My favorite pranayama is called nadi shodhana, or alternate nostril breathing. Sometimes when I practice the technique, I am struck by how natural it feels—almost more fluid and automatic than “everyday” breathing. Because one nostril dominates the flow of breath for 1.5-2.5 hours before shifting dominance to the other side, our natural breath is “lopsided” throughout the day: When nadi shodhana is practiced, the movement of breath and energy through the nostrils quickly comes into balance; a feeling of centeredness and connectedness pervades one’s whole being.
First, the name of the pranayama refers to the cleansing of the body’s energetic networks, or nadis. Just as our blood moves through vascular and arterial “highways,” and our nerves flash along neurological pathways, our subtle energy bodies circulate prana through the nadis. Most typically, ancient texts refer to 72,000 nadis; there are, however, 10-12 primary conduits of prana. Of these, the ida and pingala nadis come to the fore in alternate nostril breathing. The two nadis create a spiraling helix as they wrap around sushumna nadi, which is the central and most important of all nadis. (Sushumna channels prana from the base of the spine to the crown of the head.) Ida’s path ends in the left nostril, and pingala ends in the right.
Special note: In kundalini yoga, the spinal exercises are used to awaken the prana (or kundalini) and help it move upward through the sushumna nadi.
As the left nostril yields calming, cooling Moon energy, right-nostril breathing summons warming, energizing Sun energy: When the breath alternates evenly between these yin and yang aspects, respectively, the body and mind achieve a state of undeniable equilibrium and steadiness. Intuition is enhanced with the clearing of the ida nadi (left nostril), and acute focus is attained with the purification of the pingala nadi (right nostril).
Nadi Shodhana is said to be “advanced” pranayama, because significant concentration and control are necessary to achieve slow, steady breathing of equal rate through each nostril. That said, the basic technique is fairly easy to learn. Each round of breathing may feel different—smooth, then restrained or challenging, then fluid again. These initial irregularities that may occur are part of the cleansing process: As the nadis clear, neither nostril will dominate the flow of breath, and smooth, steady breathing results.
Special note: I find that even though I practice this pranayama often, I still have occasions when my breath “stalls,” or resists; inevitably, I need to yawn. In that case, I like to let the yawn happen, and do a double exhale (ha-haaa) out of my mouth. Then, I repeat my inhale through whichever nostril had been “interrupted” by the yawn. From there, I exhale through the other nostril, and carry on.
First, establish a comfortable, aligned seated position. Take a few long, deep breaths through both nostrils, in order to bring your attention to the breath. Then, lift your right hand in front of your nose: the right thumb will open and close the aperture of the right nostril, and the ring finger will operate the left side. I like to bend my index and middle fingers and rest them between my eyebrows; this also serves as a tactile reminder to keep my closed eyes focused on the Third Eye.
To begin the pranayama, close the right nostril with the right thumb tip: Inhale slowly and steadily through the left nostril. It is easy to short-change your breath, especially at the outset; instead, focus on a true, complete inhale—breathe in until there is no more air to take in. Then, close the left nostril with the tip of the right ring finger, and exhale slowly and completely through the right nostril.
With the left nostril still closed, inhale through the right; then close the right to exhale through the left. Inhale left, exhale right; inhale right, exhale left, and continue for 3-5 minutes.
As you settle in with the technique, be aware of the rest of your body: Ensure that your shoulders are relaxed, your jaw is slack, and your tongue is floating peacefully in your mouth. Allow any physical or mental tension to slide away with each exhale, regardless of which nostril you use.