Alternate breathing: the feel-good breathing technique
Have you heard about alternate breathing, a.k.a. Nadi Shodhana Pranayama? It’s a breath control technique that helps decrease activity in your nervous system and lower your blood pressure to help de-stress the mind, body and spirit. Calming and energizing at the same time, you’ll quickly feel its benefits—whether you practice it in the morning, evening or anytime in between.
How does the alternate breathing practice of Nadi Shodhana work?
As the name suggests, this practice involves alternating your breath between your two nostrils. The alternation can be practiced between two breaths (inhaling and exhaling) or between inhaling and exhaling… but we’ll come back to this a little later. Let’s start by talking about the nasal cycle. Because, yes, we all have a nasal cycle, and we don’t breathe in the same way through both nostrils.
The nasal cycle
Throughout the day, we all alternate between one nasal cycle and another. In fact, our nasal cavities alternate between a decongested or deflated state and a congested or swollen state. When one nostril is in one state, the second is in the other. As a result, we mostly breathe through one nostril at a time, with more and better quality air flowing into the decongested nostril. This alternation or cycle lasts anywhere from 1 to 5 hours.
When we control our breathing, we modify these nasal cycles, which allows us to rebalance, focus and calm the nervous system. Nadi Shodhana actually triggers a sense of calm, focus and relaxation. It’s a great way to refocus before starting the day, but also to calm down and unwind at the end of the day. Practice it before bed and it’ll help you fall asleep.
We’re going to walk you through 3 variations of the alternate breathing technique:
– An introduction to alternate breathing
– Actual alternate breathing
– Counted alternate breathing + (bonus) counted alternate breathing using a 1:2 ratio
Let’s start with the basic technique:
Start by settling into a comfortable position with your back straight (cross-legged on the floor, sitting upright in a chair or even standing up, although this won’t be as comfortable).
How to position your hands: Here’s a picture of how to place your hands. Use your dominant hand (so your right hand if you’re right-handed and your left hand if you’re left-handed) and rest the other hand on your thigh. If the finger position is uncomfortable for you, you can fold down your ring finger and use only your little finger and thumb.
Alternate breathing: the idea is to breathe through one nostril while blocking the other.
Introduction: (To save time, we’ll outline the technique using the right hand, so just use the reverse if you’re left-handed).
To practice alternate breathing, start by:
- Blocking your right nostril with your right thumb: 5 breaths (1 inhale + 1 exhale each time) through the left nostril, then 5 breaths through the right nostril by blocking the left. Use your ring finger to block each nostril (see the second diagram below).
- This is the sequence, which you can repeat as many times as you’d like.
Here is the actual alternate breathing technique:
- Block your right nostril with your right thumb. Breathe in through the left nostril from your belly (your belly should expand when you inhale and deflate when you exhale).
- Transition (1-2 seconds): Stop your breathing by blocking your left nostril with your right ring finger, without releasing your thumb.
- Release your right thumb and exhale through your left nostril.
Repeat between 5 to 10 times, or more times if you’d like. You can practice this technique in the morning, in the evening or any time you feel like you need to calm your mind and body throughout the day.
Counted alternate breathing
Once you’ve mastered the alternate breathing technique, you can take it a step further and count your breathing time. The idea is to mentally count how long it takes to inhale and exhale over a given time. If your inhale lasts the time it takes you to count to 5, you should exhale to the count of 5.
To go even further:
- You can change your inhale/exhale ratio. For example, try doubling your exhale time—so breathe in for 5 seconds and breathe out for 10 seconds.
Have fun trying out different options for yourself!
How about the sinuses?