from Swami Ambikananda


Arjuna from Pantglas Yoga Retreat Centre, Wales,
doing Nadi Shodhana Pranayama

So, Hilary Clinton used Alternative Nostril Breathing to help her overcome her sense of loss when she was defeated by the now incumbent President of the USA.  Nice to know ~ most of us ordinary mortals have to fall back on various anxiety reducing techniques when faced with whatever madness or incompetence our politicians are engaging in!

Alternative Nostril Breathing is a very old Yogic breathing technique known as Nadi Shodhana Pranayama ~ Meridian Purifying Technique.  It is found in several ancient texts like the Siva Svarodaya ~ but these techniques existed for generations before they were committed to writing.  Most people are more familiar with the Chinese medical concept of Chi than with prana.  The Yoga concept of prana is exactly the same as chi : a vitality that flows through designated meridians in the body’s energy field.  This breathing technique is meant to cleanse and purify those meridians.

In more modern times there has been some promising research on Alternate Nostril Breathing Technique for such maladies as anxiety, muscle spasm, heart rate variability and even memory recall.  Of course, these are studies of small cohorts and by no means definitive, but they allow us to be confident that there is more than simply anecdotal evidence pointing to its benefits.

In fact, our body is engaged in this ‘alternate nostril breathing’ all through the day: if you take a mirror and breathe out onto it, you will see the condensation formed by one nostril covers a larger area than that of the other.  This shifts throughout the day.  The ancient Yogins seemed to develop an understanding of how this would affect both our psyche and energy.

The effect I personally enjoy of this particular technique is how quickly it can create a sense of ‘flow’ or ‘peak experience’.  The psychologist Adler was the first to speak of the elusive peak experience but it was psychiatrist Mihaily Csikszentmihalyi who really gave us a depth of understanding on the elusive flow experience in  activities like art, music and sport.  Flow is that feeling in which all of you is involved in what you are doing; the other stresses disappear from your consciousness as you become totally absorbed in the activity of the moment.  We often hear friends who are runners speaking of it. 

Csikszentmihalyi tells us that to experience flow we need to be engaged in something we are proficient at but not bored with ~ there needs to be a certain level of arousal of our attention in maintaining the activity.  Not being a runner (my knees really do protest too much!) I can easily get into that flow experience during Nadi Shodhana Pranayama.   Perhaps this is because while the process is repetitive the attention has to remain focused on what we are doing or the activity itself ceases.


Technique for Beginners

If you have never tried Alternate Nostril Breathing Technique before, here are some simple instructions to follow.  Read through them and then try it.

~ Sit in a comfortable posture in which your spine is reasonably erect, so not slumping.  Let both feet rest on the ground and your hands rest on your lap.  It’s not a great idea to do it lying down as in a supine position the abdominal cavity places pressure on the thoracic cavity and makes deep breathing a little harder.

~ First of all just become aware of your weight and the places of contact with the chair and the floor.  Breathe in deeply, and as you breathe out let your weight release down through those points of contact.  Then just become aware of the changing temperature of the breath as it flows in you: cool air entering your nose, warm air leaving.  (As in most Yogic techniques of breath, breathing ~ both inhalations and exhalation~ is done through the nose, rather than through the mouth.)

~ When the attention has become reasonably steady, place the thumb of your right hand next to your right nostril and the ring finger of the same hand alongside the left nostril.  You are going to be using these fingers to block each nostril but do not block in such a way that you deviate the septum (the length of the nostril) ~ rather it is a light touch that encourages breath to flow to a greater extent through the alternate nostril.  The middle and index fingers can be tucked into the area at the base of the thumb or rest on your forehead. 

~ There are very elaborate traditional explanations of which nostril to start with but to simplify, if you are doing it in the morning start with the right nostril, and if you are doing it after midday start with the left. (I’m going to assume you are doing it after midday for the following start.)

1. Block the right nostril gently and breathe in through the left nostril.
2. Block the left nostril and breathe out through the right nostril.
3. Maintain the gentle pressure on the left and breathe in through the right nostril.
4. Block the right nostril and breathe out through the left nostril.
5. Maintain the gentle pressure on the right nostril and breathe in through the left nostril.
6. Block the left nostril and breathe out through the right nostril.
7. Repeat 1 through 6 a few times to get used to this technique.

Once you feel you’ve got the hang of it, begin to focus on the quality of the breath:

~ Feel that cool flow of the inhalation in the nostril and down the side of the throat; feel the warmth of the exhalation up the throat and as it leaves the appropriate nostril.

~ The Yogins placed great emphasis on the quality of the exhalation.  Focus on breathing out as slowly and as deeply as you can.  We now know the science behind this: exhaling activates the parasympathetic nervous system, that part of the nervous system responsible for calming and slowing down our heart rate and reducing anxiety.

Once you have done the above a few times and are beginning to feel a bit more confident with it, you can try dropping your hand and maintaining the alternate nostril breathing just with your attention.  So, for example, fixing your focus as you inhale on the cool air entering the left nostril and descending down the left side of your throat, and as you exhale switching the attention to the right side of the throat and nostril, and so on.  It is this attention-switching method that I find most easily induces flow ~ but I always begin by doing it mechanically with the thumb and ring finger.

To advance in this technique contact a Yoga teacher in your area ~ I’m sure s/he will be delighted to deepen your practice and knowledge.


Further Reading:

Principles of Breathwork by Swami Ambikananda, published by Thorsons 2002.
(Soon to be published as an e-book, watch this space)

Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi published by Rider, 2002.

Copyright © The Trustees of the Traditional Yoga Association®, 2014. All rights reserved.