In This Article
April 13, 2023 | 16 minutes, 20 seconds
Stress comes in many forms! Regardless of its source, the body responds with subtle but progressive changes in your breathing pattern. Stress triggers a shallower breathing pattern, which activates sympathetic receptors in the upper lobes of the lungs. These receptors prepare you to fight or take flight. Sustaining low levels of fight-or-flight stress is a major health threat that can be prevented with simple breathing practices like Nadi Shodhana, or Alternate Nostril Breathing.
In 2020, the WHO (World Health Organization) reported that mental and physical stress is the second-leading cause of disability and heart health issues. Stress is linked to a host of health concerns including obesity, diabetes, asthma, allergies, colds, cough, hypertension, angina, and heart disease along with irritability, insomnia, anxiety, depression, and many more issues.
The good news is that breathing practices can help. Resetting your breathing pattern with a regular practice of pranayama has been well-studied to offset the degenerative effects of stress. In this article, I will share the science and ancient wisdom of alternate nostril breathing known as Nadi Shodhana.
The Ayurveda of Nadi Shodhana – Subtle Energy Cleansing
Translated, Nadi Shodhana (aka anuloma viloma and alternate nostril breathing) means cleaning the body’s subtle energy pathways. Nadi means subtle energy channels and shodhana means to cleanse. From the Ayurvedic perspective, nadi shodhana is a cleaning and activating technique for the subtle energy of the nadi system. Nadis carries prana (life force), kundalini shakti, and spiritual energy. We experience this as enhanced self-awareness that refines subtle perception, raises consciousness, and begins to thin the veil between the physical and spiritual.
Energetic Impact of Alternate Nostril Breathing
Yoga and pranayama are designed to move prana (life force) into the density of the physical body. This is responsible for the feeling of vibration you may get from a yoga or breathing practice. As the prana penetrates the physical body, it activates the subtle nadi pathways in the deep tissues. The nadis carries self-awareness into the mind (manomaya kosha) where the chakras are activated. This further enhances self-awareness, giving us the clarity to see the truth from the non-truth. Living our truth is the goal of Ayurveda, as seen in the word itself; Ayus=life and Veda=truth. The non-truths stem from illusions that the mind projects into our consciousness, convincing us that we can find satisfaction in our senses and the material world we have created. These non-truths include old emotional patterns of behavior that often cause unending levels of emotional stress.
Nadi Shodhana is primarily a tool of self-awareness. With this tool, we can more easily identify patterns of behaviors, beliefs, and actions that do not serve us. Once identified, we must then take action to free ourselves of thoughts and behaviors that keep us dependent on the external world for happiness. This process is described in the Bhagavat Gita, where Krishna (the seer) says to Arjuna (the warrior), “Yogasta Kuru Karmani.” This means first, establishing Being (inner clarity), and then performing an action. The conscious action, based on the awareness of your inner truth, is what frees us from the thoughts and desires that keep the mind’s harmful illusions alive.
The Science Behind Nadi Shodhana
When we review the research on nose breathing, it seems there is a difference in benefits depending on which nostril is used.
Left Nostril Breathing: Breathing through the left nostril is called Chandra Bhedna, or ‘the moon breath’. It is used in Ayurveda to calm, cool, and sedate the nervous system. Researchers have found that left-nostril breathing can activate the calming, parasympathetic nervous system. One notable study has also found it to be linked to lower blood pressure.
Right Nostril Breathing: Breathing through the right nostril is called Surya Bhedna, or ‘the sun breath’. Studies show this breathing is heating the body and activates the sympathetic or stimulatory nervous system.
Alternate Nostril Breathing: Breathing slowly and deeply through both nostrils, alternating between the left and right side, has been shown to balance both hemispheres of the brain while balancing both the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. Like left-nostril breathing, research shows alternate nostril breathing can lower blood pressure. Studies show that Nadi Shodhana enhances cognitive function and memory while also acting as an effective anti-anxiety therapy.
Further studies on Nadi Shodhana show that the practice can:
- Enhance cognitive function
- Improve respiratory function
- Slow the aging process
- Increase VO2 max
- Increase oxygen consumption by 18%
- Decrease blood pressure
- Increase memory ability
- Provide neuroprotective qualities
- Balance blood sugar
- Support healthy aging, fight cell death and stress
- Boost antioxidants, glutathione, SOD, and catalase
- Reduce fight or flight stress
- Increase parasympathetic (rest and digest) activation
Step by Step: How to Practice Alternate Nostril Breathing
- Sit up comfortably, with your spine straight, either in a chair or on a meditation cushion with your legs crossed.
- With your right hand, fold down your middle and index fingers to your palm. Use the thumb and ring fingers to close your left nostril. Note: alternative techniques exist for opening and closing the nostrils if this finger configuration does not work for you.
- Close your eyes and breathe in, deeply but slowly, through the right nostril for a count of 2, 4, or 8 (depending on what feels most natural without any strain).
- Hold that inhaled breath in for 2, 4, or 8 counts (depending on what feels most natural without any strain).
- Switch nostrils: close the right nostril and open the left. Slowly breathe out of the left nostril for 2, 4, or 8 counts, being careful not to strain yourself.
- Hold at the bottom of the exhaled breath in for 2, 4, or 8 counts.
- Breathe in through the left nostril, keeping the right nostril closed, for a count of 2, 4, or 8. Hold that breath in for 2, 4, or 8 counts.
- Hold at the top of the inhaled breath for 2, 4, or 8 counts.
- Close the left nostril and open the right nostril. Slowly breathe out the right nostril for 2, 4, or 8 counts.
- Repeat these steps on an empty stomach, for 10 minutes, prior to meditation, prayer, or before bed.