The science behind Hillary Clinton’s stress reducing breath practice

In my coaching practice, I often draw on my training as a yoga instructor to provide tools for clients to manage stress and improve focus, clarity and judgment. Needless to say, I was thrilled to see an endorsement by a presidential candidate of one of the most powerful techniques for calming the mind: alternative nostril breathing (known as nadi shodhana pranayama in yoga).

As the name suggests, alternate nostril breathing is a technique that involves deliberately alternating the flow of air between nostrils and holding the breath between each inhale and exhale. It helps balance the nervous system and leaves you mentally alert but relaxed.

Here’s the science behind why it works (and why it’s so cool):

In a healthy human, the breath alternates between the left and right nostril throughout the day. Although the pattern varies by individual, one nostril is typically dominant for 88 minutes followed by two minutes where they are equally open. The dominance then switches to the other nostril. This “nasal cycle” is most apparent when you have a cold and one nostril is stuffed up, and then magically clears but results in the other side being congested.

The cycle is controlled by the central nervous system, with the left nostril activating the parasympathetic nervous system (associated with the more passive and creative right side of the brain) and the right nostril activating the sympathetic nervous system (associated with the more active, analytical left side of the brain).

By deliberately breathing in one side, holding the breath and then breathing out the other side, we effectively trick the brain; it doesn’t know which nostril to make dominant, so it lets the breath flow evenly in and out both nostrils, setting up a state of balance throughout your nervous system. The result is you feel calm, centered and focused.

Here’s how to do it:

1. Sit with your spine erect (note: you don’t have to sit cross-legged on the floor, you can sit in a chair with your feet on the ground).

2. Open your right palm and bend your first two fingers (the “peace sign” fingers) into your palm. The thumb, ring finger and pinky remain upright.

3. Place the thumb and ring finger right below the hard cartilage in the nose (right under the bridge) so your thumb blocks the right nostril and your ring finger blocks your left nostril.

4. Close your eyes, release your thumb from the right nostril and breathe in through the right nostril while keeping the left nostril blocked.

5. Then hold the breath by placing your thumb back on the right nostril, blocking both nostrils for a few seconds.

6. Release your ring finger from your left nostril and breathe out the left nostril while still blocking the right nostril.

7. Then breathe in through the left nostril (the one you just breathed out of).

8. Once again, hold the breath by blocking both nostrils with your ring finger and thumb for a few seconds.

9. Release your thumb and breathe out the right nostrils.

Repeat the cycle for several rounds until you start to feel quiet and calm and then release the hand and sit for several minutes in this balanced state.

This technique is a simple, yet profound practice to combat jitters before a stressful event or for calming the mind when you feel anxious, scattered and unfocused. Just ask Hillary Clinton…


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