One of the central practices of yoga is pranayama. Pranayama is a Sanskrit term meaning "energy expansion", though it is often taken to mean "breath control". By using different breathing techniques, we can learn to increase and consciously direct our prana, or life energy. This can give us many health benefits, as well as mental clarity, stress relief, and much more. Ultimately, pranayama assists with meditation and can be a powerful tool for bringing us to higher states of consciousness.
A simple but powerful pranayama technique is nadi shodhana, or alternate nostril breathing. There is a great deal to be said about this technique and its relation to kundalini energy, nadis (energy channels), and more, but that is for another post. For the sake of simplicity, it's enough to understand that there are two major energy channels known as ida and pingala which are associated with the left and right nostrils, respectively, and the two hemispheres of the brain. Through the course of the day, we tend to take in more oxygen through one nostril than the other, and thus one or the other of our brain hemispheres becomes more active. By consciously taking air in through each nostril separately, we cleanse these energy channels and balance the flow of oxygen to the brain. This allows us to function better and brings an immediate sense of calm and tension relief.
To do this technique, sit in any comfortable position (cross-legged or in lotus pose is best, if possible). Make sure your spine is straight. Take your right hand and fold your first two fingers over. This will leave your thumb and ring finger (with pinky) extended. Take your right hand to your nose and cover your right nostril with your thumb. Breathe in deeply through your left nostril. Then rock your hand so your ring finger closes your left nostril and your thumb releases the right, and breathe out through the right nostril. Breathe in through the right nostril, then cover it again and breathe out through the left nostril. This is one complete cycle or round. Continue this process, switching on each exhale breath.
Do this for at least five cycles. As you get used to the technique, you can increase this to ten cycles or more (the more time you spend with this and the more cycles you do, the greater the benefit). When you're done, remove your hand from your nose and breathe deeply through both nostrils. If you like, you can move directly into meditation from here. You will find that this simple technique is very effective at calming the mind and body, and that it brings a sense of peace, grounding, and centeredness. It can be done on its own or at the beginning or end of a yoga session.
Alternate nostril breathing is just one of many pranayama techniques, and it has many variations as well. In future blog posts, we will explore other techniques and their benefit. Thank you for reading, and namaste.