For anxiety management, Hillary Clinton has a trick up her sleeve, or in this instance, nostril.
Unlike the one in six American adults who take psychiatric drugs (anti-anxiety drug, Xanax the most common), Clinton manages moments of anxiety with a yogic breathing technique called nadi shodhana (or alternate nostril breathing).
“Have you tried that? I would highly recommend it,” former Secretary of State told CNN’s Anderson Cooper last week. “I can only say, based on my personal experience that if you’re sitting cross-legged on the yoga mat and you’re really trying to inhale and hold it and then have a long exhale, it’s really relaxing.”
In her new memoir, What Happened, the 69-year-old also talks about the Ayurvedic practice, saying it helped her heal from the “devastating” election loss to Donald Trump that left her feeling “tired and empty”.
“Friends advised me on the power of Xanax and raved about their amazing therapists. Doctors told me they’d never prescribed so many anti-depressants in their lives,” Clinton writes in her book. “But that wasn’t for me, never has been. Instead I did yoga with my instructor, especially breath work. If you’ve never done alternate-nostril breathing, it’s worth a try.”
She proceeds to explain the pranayama technique, which is used to clear the mind and settle emotions (“Nadi” means energy channel, “Shodhana” means clarifying, and “Pranayama” means breath control.):
“Sit cross-legged with your left hand on your thigh and your right hand on your nose. Breathing deeply from your diaphragm, place your right thumb on your right nostril and your ring and little fingers on your left. Shut your eyes, and close off your right nostril, breathing slowly and deeply through your left. Now close both sides and hold your breath. Exhale through the right nostril. Then reverse it: Inhale through the right, close it …
“The way it’s been explained to me, this allows oxygen to activate both the right side of the brain – which is the source of your creativity and imagination – and the left side – which controls reason and logic.”
Yogis have used alternate nostril breathing, which is considered “one of the most necessary practices on the path of yoga”, for centuries, but studies showing its effects are limited.
Some small studies suggest a daily 30-minute nadi shodhana over six weeks increases vital capacity (ie breathing capacity) “significantly” and can lower systolic blood pressure and heart rate during times of stress. It is also believed to enhance respiratory function and improve mental focus.
Regardless, Clinton may not be doing the technique properly, says Simon Borg-Olivier, physiotherapist, director of Yoga Synergy and co-author of Applied Anatomy and Physiology of Yoga.
“It sounds like she is getting some benefits however, and many people can also get some too if they try what she does,” says Borg-Olivier. “The positive effects may be from the following things:
- “She may be getting a calming effect from breathing diaphragmatically… but many people do this erroneously – the ribs should not expand at all and you should feel the breath first in your lower abdomen and lower back.
- “She may be getting the benefits an increase in circulation, because nasal breathing (even through both nostrils) stimulates the release of the powerful neurotransmitter nitric oxide that acts as a circulatory enhancer.
- “She may be getting benefits because she is regulating her breath and that may increase her heart rate variability, which can really improve parasympathetic nervous system health.
- “She may be getting a mental calming by having something to focus on mentally to distract away from other thoughts.
- “She is highly likely to be breathing more than normal i.e. hyperventilating, and thus getting some sense of anaesthesia due to release of endorphins. Also, the reduction of blood flow to the brain gives a light-headed effect that some people find pleasant, euphoric or simply helps to reduce mental chatter.”
There are, of course, those whose skepticism levels are high because, you know, Sanskrit and small studies and rituals strike the fear of God. They point out that remembering to breathe generally helps with anxiety, as well as like, life.
These same people would no doubt have an apoplectic fit if they discovered what the correct technique for alternate nostril breathing consists of.
“Many of the reported benefits of the technique depend on doing the correct technique,” Borg-Olivier says. “However, [Clinton] is not really doing the proper technique for nadi shodana – that should be done not by blocking the nose with the fingers but actually by blocking the nose with the tongue, which is stretched backwards into the throat and up the nasal passages, going alternately up the right nostril passage to breathe into the left nostril and then taking the tongue to block the left passage so that you can breathe into the right nostril.”
If that doesn’t stop your mental chatter for a moment, then I don’t know what will – but, a word of caution; if you want to learn the proper, tongue-tied technique, reading Clinton’s book might not cut it.