The Best Yoga Breath to Find Balance
If your yoga teacher is worth her salt, she’ll remind you to breathe. If she’s really skilled, she’ll teach you how to breathe.
We forget to breathe consciously all the time, don’t we?
Simply hearing our breath gives our mind a place to focus and rest. Deep, conscious breathing engages the calming side of our nervous system, it’s as if the breath is saying,“Hey Monkey Mind, calm the eff down!”
Luckily, in yoga we’ve got all kinds of breath practices! Once familiar with ujjayi, the starting point for learning deep breathing, one of the next practices is nadi shodhana, or alternate nostril pranayama. Prana is life-force energy. (I always feel like Yoda when I say that! Using the force we are.) You could also call it vitality or chi.
All Systems Go
Prana runs through the body in channels called nadis. Nadis get blocked or tangled due to illness, injury, sedentary lifestyle and emotional or postural holding in the body-mind. Yoga asana unblocks these channels and strengthens them so we can hold more vitality within. (This is also what acupuncture works with, though they call the channels meridians.)
There are three main nadis. One corresponds to the spine, while two criss-cross along the length of the torso. These two, the ida and the pingala, are what we cleanse and balance through nadi shodhana.
One winds its way up through the spine, while the other snakes downward. Together they set the chakras to spin happily.
The ida is associated with the left side of the body and feminine, cooling, calming or moon energy. The pingala is associated with the right side and is sun energy: masculine, fiery, focused, energized.
Alternate nostril breathing helps get all systems balanced and harmonized. The result is a calm, yet energized state with a peaceful, but focused mind.
How to Use Your Fingers
The technique for nadi shodana involves using your right hand—specifically the fingertips—to place pressure on your nostrils so you slow or block the flow of air through them.
Step one: Learn to hold your hand in the proper alignment.
The shape of your right hand should form a pincher, but it’s not that simple. That’s why I’m writing an entire post about it! If you can get this hand position you won’t fidget around or be jabbing yourself in the face with your fingers. It will be more peaceful and you’ll be able to get the balanced feeling we’re after.
- Sit comfortably, on the floor or in a chair, with an upright spine — I’m bowed a little forward here so you can see my hand better.
- Lift your right hand and fold your first two fingers into the palm of your hand so they’re tucked out of the way.
- Bring the tips of the pinky and ring finger in line with each other; together they’re to match the strength of your thumb.
- Curl the thumb in as if to meet the other two little fingers, this is the pincher you’ll use to squeeze your nose.
Technique to Hold Your Nose
Now we need to get that pincher around your nose, so you can use it to apply pressure to your nostrils. This is the most complicated component for most people.
Since prana is essentially an electric current running through the body, we want to learn the technique well so we don’t shock, fry, drain or burn ourselves out. Take a look at the picture of me holding my schnozz to get the idea. I’m turned slightly and bowed, so you can see the hand position.
Step Two: Learn how to position your hand on your nose. Once it’s there, try not to move it around…
- Place the tip of your right thumb on your right nostril and the tip of your right ring finger (with little finger stacked next to it) on your left nostril. Note: read more of my basics and about your hand position here.
- Apply gentle pressure to both nostrils in the little dimples just above the rim of your nose and just below the bone.
- Breathe through both nostrils while learning to maintain even pressure on each side of your nose.
- As you inhale, allow the pressure on your fingers to rock up, towards your brow, and let it rock down as you exhale, but don’t lift your fingers off your nose to do so.
- Breathe smoothly and calmly to help put your mind at ease.
- Do at least a few rounds of breath like this, or perhaps a minute, then release your hand and breathe normally for a few breaths.
Putting It All Together
Classically, nadi shodhana is practiced with the head bowed to the chest. This practice, called jalandhara bandha, seals the top of the chest so the prana can be held within the container of the torso. This is one way to build up energy reserves from which you can pull later.
Step Three: Practice the alternating pattern of breath.
- Place your hand as above, bow your head and exhale out through both nostrils to prepare.
- Begin the first cycle of Nadi Shodhana by blocking your left nostril with your ring finger as you inhale through your right nostril (Keep your thumb on your nose, just lighten the pressure so air can flow through).
- Now switch sides: block your right nostril, lighten the pressure on the left and breathe out through it.
- Breathe back in through your left nostril.
- Then, block the left nostril and breathe out through your right.
This completes one full cycle of nadi shodhana. Continue alternating, back and forth for 2-3 minutes, finishing the cycle by breathing out through your right nostril.
Strive for a peaceful balanced breath the whole time you practice. If at any point you feel dizzy, nauseous or light-headed, stop immediately and breathe normally until the feeling passes. This means you’re stretching beyond where you’re ready to be. You may need to continue with Ujjayi breathing, deepening it and being more consistent with it before returning safely to alternate nostril pranayama.
Other general tips:
- Keep your eyes relaxed, especially on the inhale.
- Let your tongue be plump and soft, especially back at the root of it.
- Keep your upper and lower teeth slightly apart.
- Sit up really tall and straight to give more space in your body for the prana.
- Keep the lift in your chest, especially as you exhale.
- Allow your mind to ride on the surface of the breath.
- If you need to swallow, do it after an exhale, when your lungs are empty.