Earlier, we talked about how breathing techniques can be used to increase longevity. Today we will see the most popular use of breathing techniques – to reduce stress and regulate ventilation.
Pranayam, a wonderful branch of Yoga, deals mainly with breathing techniques, that have medical applications ranging from headaches to even kidney stones! But today we’ll see only a small stress-relieving exercise to start with.
First the setup –
Time – no specification, ideally in the morning.
Place – anywhere with clean air.
Health status – The only major contraindication is a profusely running or blocked nose.
Position – Don’t bother much for it if you can’t manage it at all, though the Lotus Position (Padmasan) is ideal. You can even do it sitting at your office desk or standing in a public transport if you really can’t help it!
A fancy Sanskrit name please?
Naadi-shodhan Kriya. (Literally, the tube/tunnel cleanser process). Well, that’s what they really call it, because it cleanses all sorts of ‘tubes’ (Naadis) in the head and the airways. How? We’ll see in the scientific explanation at the last in the article.
What we will actually be doing –
We will inhale air from one nostril and exhale from the other, alternating the nostrils, which causes the nasal airways to be ‘brushed’ up to-and-fro, actually cooling the head in the process; and we’ll add a holding period in between, as an endurance exercise for the respiratory system, that also gets us a better ventilation to reduce the demand-supply gap of oxygen to brain that is characteristic of all stress situations.
Take any comfortable and still position, as far as your complete spine and head remains upright and straight. For those who can manage it, the Lotus position (Padmasan) / Enlightened position (Siddhasan) / Brave position (Veerasan) can be best.
(“What’s that?” Ever noted how Buddha sits with legs folded to bring feet on opposite thighs? That’s the Padmasan. )
1. Preparatory step – Simply close the left nostril with the middle and ring fingers of the right hand and exhale completely through the right nostril.
Note – There’s a bit of speculation amongst the Gurus as to which nostril should be taken first with which step, inhalation or exhalation. Generally, I have found that using right nostril with exhalation as a preparatory step is favoured more often, as it is described as the ‘Suryanaadi‘ associated with Pitta (the Fire Bio element); so you start by dissipating the pent-up heat from it with the exhalation. Still, I find that all the other variations too, work well, as far as you make equal number of inhale-exhale repetitions alternately. Personally, I advise patients to start by exhaling out of the nostril not used at that moment (at any given only one nostril is dominantly used for breathing).
2. Then open the left nostril and close the right one with the right thumb. Now inhale to the fullest from the left nostril. This is called Poorak (Floodfilling) in Yoga.
3. Now close both nostrils using the respective fingers used earlier, and hold the breath for four times the period you took to inhale. This is called Kumbhak (Holding) in Yoga.
4. Then release the finger held on the other nostril (here, thumb from the right nostril), and exhale slowly for twice the time you took to inhale. This is called Rechak (Draining) in Yoga.
Master tip – You may find it really hard at the beginning to exhale for twice the time you took to inhale. This is the knack that steps up the game – training your respiratory muscles to retain air longer in the lungs, which is essential for advanced Yoga studies.
5. Now simply repeat steps 2 to 4 using the opposite nostrils to inhale and exhale. This makes one set of repetitions for Naadi-shodhan.
Note – In the earlier article, we saw that time ratio of inhale-hold-exhale for normal breathing is 2:1:4. For various exercises however, it becomes 1:4:2, as in here. Note how the proportion between inhale and exhale still rains the same, only the holding time is increased.
6. Start with three sets everyday; go on increasing as you find comfortable to.
Some Anatomy-Physiology stuff for the nerds.
The nasal cavity, divided by a median septum (wall) into two halves, is connected to the respective ear and eye by a tube for each. For ears, this tube (the eustachian tube) balances the air pressure in the middle ear (compartment behind your eardrum). For eyes, the tube (the naso-lacrimal duct) serves as a drainage for tears. (Now you know why the nose becomes moist when tears pool up in the eyes). These two tubes,as you may have guessed, play important role in the normal functioning of the respective organs. Nasal sphelgm blocks them up just the way it does the sinuses. This exercise is aimed at removing it from these tubes and the sinuses. The aeration obviously has a cooling effect which relieves eye strain and any inflammation the sinuses may be facing. However, the real stress relief comes as the eardrums get tickled alternately by this inhale – exhale combo. It happens so, that part of the eardrum and middle ear are supplied by a branch of the Vagus nerve, a cranial nerve that controls your heart, lungs, liver, spleen, stomach and pretty much every major organ directly or indirectly. The ‘tickling’ imparts a reverse stimulation to the Vagus which causes it to ‘reset’ the heart rate and other rhythms of the body to their natural rate and state. These are exactly what has been disturbed by stress, and setting them right neutralises the stress like nothing else.
Caution – Don’t go overboard in trying to tickle the eardrum, by doing this exercise too vigorously, lest you may damage it, or even worse, trigger a ‘Vagal sensory overload’, as it is called in medicine. If you still can’t get it right, get in touch with a Guru or qualified instructor .
Interestingly, Ayurveda (and Yoga) consider nerves too, as being a type of Naadi (tube), which is quite relatable, as nerve axons are essentially tubular networks through which electric impulses are conducted by liquid media. Whether Naadi shodhan really has some remarkable effect on this conduction too, is currently a topic yet to be studied further.
Hope you enjoyed reading this article. It leads us into the fascinating world of Yoga and self control, that I will be introducing step-by-step in the future articles series. (And it will make you marvel at how much more Yoga is, than just weird olympic-grade gymnastic poses. That’s what will be special about it!)
Stay healthy, stay happy!
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About the Author – Dr. Harshad Rajandekar is an Ayurvedic Physician and Management Consultant by profession. He runs a practice in Integrative medicine at Nasik, India and also provides consultations in Yoga and other ancient Indian wellness therapies. He has keen interest in integrating modern and ancient medicine to the benefit of patients and loves equally, working in a lab and an apothecary. On weekends, he may found hiking the Sahyadri range, collecting rare herbs.
More articles by Dr. Harshad –
The Curious Connection between Breath rate and Longevity
Top-Ten Misconceptions about Ayurveda Busted
How to Make the Most of the food you eat: 8 amazingly simple neglected points
Oil pulling / oil swishing – the authentic Ayurveda way!