“So, is that like, when I have a cold and can only breathe out of one nostril?”
No. Well, kind of?
Alternate nostril breathing is a yogic breath technique that brings balance to the body and mind, increases focus, decreases mental chatter, and is an anxiety WARRIOR. (If I’m about to give a big performance, you can always catch me backstage, hiding in a corner, doing this breath and hoping that no one thinks I’m picking my nose.) If you want to know how to do it, please check out this video! If you want to learn more about the history of this breath, keep reading, my friend.
This breath practice is much older than any of the yoga postures you’d do in a modern yoga class. It began with ancient yogis whose yoga practices consisted of primarily exploring breath in a seated position. In-depth scientific knowledge was lacking in these days. These yogis had no clue how blood flowed through their veins or air filled their lungs. They tried to make sense of the world in the best way that they could: They made educated guesses based on sensation in their bodies.
Have you ever hung upside down for a long time and then stood up? Or held your breath for a long time and then taken a big inhale? Sometimes, there’s a tingly feeling, an increased awareness of blood rushing through your veins, a rush. These yogis believed that this pumping, rushing substance in their bodies was the energy of life, or prana, which they believed traveled through the body in channels called nadis. Some texts from the time insist that there are over 800,000 nadis in the body: ranging from tiny, capillary-sized channels to huge columns of energy. Two of the most important nadis run parallel along the length of the spine, from the tailbone up to crown of the head. These are called the ida nadi (left side) and the pingala nadi (right side). The ida nadi represents a calming, serene, feminine, moon-like energy. The pingala nadi reflects an energized, powerful masculine, sun-like energy. Yogis believed that one of these channels is blocked or somehow impaired, the other becomes overly stimulated, causing an imbalance in prana’s flow. The alternate nostril breath (nadi shodana is its Sanskrit name) is intended to balance these energies: After several minutes of this breath, the body is no longer overly energized or overly lethargic, but at more of an equilibrium.
I’m not here to convince you that any of this is true or real, my friends, just to keep you as well-informed as possible about the history behind this practice. However, in my experience, when I feel like my energy is imbalanced, this breath has been a life-saver. Maybe it’s because my pingala was overactive? Or maybe just because it felt good to take some slow, deep, focused breaths? Who knows. Regardless, as you experiment with this breath, I invite you to notice the subtle shifts in prana that you experience. There may be more to this ancient yogi wisdom than you think. ;)