By bringing this kind of breath work into the mainstream, Clinton has introduced the world to a practice that has both proven mental and physical health benefits.
Yoga in general, and yoga breathing practices such nadi shodhana, calm the mind and the body. In nadi shodhana, the process of literally alternating breathing between the right and left nostril also helps balance the right and left brain, the right and left lungs, and the right and left sides of the body. Alternate nostril breathing has been shown to slow down a rapid heart rate and to lower blood pressure. It can clear toxins and respiratory systems — shodhana translates to purification and nadi to channels, so the intent of the practice is to cleanse different systems of the mind and body.
Research has also shown that this type of breathing exercise can significantly increase the effectiveness of the parasympathetic nervous system, or the “rest-and-digest” system that automatically kicks in when we relax or sleep to help restore our body’s equilibrium. But in our hectic, daily lives, when our bodies are in a perpetual state of fight or flight, this calmer part of ourselves is harder to activate.
It’s particularly challenging to access during times of extreme stress, which is why Clinton told Cooper he probably wouldn’t be able to do it in the middle of covering a hurricane. But for everyday stresses, taking the time to breath this way is calming and grounding.
The demands of daily life act on the body the same way, whether you’re running for political office or running late to pick up your toddler at day care. In almost all cases, the body doesn’t register the difference. It just knows that it is stressed, deprived of its need to disengage from activity and be still. So instead we look to power, money, career, relationships and thousands of other things outside ourselves in hopes they will bring us contentment and calm. But life doesn’t work that way.
Clinton’s lifelong dream was within her grasp, and she lost. But even in all of that grief, she has seemed to learn something incredibly valuable: We have to give ourselves a break.
We have to stop. And sit. We can sit “cross-legged on your yoga mat” as Clinton does, but even this is not necessary. All you have to do is slice through your daily activity with one pause, be it for one minute or 10, and breathe deeply. Science — and now the world’s most famous female politician — attest to its benefits.
If alternate nostril breathing worked for Clinton after suffering the greatest disappointment of her professional life, just imagine what it could do to manage everyday stress.
Here’s how to try it yourself:
1. Take a seat. Sit cross-legged on the floor or use a chair.
2. Curl your right forefinger and middle finger into your palm. You’re getting these two out of the way. Your thumb, ring finger, and pinky finger will be sticking out. You will use your thumb and ring finger to do alternate-nostril breathing.
3. Put your thumb on the right nostril where the nose bone meets cartilage. Put your ring finger on the left nostril in the same place. Rest them there lightly.
4. Breathe normally, but do not breathe through the mouth. Keep it closed. Take a long, slow, deep inhalation through both nostrils. Before exhaling (don’t really pause, just go with it), push in/depress the right nostril to close it off completely. Exhale fully through the left nostril only.
5. Keep the right nostril closed off. Inhale through the left nostril. Before exhaling again (again, no pausing, just keep going), press the left nostril with the ring finger and release the thumb from the right.
6. Exhale through the right nostril only, and then inhale through the right nostril only.
7. Repeat steps 5 and 6 until you’re ready to finish (for maximum benefits do at least 10 rounds). The finishing breath will be an exhale through the left nostril.
8. Take a long, slow breath in through both nostrils, and then exhale through both nostrils.
Kim Weeks started practicing yoga in 1995, and has been teaching it since 2001. Voted several times DC’s Best Yoga Teacher, she has appeared on NBC4 Washington as a yoga expert and in a PBS documentary on spirituality. Mother to two young children, Kim currently teaches weekly classes at YogaWorks in Washington, DC. She blogs at kimweekswellness.com
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