the other nostril. The exercise is then repeated with the exhalation nostril taking in the inhalation. This practice can be done with or without retaining the breath. For beginners, holding the breath is not recommended.
The Flow of the Breath: Ida and Pingala Nadis
What is particularly beneficial about nadi shodhana is that the practice helps to balance our left and right energetic pathways. These left and right pathways are known as ida nadi and pingala nadi, and they spiral around the sushumna nadi, which runs from the base of the spine to the crown of the head, passing through each of the seven chakras. The ida nadi begins and ends on the left side of sushumna nadi and activates our right brain. It is a cooling, feminine, intuitive energy associated with the moon. And the pingala nadi activates the left, logical side of our brain. Associated with the sun, it is a warming, masculine energy.
Every 90 minutes, our breathing cycles shift between ida and pingala, or the left and right nostril. When there is an imbalance or blocked energy in the left nostril (ida nadi), we can feel cold, low mental energy, and sluggish digestion. When the right nostril (pingala nadi) is imbalanced or blocked, we can feel hot, irritated, angry, dry, have an excessive appetite, and excessive physical or sexual energy. Under stress, these imbalances can show up in surprising ways; one minute, someone can have an angry outburst and the next, mental fog. The stress-related behaviors can be as erratic as stress itself.
Fostering balance between ida and pingala nadis through alternate nostril breathing supports cleansing the left and right energetic pathways and balances the two energies. This in turn helps to ground the nervous system. Sometimes known as anulom vilom, nadi shodhana also regulates the flow of prana vayu. This breathing practice clears any blockages or stagnation that may provoke stress related imbalances or feelings of being scattered. It also allows some “breathing room,” giving us time to pause and reflect before moving forward physically, mentally, and emotionally with grace.
Nadi shodhana is best practiced on an empty stomach, preferably in the morning after elimination. It can also be done in the evening with a gap of four hours after the last meal. Remember, if you are new to this breathing practice, work your way up to pausing your breath between the inhale and exhale.
5 Benefits of Practicing Nadi Shodhana
- Deepens the awareness of the breath and shifts in breathing patterns to aid in early detection of stress.
- Cleanses the left and right energetic channels, clearing trapped or blocked energy.
- Improves concentration by helping to focus thoughts, and grounds the buzzing energy of stress.
- Fosters balance between the two hemispheres of the brain: the left, logical side and the right, intuitive side.
- Rejuvenates the nervous system and helps to settle stress.
Nadi shodhana is a wonderful go-to practice when you are looking to de-stress before a test, a big meeting, a difficult conversation, or just manage stress in your daily life. As you become familiar with this soothing breath, it will bring balance and help cool, calm, and ground you whenever needed and wherever you might be.