Both the ancient yogis and modern-day psychologists know the power of the breath in calming the body and clearing the mind — something many of us need as we head into the holiday season.
In my previous career as a psychotherapist, I taught a breath technique from yoga to my clients to help with anxiety and depression. Now, as a yoga teacher, I teach it at the beginning of my classes as a way to help people arrive fully and settle in.
I am just back from a 10-day retreat at Kripalu, in Western Massachusetts, where we delved deeply into the yogic breath work called Pranayama, which was developed to unblock and balance energy. Some breaths are calming, others are stimulating.
The ancient yogis believed that energy travels through channels known as nadis in the “subtle body” — a complex idea, but essentially one that melds mind and spirit. They called this energy prana, or life force.
It made sense even then that energy in the body can be blocked by physical or psychological factors such as injury, stress, or trauma, leading to problems in the body, mind, and spirit. Controlled breathing practices have been shown to improve respiratory function, reduce stress levels, improve digestion, improve cardiovascular health, reduce insomnia, improve concentration, boost immunity, and enhance mindfulness.
Nadi shodhana pranayama is an alternate nostril breathing technique meant to nourish your entire being with life force energy by opening the nadis, the channels. Shodhana means “to purify.” It is traditionally practiced first thing in the morning on an empty stomach. A regular morning practice of nadi shodhana will have cumulative effects over time. But it can be used at any time of day when you need to calm yourself and feel centered. Some people like to do it before bed or if they wake up in the middle of the night.
I recommend that, initially, you try it for 30 seconds to a minute and see what effect it has on you. Everyone’s body and nervous systems are different. A little may go a long way for you, or you may find a longer practice more beneficial. Remember, long slow breaths in and out. You are looking for a relaxed feeling.
Avoid this breath work if you have a sinus infection or any upper respiratory infection, asthma, or uncontrolled high blood pressure. It may be difficult to practice if you have a stuffy nose. Before you begin, take a moment to blow your nose and clear the nasal passages.
Begin by sitting in a comfortable position. Lengthen from the tailbone to the crown of the head, lifting out of the waist and creating a nice long spine. Relax your shoulders and feel the seat of your pants on the chair or cushion.
Take a long deep breath in and a long sigh out. This breath is traditionally done with the right hand in Vishnu Mudra (let your left hand rest comfortably in your lap). Mudras are hand gestures thought to enhance the flow of energy. Lift your right hand up, with the palm toward your face. Bend your index finger and middle finger into the palm. Place your thumb on your right nostril blocking the flow of air through that nostril. Take a long full breath in through your left nostril, pause at the end of the inhalation, and remove your thumb from the right nostril. Block your left nostril with the tip of the ring finger and exhale through the right nostril. Breathe in through the right and then place the thumb on the right nostril and breath out through your left. Breathe in left, close the left, breathe out right. Breathe in right, pausing for a beat at the top of the inhale, close the nostril, breathe out left, and so on.
Continue breathing this way for 30 seconds to a minute and notice the effects. You may gradually increase the time to 3 to 6 minutes. Do not hurry the breath; long slow breaths will be more effective. Let your mind focus on the breath.
If you are feeling shortness of breath, it is a sign you are breathing too hard, pushing your breath past its natural limits. Stop if you feel dizzy, lightheaded, or nauseated. Blocking the nostrils makes some people feel claustrophobic or uncomfortable. If it’s like that for you, it is possible to do this breathing exercise without using your hand. Just imagining directing the breath in this right-left balanced way can be quite powerful.
Taking the time to do this simple practice can help you get through months that can be hectic and leave us frazzled. I offer it with the hope you have a calm, cool, collected holiday season.