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It’s tough to picture Hillary Clinton in anything other than a pantsuit, let alone a pair of yoga pants.
But in her new book “What Happened,” Clinton describes a breathing technique she turned to in the aftermath of the election. She says it helped her find peace and calm – and only required a nice, comfy spot on the floor.
“I did yoga with my instructor … especially ‘breath work,'” she writes. “If you’ve never done alternate nostril breathing, it’s worth a try.”
The technique, which is widely practiced in yoga circles across the globe, involves sitting in a comfortable position on the ground and using your right thumb and index finger to close one nostril at a time while you inhale and exhale. In Sanskrit, it’s called nadi shodhana pranayama, which roughly translates to “subtle energy clearing breathing technique.” References to the practice can be traced back to a fifteenth-century manual on yoga by Swami Swatmarama.
Clinton says she was told that the technique “allows oxygen to activate both the right side of the brain, which is the source of creativity and imagination, and the left side, which controls reason and logic.”
In reality, there’s little evidence to suggest that the method specifically directs the flow of oxygen to different parts of the brain. If it did, every time you had one blocked sinus (perhaps the last time you got a cold) an entire side of your brain would simply stop functioning as well. There’s also no evidence to suggest that one hemisphere of the brain is linked with creativity or logic. (All of your friends who say they are “right-brained” or “left-brained” are misinformed.)
That said, plenty of science exists to back up the idea that there are benefits to certain kinds of breathing – when combined with meditation. And alternate-nostril breathing can be seen as one of these breathing types.
Studies suggest that there is a strong link between our emotional state and our breathing. While rapid breathing can often be a symptom of stress or anxiety, research shows that taking control of our breathing can also influence how we feel. Consciously taking deep, slow breaths, for example, may calm us down by convincing our minds that we’re already in a state of relaxation, Dr. Martin Paulus, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California San Diego professor, writes in a 2013 manuscript in the journal Depression and Anxiety.
Unfortunately, many of us are used to breathing in a way that tends to be bad for us.
“For many of us, deep breathing seems unnatural. There are several reasons for this. For one, body image has a negative impact on respiration in our culture. A flat stomach is considered attractive, so women (and men) tend to hold in their stomach muscles. This interferes with deep breathing and gradually makes shallow ‘chest breathing’ seem normal,” write the folks at the Harvard Medical School in a recent blog post. These quick inhalations and exhalations can actually make us feel more tense.
But there are plenty of ways to change this pattern – and lots of research that supports doing so.
In a 2012 randomized controlled study, 46 male and female musicians were briefly trained in deep breathing and biofeedback. The results showed that a single 30-minute session of slow breathing (with or without the biofeedback component) helped reduce symptoms of anxiety before a performance, particularly in musicians who said they tended to get anxious.
The benefits may extend to people with more severe anxiety as well. The authors of a small 2014 study of male veterans with PTSD found that those who did a breathing-based meditation program three hours each day for a week experienced a decrease in PTSD symptoms and anxiety.
If you’ve never tried deep breathing before, Harvard has some tips for giving it a shot. First, find a quiet, comfortable place to sit or lie down. Then, inhale slowly through your nose, letting your chest and lower stomach expand. Finally, exhale slowly through your mouth or nose. It also can be helpful to count while you’re breathing as a way to even out your inhales and exhales.
According to Clinton, “you will feel calmer and more focused. It may sound silly, but it works for me.”