I’ve struggled with anxiety my entire life. As a toddler I bit my nails so much, they bled! But over the last few years, I’ve done a lot of work to find ways to decrease my anxiety overall, but it still pops up sometimes. One of the ways I cope is single-nostril breathing (also known as alternate-nostril breathing or Nadi Shodhan). Hear me out. It sounds a bit awkward, I know, but it makes a huge difference in calming and grounding an anxious mind and body.
What is single-nostril breathing?
Single-nostril breathing is just one type of deliberate, or conscious, breathing.
Breathing deliberately sounds like such a small thing. But it’s really a big deal for your body and mind. It’s the magical intersection of the voluntary and involuntary nervous systems. Think about it: normally we breathe without thinking about it. Our body just goes about its business getting oxygen, letting out carbon dioxide. But unlike many autonomic processes such as our hearts beating, we can choose to take control whenever we want to, the same way we decide to move our arms.
I’ve found single-nostril breathing to be really helpful when I get the heart-pounding, pressure-in-my-chest; tell-tale signs that a full blown anxiety attack is on it’s way. It’s also great when I feel amped up and can’t sleep.
Like most deliberate breathing exercises, it calms our nervous system, slows the heart rate and lowers blood pressure; pretty much gives a big “settle down!” direction to our body and mind.
It turns down the “fight-or-flight” mode and turns up the “rest-relax.” Single-nostril breathing has the bonus of improving our attention and coordination since it takes focus and dexterity to do it.
And we can do single-nostril breathing anywhere, almost anytime!
How to try single-nostril breathing.
So how to do it? There’s no magic involved and you’re allowed to use your hands. It’s easy and painless:
Sit in a comfy position and using your dominant hand (for ease of directions, I’ll use the right hand), place your right thumb softly on your right nostril and let your right ring and pinky fingers hover softly over your left nostril, and let the index & middle fingers float above or rest on the bridge of your nose.
Close your eyes. Gently close your right nostril with your thumb and inhale through your left nostril, slowly, smoothly and deeply, counting to 5.
Pause, and hold your breath for 2 counts.*
Gently close your left nostril (using your ring & pinky fingertips) and release the block of the right. Exhale through your right nostril for 7 counts.
Inhale through your right nostril slowly and deeply for 5 counts.
Pause, and hold your breath for 2 counts.
Gently close your right nostril (using your ring & pinky finger tips) and release the block of the left. Exhale through your left nostril for 7 counts.
This is one round. Do as many rounds as you want, until you feel calmer. (I usually do at least 5 complete cycles.) When you’re done, slowly open your eyes. You should feel more relaxed and in control.
Couple of notes: Keep the cycle smooth and don’t breathe from the mouth – it’s all about the nostrils here. If 7 counts feels too long to exhale, shorten the time to where it feels gentle and comfortable, yet still deep enough, ensuring that your exhalation is longer than the inhalation.
*Skip the pause of holding the breath if you have high blood pressure.
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