Alternate Nostril Breathing

Nadi Shodhana Pranayama – the Sanskrit which we use to refer to alternate nostril breathing. I love this exercise for climbing because it helps me stay grounded and feel safe. Even if I’m halfway up the wall, I can still ground myself. I like to hold onto the wall with one hand, sit back into my harness, and place my feet wide on the wall to stay stable while I try to restart my mind.

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The premise is simple: you put your index and middle fingers on your forehead just above your nose (your third eye, if you’re into that kind of thing), and then alternatively use your thumb or ring finger to close off one nostril or the other, switching after each inhale. This is supposed to balance you. The left nostril supposedly is the calming one, with the right nostril bringing the stoke! So if you’re way gripped, maybe take a few breaths through the left without switching. If you’re discouraged, maybe choose right instead. If you’re just kind of a mess (I would say I’m usually too in my head to know what I’m feeling), the basic alternating pattern is probably just fine.

The most recent time I used this, I was top roping a 5.6 at a local crag. I’ll be honest, in the gym, I’m usually projecting 5.11 climbs, so this shouldn’t have been a struggle. I was on a top rope trying to psych myself up to lead it afterward because holy crap does lead climbing freak me out, and it started. You’re not safe. What if you fall and break your teeth? What if you get hurt and can’t work? About 4 bolts up, not that it matters because I was on a top rope, my breath started coming too fast. Face flushing, eyes watering, I called down to my trusty belayer and asked him to take. My brain wouldn’t allow me to sit back in my harness and let him hold me but the tension was comforting.

“are you okay?” This isn’t hard.

“what are you doing?” Hurry up.

“Just breathing,” I called down. “I just need a minute.” I had to say it a few times getting progressively louder because my voice kept catching in my throat. Close one nostril, inhale, switch, exhale, inhale, switch. On and on with the breeze blowing past and the sounds of the canyon echoing around me, he thinks you’re weird you need to move. Again, exhale, inhale, switch, exhale, inhale, switch. The rocks felt textured under my fingers again. Exhale, inhale, switch. My calves released and my feet started feeling solid on their ledge. Exhale, inhale, switch.

“Climbing!” Up I went, finishing the climb, cleaning and rappelling down without another hitch. (Because I rappelled with an ATC, not a Munter. Ba dum Tss! …..I’ll be in my corner)

My tips for using this breathing technique, or pranayama, include:

  • Tell your belayer that you sometimes take a break for a breathing exercise BEFORE you’re halfway up a route trying to shout down your explanation
  • Avoid this exercise if you’re particularly phlegm-y, or bring a tissue
  • Focus on one spot that isn’t moving, or if you feel safe enough, consider closing your eyes
  • Practice while you’re still on the ground so you know what you’re doing once you’re on the wall

Good luck, and feel free to let me know how it goes if you try this!

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