One of the best breathing exercises for calming the nervous system s alternate nostril breathing, or nadi shodanham. This is a concentrati n as well as a breathing exercise, and it is possibly the single most imp tant preparation for meditation in hatha yoga. There are dozens jf variations to suit differing needs, abilities, and temperaments. At > ie extreme, mental patients, flighty or hyperactive children, or anyone v\ o has difficulty concentrating can simply sit up straight, rest their elbi s on a desk, press the right nostril shut with the right index finger, i d exhale and inhale three times. Then they can press the left nostril si it with the left index finger and again exhale and inhale three times. '1 is simple exercise can be repeated for 5 minutes at a pace of 1- to 2-sec d exhalations and 1- to 2-second inhalations (15-30 breaths per mini e) using abdominal breathing. It trains concentration because it requ >s sitting straight, counting the breaths, switching nostrils at the pr< "r moment, and, most important of all, breathing evenly with no n( e, jerks, or pauses.
A slightly more complex version of alternate nostril breathing be is with making the classical mudra (gesture) with the right hand, curling ie index and middle fingers in toward the palm. Closing the right nostrU :th the thumb, exhale and inhale once through the left nostril (fig. 2.. 1). Then, closing the left nostril with the ring (fourth) Finger (fig. 2.28b) ex; le and inhale once through the right nostril. Go back and forth like that f r 5 minutes. Breathe abdominally or diaphragmatically as your abil es permit.
Figure 2.28a. Alternate nostril figure 2.28b. Alternate nostril breathing closing the right nostril breathing closing the left nostril wit with the right thumb. the right fourth finger.
The following version of this exercise is the one ordinarily taught in hatha yoga classes even though it is more elaborate and demanding of concentration than the previous exercises. Using the same hand mudra as j-or the second exercise, exhale through the left nostril and inhale through the right three breaths, then exhale through the right and inhale through the left three more breaths. Then breathe three breaths evenly with both nostrils open. Next, exhale through the right and inhale through the left three times, then exhale through the left and inhale through the right three times, and again take three even breaths with both nostrils open. That's 18 breaths. Repeat this three times, for 54 breaths total. As before, your concentration will be on posture, abdominal or diaphragmatic breathing, and, above all, on even breathing. II you can avoid sacrificing even breathing, you can slow down to 3-second exhalations and 3-second inhalations, or ten breaths per minute.
If you do this practice three times a day, it centers the attention and calms the mind, and it is therefore ideal for anyone who wishes to remain balanced and focused. For a more advanced practice, students will gradually slow down the pace of breathing until they are finally taking 20-second exhalations and 20-second inhalations. Ultimately they will practice pranayama, or breath retention (which, as will be discussed shortly, should never be undertaken except under the supervision of a competent instructor).
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