I’ve been feeling stressed a lot lately, and more often than I’d like, I catch myself struggling to fall asleep as various thoughts, worries, and to-do list items flood my mind. I’d love to say I’ve taken my cue from many of my friends and found some calm on a yoga mat with daily practice. But, the reality is that whether it’s a lack of time, motivation, or energy (or all three), my mat hasn’t been rolled out more than a handful of times in the past year. Fortunately, one of my yogi friends introduced me to a technique I can implement in a matter of minutes, anytime, anywhere for an instant wave of calming energy—alternate nostril breathing.
What is Alternate Nostril Breathing?
Alternate nostril breathing, known as Nadi Shodhana in Sanskrit, is a yogic breathwork technique used to calm the mind and nervous system, bringing a sense of mental and physical peace.
Since I’m always in the market for techniques to add to my self-care toolkit to help me handle the stressors and frustrations in my daily life, my interest was piqued when my friend raved about alternate nostril breathing. Add the fact that it’s simple, free, and doesn’t require me to set aside 30-60 minutes and unfurl my yoga mat, and you can see why I was basically the newest alternate nostril breathing fanatic before even trying it out. But, because I’m one of those people who is somewhat dubious about things unless I understand the “how’s” and “why’s” underlying them, I turned to a breathwork guru to ensure we were getting all the best, expert information.
Dealing with stress and overwhelm, too? Read on for everything you need to know to start using alternate nostril breathing to breathe your way to a sense of calm and balance.
Meet the Expert
What Is Alternate Nose Breathing?
Alternate nostril breathing, like other yogic breathwork techniques, involves implementing a conscious, deliberate breathing pattern to relax your body and mind, whether in your daily life or during your yoga practice. “It requires more concentration than other breathing techniques, which helps to draw your attention away from distracting thoughts,” explains Vara. If you’re feeling stressed, anxious, or agitated, alternate nostril breathing can reset your thinking and relax your body and mind, bringing you back to a better place. “By manipulating the way we breathe, we can change our nervous system response rate in a matter of minutes, bringing our body back into balance and instantly feeling calmer, more grounded, and peaceful,” notes Vara.
The Benefits of Alternate Nose Breathing
“Alternate nostril breathing has been practiced by yogis for centuries and is primarily used to lower stress, balance the nervous system, and improve cardiovascular function. Studies have shown this specific technique can lower heart rate, respiratory rate, and blood pressure,” shares Vara. For example, a study found comparing different breathwork practices found that alternate nostril breathing was the technique most effective at reducing perceived stress, as well as heart rate and blood pressure. Other benefits of alternate nostril breathing include the following:
- Restores balance in the body because of its ability to reset the nervous system
- Increases mental focus and clarity
- Reduces stress and tension
- Improves sleep
- Stabilizes mood and energy levels
Risks and Drawbacks
Alternate nostril breathing is a very safe technique that will not cause harm to your body. According to Vara, “There are honestly no risks involved with yogic breathwork, especially this technique.” With that said, if you’re experiencing significant anxiety, panic, or trauma, the technique may not be able to provide the degree of support and calm you need.
“Although this technique is safe to do as often you like, whenever you like, I would recommend a minimum of twice a day—once in the morning and once [in the] early evening for a minimum of seven rounds, or whenever you notice you are in a state of stress or anxiety,” advises Vara.
How to Practice Alternate Nose Breathing
Here, Vara walks us through how to properly perform alternate nostril breathing:
- Sit comfortably, making sure your spine is straight and your chest is open, with your shoulders down and relaxed, and place your left hand on your left knee.
- Press your right thumb against the right nostril to close it.
- Inhale for 4 seconds through your left nostril.
- Use your right ring finger to close the left nostril (your index and middle fingers should point downwards) so both nostrils are momentarily closed.
- Release the right thumb and exhale through the right nostril for 4 seconds.
- Inhale through the right nostril for 4 seconds, then reseal the right nostril with the right thumb.
- Release the left nostril and exhale out of the left side. Once you have inhaled and exhaled out of each nostril, you’ve completed one full round.
- Complete at least seven rounds.
“To enhance your technique, ensure you are supporting a relatively straight spine in whatever comfortable seated position you choose,” says Vara, who shares that she prefers sitting crossed-legged on the floor. “Both the inhale and exhale should be through the nose and not the mouth, and we want to make sure we are breathing from our diaphragm, rather than shallow chest breathing.”
Vara says that as you become more experienced with alternate nostril breathing, you can challenge yourself further by increasing the lengths of the inhale and exhale as well as the breath-hold in between when you have both nostrils closed.
Enhance Your Experience
While there’s nothing wrong with simply sitting on the floor or your bed and doing a few rounds of alternate nostril breathing several times per day, Vara shared a few things you can do to make your practice even more pleasant and relaxing. “For a more relaxed experience, you may want to burn some incense or essential oils. In the evenings, dim the lights or use natural-scented candles, and end the practice with a nice warm herbal tea of choice,” suggests Vara. “In the summer, do this practice outdoors with the sun on your face, breathing fresh air and surrounded by the sound of nature.” Sounds blissful.
I took Vara’s advice and got a nice diffuser. And, it’s getting a lot more use than my yoga mat. I’m now heeding Vara’s advice and getting in my rounds of alternate nostril breaking at least twice a day. It’s definitely a nice reset anytime I’m feeling frazzled. Next time you're starting to feel worked up too, give it a shot. Like me, you might be the next convert.
Sharma VK, Trakroo M, Subramaniam V, Rajajeyakumar M, Bhavanani AB, Sahai A. (2013). Effect of fast and slow pranayama on perceived stress and cardiovascular parameters in young health-care students. International Journal of Yoga. 6:104-10