Nadi Shodhana Pranayama: 8 Science-Based Benefits


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9 Interesting Facts & Benefits Of Alternate Nostril Breathing

Nadi Shodhana pranayama may not be the first thing that comes to mind when we think about yoga. More likely, when we think about yoga, more often than not it is yoga postures that come to mind. And yet, pranayama (yogic breathing) is also an important part of yoga.

There are a variety of pranayama techniques, all with their benefits and techniques. One of the most commonly known pranayamas is Nadi Shodhana pranayama.

Alternate nostril breathing is known in Sanskrit as Nadi Shodhana pranayama. It is one of the most common yogic breathing techniques and involves breathing through one nostril at a time while closing the other nostril. Breathing alternately through each nostril has science-based health benefits.

Pranayama is actually the fourth limb of Patanjali’s eight limb yoga:

  1. Yama | Attitudes toward the environment
  2. Niyama | Attitudes toward ourselves
  3. Asana | Physical postures
  4. Pranayama | Restraint or expansion of the breath
  5. Pratyahara | Withdrawal of the senses
  6. Dharana | Concentration
  7. Dhyana | Meditation
  8. Samadhi | Complete integration

And so as you may be able to see from this list, the physical postures are just one part of what yoga actually is. In fact, both asana and pranayama have their benefits, on a physical and psychological level.

To date, both yoga and pranayama have been researched, and their fair share of studies pointing out the various benefits.

And so for this article, I am going to focus on one specific pranayama technique; Nadi Shodhana pranayama.

When to practice alternate nostirl breathing

As an ashtanga yoga practitioner, I practice Nadi Shodhana pranayama towards the end of my practice. More specifically, it is done just before Utpluthih.

For example, I was lucky enough to practice Ashtanga yoga with my teacher Sharath Jois on Zoom today, and there along with another 200+ ashtangis we were guided along with this beautiful pranayama practice

How to practice Alternate Nostril Breathing

A 2017 review article titled Alternate nostril breathing: a systematic review of clinical trials mentioned that “alternate nostril breathing has few variations and standardization of the technique is yet to be established”.

As with any yogic practice, Nadi Shodhana pranayama is best practiced under the guidance of an experienced teacher. If that is not an option, then read the following instructions on how alternate nostril breathing was carried out in most of the studies examined in a 2011 study discussed below.

  1. Sit in a comfortable place, crosslegged if possible.
  2. Sit upright and close your eyes.
  3. Using the right hand, close the right nostril with the right thumb.
  4. Inhale through the left nostril.
  5. Then close the left nostril with the ring finger.
  6. Inhale through the right nostril.
  7. Then close the right nostril by pressing with the right thumb.
  8. Last, exhale through the left nostril.

This is one round of alternate nostril breathing. You can practice this for 10-15 rounds.

Benefits of Alternate Nostril Breathing

1. Increases parasympathetic activity

For this article, I unleashed my inner geek and had a look through the academic studies that have examined nadi shodhana pranayama. I am happy to say that I was able to find some interesting facts and benefits, science-based where possible.

One of the main benefits of alternate nostril breathing is that it may increase parasympathetic activity. A 2008 study found that people who practiced it lowered their pulse and respiratory rate, as well as their blood pressure.

For a total of 4 weeks, participants practiced alternate nostril breathing for 15 minutes every morning on an empty stomach.

Explaining the results of the study, the authors of the study pointed out that:

“A practitioner of Pranayama not only tries to breathe but at the same time tries to keep his attention on the act of breathing, leading to concentration. This act of concentration removes his attention from worldly worries and “de-stress” him. This may decrease the release of adrenaline i.e. decrease sympathetic activity and hence decrease in heart rate, respiratory rate, blood pressure etc.”

2. Improves calmness

Another benefit of alternate nostril breathing is that it may be associated with greater calmness. A 2017 study found that people who practiced alternate nostril breathing showed increased levels of calmness.

In the same study, three different techniques were examined; Nadi Shodhana pranayama, silent sitting. Thirteen participants, male, aged 18-45 took part in this study, which took place over three days.

Each session lasted a total of 28 minutes and the actual technique took about 18 minutes to be carried out.

Using an electroencephalogram (EEG) to evaluate the electrical activity in the brain, this study found that Nadi Shodhana pranayama was the only technique found to have a positive effect on calmness.

Interestingly, this study found that during silent sitting there is greater arousal associated with random thinking. This could make sense given that there is an absence of specific instructions during silent sitting. This led the authors to point out that the mental state during silent sitting “may
be comparable to the state of mind wandering”.

3. Lowers blood pressure

One further benefit is that it may lower blood pressure. A 2013 study found that people who practiced alternate nostril breathing lowered their blood pressure.

These results were also shown in the group that practiced breath awareness.

In the same study, Nadi Shodhana pranayama was the only technique that was also found to have a positive effect on performing a task requiring attention, bimanual dexterity, and visuomotor coordination.

Ninety participants with hypertension took part in this study ninety participants. Ages ranged from 20 to 59 years. They were split into three equally sized groups: one group practiced alternate nostril yoga breathing for 10 minutes, the other group practiced breath awareness and the third group was given a control intervention (such as reading a magazine).

