Alternate Nasal Breathing
(Nadi Shodhana Pranayama)
By: Swami Rama
Nadi Shodhana or Channel Cleansing Breath is a simple form of alternate nostril breathing suitable for beginning students. Nadi means channel and refers to the energy pathways through which prana flows. Shodhana means cleansing – so nadi shodhana means channel cleaning.
The nose contains a layer of tissue that is spongy and can fill with large quantities of blood. This is called “erectile” tissue, and it is found only in a few areas of the body: the genitals, the breasts, and the lining of the nose. The swelling and shrinking of nasal erectile tissue occurs in a constant, regular, and predictable pattern. As the tissue within one nostril swells, the tissue on the opposite side tends to become less swollen. This occurs in a predictable and alternating pattern approximately every one to two hours and has been well-documented in research laboratories both in the West and the East. This rhythm can be interfered with by emotional disturbance, irregular schedules of meals and sleep, and irritation of the nose due to pollution, infection and other disruptive forces.
Adept yogis who focused on the science of the breath, made intricate correlations between the way the breath was flowing and various psychological and physiological states. They observed, for example, that when breathing through the right nostril individuals tend to become more active and aggressive, more alert and more oriented toward the external world. Breathing on the left side, on the other hand, produces a quieter, more passive psychological state, one more oriented toward the inner world.
Scientists have confirmed that the nasal cycles correspond with brain function. The electrical activity of the brain was found to be greater on the side opposite the less congested nostril. The research showed that when the left nostril was less obstructed, the right side of the brain was predominant and test subjects were indeed found to do better on creative tests. Similarly when the right nostril was less obstructed the left side of the brain was predominant and test subjects did better on verbal skills.
Yogi’s take this a step further and say that disturbances in the nasal cycle can lead to disease. When the breath continues to flow in one nostril for more than two hours, as it does with most of us, it will have an adverse effect on our health and the longer the flow of breath in one nostril, the more serious the illness will be. If the right nostril is involved, the result is mental and nervous disturbance and if prolonged (over a period of years) can lead to diabetes. If the left nostril is involved, the result is chronic fatigue and reduced brain function and if prolonged will produce asthma. According to yoga, disease such as asthma can be easily eliminated by teaching the patient to breathe through the right nostril until the asthma is cured and then to prevent it from reoccurring by practicing the alternate nostril breathing technique which clears any blockage to air flow in the nostrils and reestablishes the natural nasal cycle.
IMPORTANT NOTE BEFORE STARTING: The following steps are to be followed only if you are performing pranayama (alternate nasal breathing) during waking hours. If performing pranayama in the evening or during resting hours, do the exact opposite of the steps that follow. Whenever you see the word “right” replace it with “left;” if you see the word “left,” replace it with “right.” The counts that occur throughout the practice remain the same.
- Like all meditative practices, begin by sitting in a comfortable, stable posture, with your head, neck, and trunk straight, with the eyes gently closed, mouth gently closed. Release the tension in the jaw muscles, and relax the muscles around the eyes and ears.
- Begin by using the thumb of the right hand to cover the right nostril, blocking all air movement.
- Exhale all stale air out of the left nostril.
- Close the left nostril with the ring finger of the right hand, and then lift the thumb from the right nostril. Inhale smoothly and fully through the right nostril.
- Close right nostril with thumb, release left nostril, and exhale smoothly and fully out the left nostril.
- Repeat steps 4 & 5.
- Repeat step 4.
- After fully inhaling in through the right nostril for the THIRD time, you will now exhale through the right nostril.
- Fully close the right nostril with your thumb, remove the ring finger from your left nostril, and inhale smoothly and fully through your left nostril.
- Close the left nostril with your ring finger, remove the thumb from the right nostril and exhale smoothly and fully.
- Repeat steps 9 & 10.
- Repeat step 9.
- After fully inhaling in through the left nostril for the THIRD time, you will now exhale through the left nostril.
- This is one full cycle of alternate nasal breathing.
- Repeat this full cycle 3-5 times.
You will find that closing your eyes during this practice will enhance the experience. You can place your awareness completely on the breath, in and out, in and out. Or, you can envision the movement of energy up and down the spinal column (up with the inhalation and down with the exhalation.) Additionally, some prefer to follow the “So-Hum” mantra during alternate nasal breathing. In stillness, and when very attentive, you might hear the subtle sound of the inhalation of breath as “So,” and the subtle sound of the exhalation as “Hum.” Simply listen to the “So-Hum” as you follow each and every inhalation and exhalation.
You'll notice that this video outlines a more simple version of this breathing practice from what is outlined above. The issue, I find, is that I don't know when to finish. The above description is how I was taught to do it, and how I do it. Try both out, and see what you like.