Neti Washing: Free Your Breath, Free Your Mind
In yoga classes, we talk a whole lot about the importance of the breath. We exhort our students to breathe deeply as they move into, hold and move out of asanas. Some types of yoga, such as Ashtanga and other forms of vinyasa, instruct practitioners how and when to move with each inhalation and exhalation. It’s arguable that this coordination of breath and movement is one of the most important factors that sets asana apart from other physical practices. The yoga poses many of us practice are not intended to be gymnastic feats to perform. They were developed as vehicles for expanding the breath and therefore, calming the nervous system.
In the Eight Limbs of Yoga, the framework for practicing the whole system of Yoga, pranayama—expansion of the breath—lies between the physical and mental/spiritual practices. The breath is the gateway between the body and mind. That is why traditional Hatha Yoga emphasizes breathing more than accomplishing poses. It is the slowing and steadying of the breath that allows the body and mind to settle.
We breathe an average of 20,000 times a day. It happens all day long without our having to give it a single thought. But, unlike any other automatic physiological process, we can also control the breath. We can extend it or shorten it or speed it up or slow it down, all of which affect the nervous system in many ways.
But sometimes we don’t have a lot of control over how we breathe. Allergies, sinus infections and environmental pollutants can sometimes cause our breathing passes to be blocked, making it impossible to take in a full inhalation. When this happens, we can feel less energetic and sometimes even suffer a bit of brain fog.
Neti Washing to the Rescue
Of course, eating healthy foods and exercising regularly can help ward off these symptoms, but sometimes our environment gets the best of us. That’s when neti washing can save the day.
Neti washing is a form of nasal irrigation that employs a small pot and a solution of warm salt water. The warm water soothes nasal passages as it gently clears excess mucus so that the cilia inside your nostrils can more efficiently trap bacteria and other toxins.
You can buy a pot at most pharmacies and many larger grocery stores. You must use specially formulated neti salt—non-iodized—for the solution.
There’s lots of good info online about how to use your pot, but here are a few tips:
- Use boiled, distilled or filtered water. Even though neti washing has been practiced safely for centuries, there have been a few recently recorded cases of life-threatening infections from using straight tap water.
- Add 1/4 teaspoon of neti salt to your pot and pour water over the salt. Stir to distribute the salt.
- Test the temperature of your water before you irrigate. It should be warm, but not hot. Hot water will burn delicate nasal passages. Cold water isn’t as effective and doesn’t feel all that great either. When the water is running through your nostrils it should feel slightly warm.
- Position yourself over a sink and have some tissues handy.
- You may need to experiment with the tilt of your head. It took me a few tries to find the tilt that would allow free flow between my nostrils. It’s a good idea to start neti washing at a time when your sinuses aren’t blocked, just to get the hang of it when your passages are relatively open.
- Gradually pour one full pot of salt water through each nostril, blowing your nose at the end of each washing.
- Wash your pot thoroughly and let it air dry completely.
I was hesitant to try neti washing for years. It just seemed too weird—running water through one nostril and having it flow out the other one. But about five years ago, in the throes of a sinus infection, I decided to try it. I’ve been doing it almost daily ever since. Even if my sinuses are pretty clear, it just feels good for my sinuses and nasal passages to feel so open and expansive. And this is purely anecdotal, but after my morning neti washing, my brain feels a lot more clear too.