Using Breath to Access Your Nervous System


Yoga and Ayurveda grew from the same ancient seed. While they have grown to become trees with diverse branches and paths, the root of them is grounded in the knowledge that we are one with nature. As trees produce oxygen for us to breathe, which is the essence of life on earth, Ayurveda and Yoga emphasize prana (breath or life-force energy) to connect our brain, mind, and body.

The autonomic nervous system (ANS) perceives the internal and external environment and regulates our response. It is connected to physical processes like digestion, heart rate, respiration, immune function, peristalsis, and sexual arousal. Our bodies either perceives threats and goes into fight/ flight/freeze mode from our sympathetic nervous system or it decides we are in a safe environment and relaxes with our parasympathetic nervous system. As the name suggests autonomic implies that it these responses are often “independent” of the conscious mind. Prana or breathing is one part of the autonomic nervous system that can be controlled. It can therefore be used to help facilitate which response is evoked during stressful situations. Ayurveda and Yoga use prana to access our autonomic nervous system and to connect our brain, body, and mind.

As prana is essential for life, the brain responses to the respiratory system with urgency. This is why yogic breathing can make such a strong impact on our health. Prana is the access point into our nervous system.

One pranayama (breathing) exercise that is suggested in Ayurveda and Yoga is Nadi ShodhanaNadi Shodhana, or “alternate nostril breathing,” is a simple and yet very powerful technique to settle your nervous system down and connect your mind, body, and emotions. It is translated as “clearing the channels of circulation.” Nadi Shodhana has been used to quit the mind and is helpful in calming anxiety, stress or trouble sleeping. There are a few different styles of Nadi Shodhana, but they all serve the purpose of creating balance in the nasal passageway and regulating the flow of air.

Benefits of Nadi Shodhana

Nadi Shodhana in just a few minutes can ease the mind and body. Whether you’re nervous for a work presentation, an interview, or a hard conversation, Nadi Shodhana is a quick way to bring you back to center. It is a great exercise to do when feeling stressed, overheated, anxiety-ridden, or frazzled. The breath is the place for us to connect to our nervous system and restore a state of balance.

Other benefits of Nadi Shodhana:

  1. Improves our ability to focus

  2. Reduces stress

  3. Rejuvenates the nervous system

  4. Supports lung and respiratory functions

  5. Removes toxins

  6. Restores and clears the energetic channels

How to Do Nadi ShodhanaA few rounds of Nadi Shodhana is an accessible way to connect your mind, body, and brain.

1. Sit in a comfortable seat with your spine straight and your heart open.

2. Relax your left palm comfortably into your lap and bring your right hand just in front of your face.

3. With your right hand, bring your pointer finger and middle finger to rest between your eyebrows, lightly using them as an anchor. Some prefer to tuck the pointer and middle finger into your palm. Try out both ways to see what works best for you. The fingers we’ll be actively using are the thumb and ring finger.

4. Close your eyes and take a deep breath in and out through your nose.

5. Close your right nostril with your right thumb. Inhale through the left nostril slowly and steadily.

6. Close the left nostril with your ring finger so both nostrils are held closed; retain your breath at the top of the inhale for a brief pause.

7. Open your right nostril and slowly release the breath through the right nostil; pause briefly at the bottom of your exhale.

8. Inhale through the right side slowly.

9. Hold both nostrils closed (with ring finger and thumb).

10. Open your left nostril and release breath slowly through the left side. Pause briefly at the bottom.

11. Repeat 5-10 cycles of one complete cycle of Nadi Shodhana(directions from 5-9), allowing your mind to follow your inhales and exhales.

Consistency of your inhale and exhale can be helpful. For example, you can inhale for a count of five, hold, and then exhale for five. You can slowly increase the count depending on what works for your practice. Use this pranayama practice to restore balance and as a quick effective way to calm your nervous system.

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