Nadi Shodhana: Understanding the 3 channels and why the practice is so beneficial

The breath is the bridge between our mind and body. Understanding how to focus on and direct the breath, known as pranayama, is incredibly beneficial and can guide you to a state of balance in the present moment. One of our favorites is the practice of Nadi Shodhana. Read on to learn more, and then give it a try—you’ll see why!

The Channels of Nadi Shodhana

Essentially, Nadi Shodhana is the practice of alternating breath between nostrils, as part of a cycle. In Sanskrit, ‘nadi’ means “channel” and ‘shodhana’ means “to cleanse or purify.” Nadis are energy channels or prana passages throughout the body. And according to the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, we have 72,000 nadis radiating life within us.

According to the yogic texts and traditions, there are three fundamental nadis that are key to Nadi Shodhana:

  • Ida → corresponds with the left nostril
  • Pingala → corresponds with the right nostril
  • Sushumna → central nadi, corresponds at the point where the upper lip joins the septum

The concept of this pranayama is that alternating between the ida and pingala channels with steady and deliberate breath will bring the central nadi (sushumna) into balance. It is most often recommended to start with the left side and end on the right, as it is said to engage the parasympathetic nervous system.

You may or may not already be aware of the fact that we all have a natural nasal cycle. Throughout the day, the majority of the air flowing in and out of our noses happens predominantly through one nostril at a time, and they switch every 2 hours on average throughout the day. Dr. Michael Benninger, a head-and-neck doctor at the Cleveland Clinic, noted that it’s not clear why the nasal cycle occurs, but that “some people have speculated that it has to do with allowing moisture to build up on one side so that it doesn’t get too dry.” Our bodies truly have amazing ways of adaptation.

How to practice Nadi Shodhana

  1. Sit comfortably on your mat  or in a chair with your back straight, and your head and neck in line with your heart and hips.
  2. Rest your left hand in your lap, and take your right hand up to your face. Softly place your pointer finger and middle finger together at your third eye, between your eyebrows. This will anchor your hand, while the thumb and ring finger will be used to alternate closing one nostril and then the other throughout the practice.
  3. Begin by taking a deep breath in through both nostrils, and exhaling your breath through both nostrils. It can help to close your eyes.
  4. Using your thumb, gently close your right nostril, and inhale through your left nostril slowly and steadily.
  5. Using your ring finger, gently close your left nostril, as well, pausing briefly with both nostrils closed. 
  6. Release only your right nostril, and exhale slowly and steadily, pausing briefly at the bottom of your breath.
  7. Inhale slowly and steadily through only your right nostril, and then gently close your left nostril, pausing briefly at the top of your breath with both nostrils closed.
  8. Release only your left nostril, and exhale slowly and steadily, pausing briefly at the bottom of your breath.
  9. Move through this cycle 5-10 times for 3-5 minutes, working to match the length of your inhales, pauses, and exhales in a 1:1:1 ratio. 

See table below for a helpful visual of the breathing cycle, based on Figure 34 in M.M. Gore’s Anatomy and Physiology of Yogic Practices:

Notes and Tips gathered from the yogic texts to keep in mind as you progress in your Nadi Shodhana practice:

  • There are various styles and ways to practice this pranayama, but it usually consists of three distinct phases: puraka = inhalation, kumbhaka = retention, rechaka = exhalation

  • If you’re new to pranayama, you may prefer to begin with a 1:1 ratio of inhalation and exhalation, without any breath retention.

  • Remember to breathe in and out slowly and gently. You want to be relaxed, present in the moment, and without strain. If you find yourself working hard or if you’re uncomfortable, take a break, and remind yourself to just focus on alternating channels.

  • As you progress, you will benefit from the addition of kumbhaka, adding a longer pause at the top and bottom of each breath.

  • With more practice, you can extend the kumbhaka, aiming for a ratio of 1:1:1 inhaling, pausing at the top of the breath, exhaling, and pausing at the bottom of the breath, all for the same amount of time.

  • Next, allow the length of exhalation to be double the length of inhalation, reaching a 1:1:2 ratio, and eventually extending the retention as well to a 1:2:2 ratio.

  • Lastly, the most favored ratio, according to the yogic texts is 1:4:2 (inhalation, retention, exhalation), as it is thought to produce the most profound and positive psychological and pranic effects.

Feel free to practice whichever way works best for you, because all of the various styles and methods serve to create balance and inner peace. Once you find the rhythm of this powerful pranayama, you’ll experience just how amazing it feels and observe all the benefits that come along with it.

Why Nadi Shodhana is so beneficial

Unlike channel-surfing on your TV, where you’re searching for something to distract you for a time, switching these channels will bring you to a state of balance and harmony. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 31% of adults in the U.S. already have or will experience an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives. For this reason, it’s vital to know how to decompress your nervous system, and come back to homeostasis.

If you’re feeling anxious or stressed about an upcoming event, take a moment to center yourself with the calming practice of Nadi Shodhana and reap the following benefits:

  • The ability to be in the present moment, stilling the mind from racing thoughts, and inducing a sense of tranquility
  • Improved respiratory function (of course!) and increased oxygen levels
  • Reduction in the stress response by settling the autonomic nervous system
  • Enhanced mental focus, clarity, and concentration
  • Stronger cardiovascular function—decreased blood pressure and an increase in heart rate variability

Several of these benefits can also be gained through the practice of any pranayama, like the 4-7-8 breathing technique or check out our Lion’s Breath tutorial. It’s never too late to learn new tactics and develop practices that help us to better deal with stressors—big and small—in our lives and relationships.

Whether you’re new to pranayama or have been practicing for years, Ignite Yoga‘s MEDITATE classes, which often incorporate Nadi Shodhana, will guide you on your journey to finding balance through breath.

A steady breath is a steady mind. Hit reset with a few rounds of Nadi Shodhana.

About the Author

Justina Sanford

Justina Sanford

Justina is the owner of Ignite Yoga in Dayton, Ohio and 500 E-RYT yoga instructor. She's been teaching yoga for 15 years utilizing various yoga methodologies and has a passion for nudging people to discover what they're capable of, both on and off the mat. Justina loves to facilitate powerful experiences that often include dharma talks (life talks), breathing practices, visionwork, journaling, music, meditation, and sometimes even some unconventional methods. Justina is a former Music Therapist that has discovered a passion for entrepreneurship and helping people succeed. When she's not teaching classes, she's coaching and mentoring her staff or working to improve Ignite Yoga for students and teachers alike. Outside of small business ownership, Justina loves nature, fitness, cooking, culture, singing, and learning. Alongside her husband Chris, they take care of their three rescue dogs and travel often for outdoor adventures.

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