Yogic Breathing Techniques (Pranayama) 101: Reduce Anxiety With Alternate Nostril Breathing

THE FIVE: Essential Lifestyle Principles For A Life In Sync

  1. Yoga: Asanas (Postures) + Pranayama (Breath)
  2. Meditation + Mindfulness
  3. Psychic Sovereignty (Our Relationship To Technology)
  4. Sleep Hygiene
  5. Outdoor Rituals


Yogic breathing techniques (pranayamas) are at once simple and impressively potent practices. Different breath patterns and techniques were designed (and refined over thousands of years...) to stimulate and/or relax the nervous system in extremely specific ways, yielding a wide range of effects: generation of energy (prana) within the body-mind, clearing of energy blockages in the body, purification and cleansing of the body, promotion of mental clarity and focus, grounding and balance in the body-mind, and reduction of anxiety, just to name a few.

A wealth of academic studies has confirmed numerous benefits of and therapeutic applications for regular pranayama practice. One review reports decreased subjective stress, improved cognitive function, improved parameters of autonomic function (including decreased blood pressure), enhanced respiratory function, lower free radical load and increased superoxide dismutase (both signs of lowered oxidative stress), enhanced melatonin production (and a corresponding improvement in sleep quality), decreased subjective pain, and much more. [1]  Pretty impressive for just changing your pattern of breathing.

Here we'll focus in on Anulom Vilom Pranayama, which is widely considered to be a universally appropriate technique—it’s perfect for anyone who is new to pranayama, but tends to remain a core focus even for advanced practitioners.  

Here’s how to get started.

Anulom Vilom Pranayama

Anulom Vilom is the Sanskrit name for what’s now called alternate nostril breathing. This pranayama falls under the category of Nadi Shodhana, a range of breathing exercises intended to calm and cleanse the nervous system.   

Studies and clinical trials have confirmed the benefits of this ancient practice by tracking various parameters for autonomic nervous system, cardiopulmonary, and cognitive function. [2]  

(Our Relationships Director, Sandra, demonstrates the technique)

1. Sit in a comfortable, upright posture, on a meditation cushion or bench if possible. Keep the neck and back straight.

2. Begin with a one-minute somatic scan. Bring the attention to the top of the head, and move down through each part of the body. Just observe the sensations throughout the body; don’t judge or try to change anything. Beginning your pranayama sessions with this simple technique will help increase the focusing and clarifying benefits of the practice.    

3. Bend the index and middle fingers to touch the palm. Rest the thumb on the right nostril and the ring finger on the left nostril. This precise hand gesture—known in yogic tradition as a mudra—is an important part of the practice.

4. Close the right nostril with the thumb, and inhale through the left nostril. 

5. Close the left nostril with the ring finger, and exhale through the right nostril. 

6. Keep the left nostril closed, and inhale through the right nostril.

7. Close the right nostril with the thumb, and exhale through the left nostril. This completes one cycle.

8. Keep the right nostril closed, and inhale through the left nostril to begin the next cycle.

9. Once the breath pattern becomes intuitive (i.e. when you no longer need to devote attention to performing it correctly), focus your attention on the third eye center between the eyebrows.

10 minutes of focused Anolum Vilom will completely change your mental and emotional environment, purging stress from mind and re-grounding you in your body. Start with 1-5 minutes per session, if doing so helps you overcome the psychological hurdles to establishing a regular practice. 

Taking It Deeper: Counting + Holding

Once you’re comfortable with performing the basic breath pattern, you can deepen the practice by counting and retaining (holding) the breath.

Counting and holding requires concentration, and therefore are helpful techniques for stepping away from disruptive external stimuli and mental chatter. The more immersive your practice, the more amplified the somatic, mental, and emotional effects of the breath will be.    

Try adding these two techniques to the same Anulom Vilom breath pattern outlined above.

Samavritti (Equal Count + Hold): Inhale, hold the inhalation, exhale, hold the inhalation, all for the same count. Start with a count of 4, and work up to counts of 8 and 12. Try to let the breath “rest” or “float” during the retentions, rather than actively closing the back of the throat and airways. If longer counts are a struggle, stick with a count of 4—the aim is to bring more peace to the nervous system, not more stress.

Visamavritti (Unequal Count + Hold):  Inhale-inhale hold-exhale-exhale hold in a pattern of 1-4-2-3. For example, inhale for a count of 4, hold the inhalation for a count of 16, exhale for a count of 8, hold the exhalation for a count of 12. This is a more advanced practice, and should only be attempted when you’re very comfortable with Samavritti.

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