The practice of pranayama, or controlled breathing exercise, brings conscious awareness to the breath, uniting mind and body in the present moment experience. Through this awareness and with practice, we learn how to access the inner wisdom of our selves, breath by breath. Prana, the omnipresent life force, is intrinsic to the breath and by increasing its flow through the body we can expand our life experience by appreciating each moment with more clarity and joy.
Pranayama is best practiced in the early morning hours when the mind is still clear and free from the experiences of the day. Also, practiced after yoga, it can be the perfect transition into meditation. This is a useful and simple tool to bring us into balance before an exam, meeting, or presentation. Just a few rounds can bring us back to our center, easing anxiety and nervous tension.
Nadi Shodhana, or alternate nostril breathing, is a type of pranayama that balances the right and left hemispheres of the brain and has a calming effect on the nervous system while creating a more alert mind. It cleanses the channels of the subtle energy body by removing energetic blockages along the nadis (channels) that correspond to the nerve ganglia on either side of the spinal cord. It is extremely centering, making it one of the best practices for vata dosha.
How To Practice Nadi Shodhana
Begin by sitting comfortably on a cushion, folded blanket or in a chair, keeping the head and spine upright and long. Bring awareness to your breathing process, noticing quality and length of each inhalation and exhalation. Cultivate deep yogic breaths by breathing deep into your abdomen. The body should be relaxed, not static. Invite a gentle movement to the body, opening and closing in a wave-like motion with the breath. Being with the breath will establish a slow and more relaxed rhythm. If a full and easy breath does not come naturally for you, do not proceed with this practice. Sometimes the practice of pranayama can repress energetic blockages, causing them to move deeper into the body. Position the right hand (you may choose to alternate with each practice) in vishnu mudra, which is done by folding the index finger and third finger inwards to lightly touch at the base of the thumb. Your pinkie finger rests by the side of the ring finger. You will alternately use your thumb to close your right nostril and your ring and pinkie fingers, working as one, to close your left. Rest your left hand comfortably in your lap. The breath should never feel forced. Envision the breath as a light thread of silk, lengthening effortlessly with each inhalation and exhalation.
Keeping the breath relaxed, subtle, and light:
- Close the left nostril and exhale completely through the right.
- Inhale fully through the right nostril.
- Close the right nostril and exhale through the left nostril.
- Inhale through left nostril.
- Close left nostril and exhale through right nostril.
This is one round. Begin a slow and regular practice of 5-10 rounds. Rest after your practice and notice how you are feeling. Once comfortable with this practice, you can begin mentally counting to four on your inhalation, pause at the space between the breath and then count to four as you exhale, so that the length of your inhalation and exhalation are equal.
There are many variations of alternate nostril breathing. These advanced practices involve increased ratios of inhalation to exhalation, longer duration, and the incorporation of breath retention. It is best to practice these under the guidance of a yoga teacher or therapist. They are intended as developmental stages to work through incrementally as the body gradually adjusts to the increased flow of prana. Accomplished yogis can spend several months mastering each one.
As with any subtle energy practice which activates prana, it is best to start slowly and steadily incorporate it into your daily practice. A shorter practice on a consistent basis will bring more benefit to the body than a longer practice every now and again. Nadi Shodhana can restore balance to the mind and body while opening a window of insight to the self. The breath is a constant to which we can always return to find our center of calm. The more mindful we become of our breath during our practice, the easier it will be to integrate into our daily lives. Simply being with the breath allows us to open and receive the richness of life.