Why Practice Pranayama?
Simple yoga breathing exercises can be done any time to help calm your mind or give you an energy boost. Breathing exercises in yoga are referred to as pranayama which translates to breath control.
Yogis believe that the breath is not only life-giving, supplying essential oxygen to every cell in our body; but that it also carries prana, the universal vital energy. In practicing yoga, one of our intentions is to harness this power in order to fuel our bodies and minds.
The breath is a bridge between the body and mind. Because prana rides the breath, breathwork is one way that we can move this energy throughout our bodies while at the same time strengthening its flow.
Kabir, an Indian poet and mystic, once asked a student, “Student, tell me, what is God?” The student’s response was “He is the breath inside the breath.”
Alternate Nostril Breathing
Alternate nostril breathing (nadi sodhana in Sanskrit) is a very powerful technique for relaxing, balancing and calming the mind. “Nadi” refers to energy channel and “sodhana” means purification. It is considered by yogis to be one of the best ways to calm the nervous system.
A Yogic Perspective
According to yogis, nadis are energy channels that carry prana (life force energy) to all of our cells. Nadi sodhana is a yogic breathing exercise that brings two of the most important energy channels into balance. These channels are ida, associated with nurturing lunar energy and pingala, associated with active solar energy.
A Western Perspective
Scientists have discovered that we do not breathe equally through both of our nostrils. At any point in time, one nostril is more dominant than the other and this alternates every 90 to 120 minutes. The shift is associated with brain hemisphere dominance.
Benefits of Alternate Nostril Breathing
Alternate nostril breathing is often performed before meditation because of its grounding and centering effects. For these same reasons, it is an excellent exercise to do any time you are feeling stress, anxious or fatigued.
Some of the numerous benefits include:
- Relaxation and stress relief.
- Helps to balance and harness our energy.
- Improved brain function: increases oxygen to both hemispheres of the brain clarifying thought processes. Enhances focus and improves concentration.
- Balances: Restores equilibrium between the two nadis (energy channels), ida and pingala.
- Unblocks the flow of prana and purifies subtle energy channels.
- Boosts immunity.
- Prepares body and mind for meditation.
- Good for allergies as it helps to clean and clear out the sinuses.
Start in a comfortable seated position.
Your left hand is resting comfortably in your lap.
Make a gentle fist with your right hand and release the thumb, ring and pinky fingers. This is a classical hand position in yoga called Vishnu Mudra.
Gently press your thumb on the right nostril, closing it while your left nostril remains open. Then use your extended fingers to gently close the left nostril as you release the thumb from your right nostril.
Inhale deeply through both nostrils. Close off the right nostril with your thumb and exhale out the left nostril then inhale through the left nostril. (Exhale left, Inhale left)
Close off the left nostril with the fingers and exhale out the right nostril then inhale through the right nostril. (Exhale Right, Inhale Right)
Continue with this pattern: exhale, inhale, switch nostrils; exhale, inhale, switch.
- You might not want to practice this pranayama on a day when you are particularly stuffed up. If you feel only slightly congested, blow your nose before beginning.
- If you find it awkward using your thumb and ring finger, try using your thumb and pinky instead.
- Keep your body relaxed and allow the air to move smoothly as you breathe.
- When you first practice nadi shodana, start out with one or two minutes then slowly build up to five minutes or even 10.
- If your right arm becomes tired, you can support it by holding under the elbow with the left hand.
- Use this breath in your daily life when you are feeling stressed or upset.
Please note: If at any point you feel uncomfortable, be sure to stop. Do not practice if you have a headache or fever.
When first starting out, this breath seems a bit confusing and you may have to really concentrate on the technique. I think this is actually a benefit as it forces you to focus on the pranayama rather than on the zillion other things that you need to do. After a bit of practice you will find your natural rhythm.
Have a look at the following video from a yogayak.com for a nice demonstration and explanation of alternate nostril breathing.