A Beginner's Guide To Nadī Shodhana, aka Alternate Nostril Breathing
Nadī Shodhana is a form of prānāyama, the breath control branch of yoga. To get the gist of the practice, one can look to its etymology: In Sanskrit, Nadī describes the body's energy channels, while Shodhana means "to purify or cleanse." At its core, this ancient breath manipulation technique is a way to clear the passageways of the body to make room for prana, or life force, to move through unencumbered.
One of the more accessible techniques in a traditional Prānāyama sequence, Nadī Shodhana is now popular in Western culture too. (You may hear it referred to as alternate nostril breathing or channel-cleaning breath.) Here's a primer on the benefits of the practice and how to work it into your life.
What is Nadī Shodhana?
First and foremost, Nadī Shodhana and all other prānāyama techniques are deeply spiritual and sacred. As Accessible Yoga founder Jivana Heyman, C-IAYT, E-RYT500, previously wrote on mbg: "The breath is the tool that we use to work with the life force within us. With this in mind, you can approach pranayama with a subtler awareness—not only are you working with the breath but with life force itself."
Nadī Shodhana, or alternate nostril breathing, rhythmically isolates the right nostril, which connects to the Pingala Nadi channel, and the left nostril, which connects to the Ida Nadi channel. "The left nostril is associated with the receptive/yin/lunar/feminine principle, and the right is associated with the projective/yang/solar/masculine principle," Erica Matluck, N.D., N.P., naturopathic doctor and yoga instructor, tells mbg. At any point in time, one Nadi is always more dominant than the other. When someone is busy at work, their Pingala Nadi would be more active, for example.
Alternating breath between the two nostrils is thought to promote balance through the body's midline and these two Nadis, which can be compared to the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous system in Western medicine. "When we balance the breath through these two channels, we balance the self," Matluck adds. "This typically has a calming effect on the nervous system, further supporting any healing process."
Some adaptations of the practice, like "sun breathing" or "moon breathing," intentionally target either the right or left nostril on its own, for a more energizing or relaxing practice respectively.
Any controlled breathing sequence will come with a variety of physical and nonphysical benefits. Here are four that are associated with the Nadī Shodhana:
It helps quiet the mind.
Jasmine Marie, the founder of Black girls breathing, considers alternate nostril breathing one of the best techniques for calming a frantic mind. "Alternating my fingers to focus the breath on a specific nostril allows me to tune my attention inward and ground down more quickly," Marie tells mbg.
It promotes a feeling of balance.
"I use alternate nostril breathing in my practice as a tool to create balance," Matluck says. "Well-being requires balance—balance between the yin and yang, active and passive principles, being and doing, resting and working. Holistic healing is about balancing these dualistic forces in the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual aspects of the self. When we practice alternate nostril breathing, we are balancing the self through the left and right nostril."
It might improve heart and lung health and increase relaxation.
Though scientific research on the practice is limited, one study1 found that 30 minutes of alternate nostril breathing a day for four weeks had a positive effect on the cardiorespiratory activity of healthy subjects. It reduced their pulse rate, respiratory rate, and diastolic blood pressure, signaling that it sent their bodies into a more relaxed state.
It can get you in the right head space for a meditation practice.
Breathwork teacher and mbg class instructor Gwen Dittmar likes to use the technique before sitting for a longer meditative practice: "It can be a valuable tool for deepening self-awareness prior to meditation," she writes on mbg.
How to practice it:
- Sit in a comfortable seated position.
- Press your pointer and middle finger of your right hand together. Place them on the upper bridge of your nose, between the eyebrows, so the thumb falls on the outside of the right nostril and your ring finger is outside your left nostril.
- Close the eyes and gently apply pressure to your right nostril using your thumb until it's closed. Inhale slowly through the left nostril for three counts.
- Release the right nostril and gently apply pressure to your left nostril using the ring finger. Exhale slowly through the now-open right nostril for three counts. Then, inhale through the right nostril for three counts.
- Release the left nostril, and gently apply pressure to the right nostril again. Exhale through the left nostril for three counts. This concludes one sequence. (It always starts and finishes on the left side.)
- Repeat for up to 5 minutes, or longer if you're comfortable. You can increase the length of inhales and exhales beyond three seconds—just make sure they are consistent. Keep your pointer and middle finger on the bridge of the nose for the entire practice.
As with any practice, Matluck says to take this one slowly at first: "I would recommend starting with a short practice (three to five minutes) and really taking note of how you feel before and after. The more aware you become of the ways in which the practice shifts you, the easier it becomes to stick with it."
The bottom line.
Nadī Shodhana is a type of prānāyama that involves alternating breath between the right and left nostrils. It is a relatively simple practice to pick up, and it can have a relaxing and balancing effect on the body and mind.
Editor's Note (January 24, 2021): This article was originally published on July 31, 2020. A previous version of this article indicated the study referenced had participants practice Nadī Shodhana for 15 minutes per day. We have since clarified this to indicate that the study had participants practice Nadī Shodhana for 30 minutes per day.
Emma Loewe is the Sustainability and Health Director at mindbodygreen and the author of Return to Nature: The New Science of How Natural Landscapes Restore Us. She is also the co-author of The Spirit Almanac: A Modern Guide To Ancient Self Care, which she wrote alongside Lindsay Kellner.
Emma received her B.A. in Environmental Science & Policy with a specialty in environmental communications from Duke University. In addition to penning over 1,000 mbg articles on topics from the water crisis in California to the rise of urban beekeeping, her work has appeared on Grist, Bloomberg News, Bustle, and Forbes. She's spoken about the intersection of self-care and sustainability on podcasts and live events alongside environmental thought leaders like Marci Zaroff, Gay Browne, and Summer Rayne Oakes.