Alternate nostril breathing is a calming and balancing practice. Breathing through one nostril at a time is something we do naturally without realising.
Students often arrive at a Yoga class bringing all sorts of worries and agitation from their daily lives. Sometimes I have to teach a class, but I feel stressed and out of sorts. Alternate nostril breathing is a reliable way of settling myself and everyone else down. It is one of my go to practices for calm.
An Ancient Yogic Practice
Alternate nostril breathing is known in Sanskrit as Shodhana Nadi Pranayama, which means channel clearing breath practice[i]. Yoga philosophy teaches that we have lots of energy channels in our bodies, known as nadis. Blockages in these channels can result in all sorts of health problems.
Two of the main nadis are called Pingala and Ida. These are believed to spiral around the spinal column in a double helix shape. They correspond to the two sides of the personality – hot and cold, sun and moon, active and passive. Part of the goal of Hatha Yoga practice is to balance these two aspects of the person[ii].
Brain Hemispheres and Balance
If you prefer the language and approach of Western science, we can relate this to the two hemispheres of the brain. I am fascinated by the way Yogic ideas (which can seem quite strange to us westerners) always seem to have parallels in modern science.
The left side of the brain deals primarily with cool, logical thought, while the right brain hemisphere is responsible for creativity, passion and emotion. This is remarkably similar to the Yogic Ida and Pingala division. Most of us have natural tendencies to be led by either head or heart. But we can all recognise the benefits of balance.
Breathing through One Nostril at a Time
We actually tend to breathe mostly through one nostril at a time. We have a nasal cycle which is controlled by the autonomic brain function. Without consciously realising it, your brain directs more blood flow to one nostril, causing that nostril to open up more and let more air through. After a while it switches over to the other nostril[iii]. The timing of the cycle varies between individuals. The nostrils swap over anything between 25 minutes to eight hours. In most people it is around two hours.
There are several reasons why we do this. The nostril cycle is thought to be related to making sure one nostril is always moist, keeping the sense of smell healthy, and encouraging us to turn over in bed regularly at night to avoid bedsores. There is also evidence that a number of serious diseases are correlated with problems with the nasal cycle[iv]. Maybe those ancient Yogis knew what they were talking about after all!
A Calming Practice
The practice of deliberately breathing through alternate nostrils is believed to help re-set and re-balance the natural nasal cycle. It lowers the heart rate and reduces stress and anxiety. I personally believe that the quiet and concentration required to do the practice also has a relaxing and calming effect.
In these days of Pandemic, we need to be extra careful about hygiene, especially where the hands and face are involved. Please wash your hands very thoroughly with soap before trying this practice.
How to Do Alternate Nostril Breathing
Find a quiet space where you will not be disturbed.
Sit in a comfortable upright position. You can sit in a chair with your feet flat on the floor, or sit on a cushion on the floor. If you can comfortably sit cross-legged, then do that.
Make sure your spine is upright and relaxed.
You might like to get a cushion to support your elbow.
Allow your left hand to rest in your lap. (If you are left handed, you may swap hands if you prefer.). With your right hand, fold down your index and middle fingers towards the palm. You should have the thumb and fourth fingers sticking up on your right hand.
Breathe in and out through your nose for a few breaths, just becoming aware of your breath.
Breathe through Alternate Nostrils
When you feel ready, gently close your right nostril with your right thumb. Inhale through your left nostril. Then close your left nostril with your fourth finger. Open the right nostril and breathe out slowly.
Keep the right nostril open and breathe in through the right nostril. Then close it with your thumb and breathe out through the left nostril. This is one complete cycle.
Keep Going for as Long as Feels Comfortable
Continue breathing like this for maybe ten to twenty breath cycles, or longer if you wish. You may notice your breathing slowing down as you relax into the pattern. You may also like to pause between the breaths if that feels good.
Let Your Breath Return to Normal
When you feel ready, let your hand relax to your lap, and allow your breathing to return to its natural pattern. Sit quietly for a while and enjoy the feeling of calm and relaxation.
Today’s Calming Practice
Have a go at alternate nostril breathing today. It will help you feel calm and benefit your health and wellbeing all day long. Some people like to do this as a regular practice at the start of each day.
Thanks for reading this blog post. I am writing a series of 31 blogs every day this August. I plan to publish them later in the year as a book entitled, ‘Finding Your Calm Space – 31 Ways to Find Calm in a Crazy World’.
I’m Karen. I am a Yoga teacher, Reflexologist and busy mum of seven. I live with my family in Billericay, Essex, UK. In the past I have worked as a Midwife, Health Visitor, Baby Signing teacher and Tax Inspector. I love getting outdoors, swimming in the sea, walking and writing. Helping people relax is one of the things I do best.You can learn more about my Yoga classes and Reflexology at my website www.thecalmspace.co.uk