After practicing Nadi Shodhana pranayama, only the participants of that group had improvement in both systolic and diastolic blood pressure. The authors of the study then tried to explain these particular results:

“The mechanism by which alternate nostril breathing may be reducing the blood pressure is complex. The change is possibly related to better parasympathetic control over the cardio-vascular system.”

4. Lowers heart rate

It was also found to lower heart rate. A 2013 study found that people who practiced alternate nostril breathing lowered their heart rate.

These results were also shown in the group that practiced paced breathing. Let’s have a look at how both techniques were practiced:

Nadi Shodhana pranayama was practiced by exhaling from the right nostril, keeping the left nostril closed, and then inhaling through the right nostril and exhaling through the left nostril in the same manner. This was repeated at a breathing rate of 5 breaths per minute, for 30 minutes.

Paced Breathing was practiced by breathing normally while maintaining a similar breathing rate as above, of 5 breaths per minute, for 30 minutes.

The authors of this study explained the similarity in the results from these two techniques by saying that the results may be explained by the controlled breathing rate, rather than the actual technique.

They went on to say that: “Beginners may find slow breathing, without manipulation of the nostrils, easier to perform and thus it may enhance adherence to their practice. As one becomes more comfortable with controlled breathing techniques, participation in other breathing manipulation techniques (e.g., alternate nostril breathing) may provide further benefits.”

5. Promotes well-being

Another benefit is that it may promote well-being. A 2011 study found that “75% of the people who practiced Nadi Shodhana pranayama gained in terms of feeling healthy, 80% in terms of memory recall, 75% in terms of mental stress relief and 90% in terms of physical relaxation.”

After 3 months of practice, the participants had an improvement in feelings of health, memory recall, mental stress relief, and physical relaxation. The participants practiced alternate nostril breathing every evening.

The authors of the study went on yo point out that: “This amazingly simple and yet highly effective ancient technique of Nadi Shodhana pranayama {..} has immense potential of increasing the wellbeing of its practitioners irrespective of their age”.

6. Improves lung function and respiratory endurance

One of the main benefits is that it may lower stress. A 2017 study found that competitive swimmers who practiced alternate nostril breathing enhanced their respiratory endurance.

Twenty-seven national and international competitive swimmers took part in this study and were assigned to either a yogic breathing group or a control group, who were put on a waitlist. The yogic breathing group practiced 3 types of pranayama techniques for half an hour, five days a week for one month.

The three techniques practiced were: Sectional Breathing, Yogic Bellows Breathing, and Alternate Nostril Breathing.

After 30 days of practice, the participants in the yogic breathing group had improvement in respiratory endurance as well as the number of strokes per breath.

The results led the authors to point out that practicing yogic breathing “for 30 min a day along with routine physical exercises for five days a week, decreases airway resistance, increases respiratory muscle endurance, and number of strokes per breath, possibly, through better autonomic reactivity, oxygen diffusion and reduced anxiety in competitive swimmers.”

7. Reduces anxiety

Another benefit is that it may lower anxiety. A 2017 study found that people who practiced alternate nostril breathing lowered perceived anxiety in patients suffering from an anxiety disorder.

A total of 22 participants took part in this study and practiced alternate nostril breathing on the first day and then breath awareness on the second day.

The results found that there was a significant reduction in perceived anxiety after both alternate nostril breathing and breath awareness. The change was larger for alternate nostril breathing, at 25% compared to breath awareness at 8% reduction.

Yoga in general can help reduce anxiety so I wrote an article on How Yoga Helps Anxiety & Depression (Plus 15 Blissful Types To Try).

8. Alternate nostril breathing is a traditional yogic practice

Indeed, it is mentioned in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, which is one of the three primary ancient texts on hatha yoga.

It is referred to as Nadi Shodhana, and is said to be practiced to harmonize the ida and pingala nadis, given that Shodhana means ‘to purify’.

For more information on nadis, Yoga Journal has an interesting article titled: Discover the Ida and Pingala Nadis.

Conclusion

Pranayama is general is aimed at strengthening the connection between mind and body. More and more research is pointing to the various health benefits these practices are able to offer.

And so referring to alternate nostril breathing in particular, research has also found a wide variety of benefits as were mentioned in this article. Some found it to help reduce anxiety while others found it helped lower blood pressure.

If you are interested in learning more about this technique, ideally you will learn from an experienced practitioner.

What are the benefits of alternate nostril breathing?

The main benefits of alternate nostril breathing are an increase in lung function, blood pressure reduction, increase in well-being, and also a reduction in anxiety. Additionally, as it is a traditional yogic pranayama technique it helps to purify the idea and pingla nadis.

Do you alternate breathing out of each nostril?

As a general rule, you alternate between nostrils after a set round. And so you begin by doing a few rounds of inhaling through one nostril and inhaling through the other. And then you switch. Alternatively, you can alternate each and every inhale and exale and that would be one count.

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Alexia Koletsou

Alexia Koletsou is a Level 1 Authorized Ashtanga Yoga Teacher with a Ph.D. in Science Communication. She received her blessing to teach Ashtanga Yoga in 2019, from the Sri K. Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute in Mysore, India, where she has had the honor of practicing with R. Sharath Jois multiple times over the years. She is the owner of her own Shala in Greece and now shares her knowledge on yogamyoldfriend.com and her YouTube channel Alexia K Yoga.

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