Breathe Into Gratitude: A Potent Relaxer And Mood Booster

be well May 01, 2021

This twenty-minute guided practice trains your nervous system to move into a parasympathetic/rest and digest state, which preps you for a successful gratitude meditation. These practices are known to change brain chemistry without medications or drugs.


We begin with Nadi Shodhana or alternate nostril breathing. This practice is an ancient one, developed by yogis perhaps thousands of years ago with the intention of balancing the nervous system and maintaining excellent health.

We close off one nostril then the other after each inhalation and exhalation cycle. I show you exactly how this is done at the beginning of the video.

Right now place a finger lengthwise under your nostrils. Do you feel the breath flowing out of one nostril more than the other? Trippy, right? If you run this check throughout the day, chances are you will feel a shift in dominance from side to side, typically every 2.5 hours. Scientists agree this is a real phenomenon, though it is not fully understood why the body has this particular biorhythm.

Some studies suggest a correlation between nostril dominance and brain hemisphere dominance. Clicking on this link will lead you to a rabbit hole on the subject. Some people deliberately make one nostril dominant based on the tasks they have on hand, whether it’s to take an exam or digest a meal. I’d love to hear from you if experiment with this.

There are even studies comparing the nostril dominance biorhythm of healthy versus sick individuals. In his paper Alteration in Nasal Cycle Rhythm as an Index of the Diseased Condition, Elangovan Muthu Kumaran found that sick individuals with a right nostril dominance were found to suffer from peptic ulcers, eye diseases, gastritis, diarrhea, insomnia, liver disorder, gastrointestinal disorder, and cardiac diseases. Those with predominant airflow in the left nostril were suffering from loss of appetite, tuberculosis, allergy, and respiratory disorders like wheezing and bronchitis asthma. This is in line with what the yogis taught.

The ancients believed that our bodies contain tubes, called nadis, for conducting prana, or energy, throughout the body. Shodhana means to purify or cleanse. So Nadi Shodhana is meant to cleanse the energetic pathways. Modern scientists have not located the nadis, but they have found a measurable correlation between regular Nadi Shodhana practice and improvement in heart rate, blood pressure, and an overall sense of wellness. Here’s an interesting study on the physical benefits of this practice.

What I know from my personal practice is that Nadi Shodhana balances my body and mind, and I feel alert but relaxed long after I step off the mat. Many people use this practice before a stressful event like flying or speaking in public. Try it out, and over time it just may replace your Xanax!

The second exercise in this practice is called Box Breathing and is a powerful tool for battling anxiety. Box Breathing trains us how to respond to stressors quickly and constructively, and I've heard that even the Navy Seals use it to keep their sh*t together under extreme pressure.  Why is it so powerful? When we deliberately retain the in and out-breath we train the nervous system how to respond to stress.

Let’s back up a bit. The nervous system operates in an autonomic state and a parasympathetic state. The autonomic state is the fight-flight-freeze response we are wired with in order to run away from saber tooth tigers. It shuts off systems so that all energy can be redirected to dealing with the crisis at hand. Digestion and the immune system are put on hold. When we move into this state our blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing all ramp up. Cortisol and adrenaline are increased. This is a brilliant system meant to keep us safe from real threats. However, health and mental problems occur if we don’t quickly return to a parasympathetic state.

The parasympathetic response is the body’s way of calming itself after a stressful event. If you’ve ever been in a scary situation, afterward you may have noticed yourself shaking, needing to make noise, or otherwise burn off the stress hormones and come down from the autonomic buzz.  The body wants to return to the parasympathetic state, also known as the rest and digest state. The body begins to heal again, and digestion comes back online. We need to operate in this state as often as possible.

The problem is that many of us are stuck functioning in a predominantly autonomic state, and don't know how to move into the parasympathetic state. This leads to anxiety, inability to regulate moods, hypertension, among many woes.

Box Breathing helps retrain the nervous system by using its natural responses in a controlled way.

By intentionally holding the breath after the inhalation and exhalation, we are deliberately creating stress on the system. The body may initially feel triggered and move towards an autonomic state – it’s saying “omg, I can’t breathe!” But because we have control over the process, this temporary stressor of breath retention becomes manageable, comfortable even. We are creating a mental challenge to learn how to become more resilient, less easily triggered. We are learning how to keep calm in a stressful situation even when we are off the mat. You might even feel pleasantly buzzed and very calm after practicing this.

The final exercise in this session is a Gratitude Meditation, which has been scientifically proven to make us feel more joyful.

Gratitude meditation is the beautiful practice of simply taking a bit of time to acknowledge the goodness in your life. You become focused enough to feel the miracle of the highly sophisticated systems within the body. You experience how your body remembers a kindness given or received. Finally, you cultivate a sense of connection to something larger than yourself – your companions, your community, your environment, a higher power – and you send out gratitude in the form of love and thanks.

Psychologists have long suspected that a gratitude practice helps people feel positive emotions, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships. Recently scientists have begun conducting experiments that have confirmed the benefits of this powerful practice. Some fun studies are here and here. Rabbit holes are linked within each of these articles, so go as deep as you want. Enjoy!

And now, a few notes and contraindications:
  1. It is possible that at the beginning of your practice you may sweat, shake, or grow tense. If that happens to an unmanageable degree stop the practice, lie down and take long, steady breaths. Over time you will be able to do this practice without these reactions.
  2. People with hypertension or heart trouble should not hold the breath to the point of tension. You can safely do these practices without any breath retention and will eventually get well enough to be able to introduce the retention.
  3. People with low blood pressure should hold the breath ONLY after the inhalation.
  4. If you struggle to sit upright this long, sit in a chair or on a bolster against a wall. Eventually, you will develop enough strength and flexibility to easily sit for a long time.
  5. “Do Your Practice and All is Coming” ― Sri. K. Pattabhi Jois. 

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