I first learned about alternate nostril breathing years ago when I started studying Brain Gym.
Brain Gym was the first of many natural healing techniques that I learned and the gateway to me studying countless others.
Although alternate nostril breathing was not considered an official Brain Gym exercise, many of us who taught these exercises included this breathing technique as part of our warm up because we recognized that alternate nostril breathing balances the right and left hemispheres, allowing a person to access more of their true brain potential.
Sharon Promislow, a fellow Brain Gym instructor and author of Making The Brain-Body Connection: A Playful Guide to Releasing Mental, Physical and Emotional Blocks to Success, included alternate nostril breathing in her list of her favorite exercises for the brain.
Alternate nostril breathing, also called Nadhi Sodhana, is of course a traditional yogic breathing exercise. It is part of a collection of breathing exercises called pranayama practiced by yogis all over the world. It is one of the easiest pranayama techniques to learn.
Here is the way I like to teach it:
1. Sit in a comfortable position. I recommend you blow your nose into a tissue before starting, as this practice tends to clear your actual nasal channels as well as your energy channels.
2. With your left hand, bring your thumb together with your little finger and your ring finger. Although this may seem like a minor detail, what you will find is that simply holding this mudra, the energy in your lungs will shift so that you are using more of your full lung capacity. Most people only breathe into their upper chest. Holding this mudra will allow your breath to drop into the lower portion of your lungs.
3. With your right hand, fold the pointer finger and the ring finger down into your palm.
4. Place your right hand in front of your nose. Your thumb will be on the right side. Your ring finger will be on the left side.
5. Inhale and use your thumb to close the right nostril.
6. Exhale through your left nostril. Then inhale through your left nostril, using your ring finger to close the left nostril. Pause briefly.
7. Keeping your ring finger on your left nostril, exhale through your right nostril.
8. Inhale through your right nostril. Use your thumb to close the right nostril.
9. Repeat the cycle for at least two minutes.
This very simple technique has amazing benefits:
1. By closing the nostrils with your fingers, you are stimulating acupressure points on the side of your nose that reflex to your pituitary gland. Your pituitary gland is the master gland in your body. It controls your thyroid and adrenal glands. You balance your pituitary, which gets you out of stress and regulates your metabolism.
2. You integrate the right and left sides of your brain, allowing you to use the full power of your own intelligence. Although you will be calm, this technique will not put you to sleep. You will find yourself alert and awake.
3. You balance your polarities, so that you are neither too yin nor too yang.
4. You balance the two major energy channels, your ida and pingala, which intertwine around the spine.
5. Traditionally, it is believed you must balance the two sides of your brain in order to open your third eye, the energy center between your eyebrows. Opening your third eye is said to be the opening of your intuition, so not only will you be accessing what you have already learned, you will also be able to use more of your extra sensory perception.
6. You will be able to think clearly but also calmly.
7. You balance your sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system, allowing you to be able to respond to stress when you need to and return to calmness when the stress is over. When we get stuck in the sympathetic nervous system, we are stuck in stress and anxiety. When we are stuck in the parasympathetic nervous system, we can be stuck in depression. So this is an effective natural healing remedy for both anxiety and depression.
One of my favorite stories about alternate nostril breathing comes from one of my yoga students.
I like to teach my students simple but highly effective things they can do to calm themselves in times of emergency.
One day, one of my yoga students went to the bank.
She is the manager for her family farm.
When she had arrived at the bank, somehow or the other, the bank had managed to lose a rather large sum of family money – in the neighborhood of $3,000 to $5,000, for which she was responsible – even though she herself had not made the mistake.
Recognizing that it would not have been appropriate to drop to the floor of the bank and start practicing her asanas, my student turned to the one yoga exercise she could easily do while sitting in a chair at the bank – alternate nostril breathing.
She calmed herself with alternate nostril breathing until the matter was favorably resolved.
Apparently her own ability to recall a helpful yoga exercise made an important impression because a few years afterwards, this very same yoga student was thrown by a horse. She was in a ring by herself trying to mount when the horse threw her to the ground, breaking the major bone in her right arm completely in half.
She was stuck in a corner with an angry horse, no helpful human in sight. She knew it would be some time before anyone would be coming to help her. In fact at least 10 minutes passed before she was rescued.
In pain, in shock, it was just her against the horse, and he was still rearing and kicking.
So she returned to her yoga breathing, this time another technique called ujjayi pranayama, deep ocean breath, calming herself as she stared the horse in the eyes.
Nobody needs to explain to us that life is not always easy.
Sometimes the truth is you ARE on your own and you will only have your own wits to guide you.
I am always saying to my yoga students that many who come to yoga expect to find the practice all snuggly and cuddly, as if yoga is just here to teach us how to relax.
Although relaxation is indeed incredibly important, in my mind, yoga is here to rock our world, to teach us how to find our own inner peace no matter what is going on in the world around us.
Many of us initially hope that it is the world around us that has to change in order for us to be calmer.
Sooner or later, we end up acknowledging this is a futile though secretly ever-present wish.
Realistically, we must constantly train ourselves to be able to connect to our own inner strength no matter what.
The greater your understanding of natural healing remedies, the faster you will be able to accommodate any ordinary disaster with ease and grace.
Yoga breathing exercises are some of the first natural healing remedies we should turn to during times of stress because they are fast-acting and effective and require no equipment other than our own awareness.