Alternate nostril breathing physiologically calms the sympathetic nervous system and mentally refocuses our anxious thoughts into our body and breath.
It has a long history as pranayama used during meditation practice or yoga that reduces anxiety, stress, and depression, through relaxation and realigning the mind, body, and breath. The ancient yogis intuited through self-observation about the body's cycles and how breathing can shift our energy that modern science is now providing evidence. We at Anahana will teach you how so that you can apply the practice and start receiving its many benefits today!
What is Alternate Nostril Breathing?
One of the traditional yogic breathing techniques, also referred to as Nadi Shodhana Pranayama, it’s a breathing practice where one nostril is closed to direct the breath to one side of the body. The yogic tradition dates back to the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, describing alternate nostril breathing as a method of aligning the body and mind. The pranayama (regulation of breath) is the fourth limb of the Yoga Sutras and creates a strong connection between the mind, body, and breath, allowing emotions and the mind to calm through the control of the breath and body.
It has been shown to have benefits on cardiovascular autonomic regulation, which can have a positive effect on cardiovascular diseases and anxiety. In Sanskrit, this technique is known as Anuloma Viloma and Nadhi Shodhana.
Connecting the Mind, Body, and Breath
Traditional yogic practice balances and aligns the left and right hemispheres of the brain and the sides of the body through the breath. This connection is made stronger as the breath is directed and controlled. Breath moves through each nostril with a naturally occurring hold that allows the body to rest. The body naturally breathes heavier from one nostril than the other as the nasal cycle continuously congests and reciprocally decongests each nostril. This imbalance of breath can change the moods and emotions the individual feels and, therefore, can be used to shift emotional responses.
Emotional and Nervous System Control Through Alternate Nostril Breathing
Each nostril has different emotional and sensual control over the mind and body. The left nostril, also known as the Ida, is considered a more feminine channel. It is said to have a cooling presence that is more inwardly nurturing and representative of the moon. By breathing through the left nostril exclusively, you are more in touch with the five primary senses. It is believed that your taste, touch, smell, sight, and hearing will be more sensitive, with a remarkable ability to hone in on each sense. When the left nostril becomes too strong, the individual may feel more passive and begin to show signs of depression.
The right nostril is the Pingala, connecting to the masculine presence. It is thought to be related to the sun. However, too much control by the Pingala can lead to over-assertiveness, agitation, and a lack of concentration. These emotions tend to be related to locomotion and manipulation. When placed together, they can negatively impact the individual's overall mood.
Ida and Pingala work on a swinging pendulum. As one becomes more predominant, the other weakens. The activities and interactions that we participate in daily determine where the swing of our emotions will rest. The pendulum is set in the middle of the Ida and Pingala, thus allowing to focus and level out the emotions.
How Does Alternate Nostril Breathing Work?
Alternate nostril breathing helps to soothe and prevent anxiety by calming and regulating the sympathetic nervous system. Proven in several studies, including a randomized controlled study by Kasturba Medical College, where researchers analyzed the changes in anxiety levels during public speaking engagements following alternate breathing.
Since the sympathetic nervous system controls the fight or flight mechanism of the body, calming allows a decrease in the hormones activated during the fight or flight response. When you are in a stressful situation, this mechanism kicks into high gear, causing an increase in hormones. The primary hormone tied to the stress response is cortisol. In short bursts, cortisol is beneficial to drive the body into motion. It forces the body into action during life and death situations.
The problem with stress and anxiety is that we, as people, tend to be stressed and anxious in situations where our bodies do not need to go into this overdrive response. The unnecessary burst of cortisol can become a chronic condition when we are repeatedly in tense situations. A long-term increase in cortisol can lead to cardiovascular diseases, inflammatory conditions, and several psychological disorders.
Alternate nostril breathing stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, decreasing the energy available for the sympathetic response, and lowering cortisol levels and the flight or fight response. As a result, we lessen chronic stress and anxiety by reducing the heart rate and allowing the body to respond slower.
Another study found that breathing exclusively through the left nostril reduced decreased activity within the sweat glands. Breathing solely in the right nostril increased oxygen consumption by 37% and raised the resting metabolism.
Higher resting metabolism is essential for weight loss. When Telles et al. (1994) observed alternate nostril breathing where each nostril was covered for one full cycle of breath, they found an 18% increase in total oxygen consumption, creating a therapeutic effect in their participants.
A pilot study out of India details the positive long-term effects of alternate nostril breathing on individuals during public speaking engagements. This activity tends to cause large bursts of anxiety for most of the population. This surge raises the heart rate, blood pressure, and perspiration. These effects can make it even more challenging to focus. However, the study showed that individuals who practiced alternate nostril breathing for six weeks were less anxious before and during their presentations.
Who Should Try Alternate Nostril Breathing?
Alternate nostril breathing is a calming practice that is beneficial to anyone experiencing chronic stress, whether a diagnosed with anxiety disorder, a stressful job, or a public speaking engagement. Recent studies also suggest that alternate nostril breathing may be helpful for women who have suffered from intimate partner violence.
Although alternate nostril breathing does not directly affect fat loss, it does contribute to its mechanisms. When humans burn fat during exercise activities or through increased metabolism, the fat cells are removed from the body through exhalation and converted to carbon dioxide in the metabolic process. By controlling the breath and directing respiration through an individual nostril in a slow and directed manner, the amount of oxygen taken into the lungs increases.
This higher oxygen intake raises the oxygen available for activity and metabolic processes. As the metabolic process accelerates, fat will be used as fuel and converted into carbon dioxide. During controlled exhalation used with alternate nostril breathing, a more significant amount of carbon dioxide expels from the body, increasing the rate of fat byproduct elimination.
A study completed in 2016 found that the implementation of alternate nostril breathing in women's daily routine improves memory, specifically in terms of verbal and spatial recall. This research suggests that the addition of alternate nostril breathing in the day-to-day routine of female students may enhance their test-taking skills. Increased airflow through the right nostril increases hypothalamus activity (center of autonomic regulation). A higher activity level within the hypothalamus will activate the contralateral hemisphere, particularly the temporal lobe, which increases activity within the spatial and verbal performance area in females.
Alternate nostril breathing may not suit you if you have high blood pressure or a respiratory condition since people with elevated blood pressure should avoid holding their breath. This action will acutely raise blood pressure (for the short term) as circulation increases to allow the brain receive oxygen during the lapse in respiration.
Individuals with respiratory diseases or illnesses like asthma should also use caution when performing alternate nostril breathing exercises. The airflow redirection may cause a baroreflex response that can mimic or induce an asthma attack.
When practicing alternate nostril breathing or any other breathing technique, it is important to listen to your body. Immediately end the practice if you feel dizzy, lightheaded, or nauseous.
How to Practice Alternate Nostril Breathing
Anyone can practice alternate nostril breathing to recentre themselves and align their mind, body, and breath.
The alternate nostril breathing technique consists of five main parts: inhale, pinch, exhale, inhale and pinch. These five parts can be done at your speed and easily adjusted for your capabilities and comfort level. With each exhale, add a hold or a pause to assist the natural flow of breath. Before outlining the steps to alternate nostril breathing, we have provided some helpful suggestions for setting up a place to practice your breathing exercises.
Find a Quiet Location
Alternate nostril breathing doesn’t require a specific location or props. However, it’s beneficial to practice in a quiet, calm space where you can focus entirely without distractions.
The practice only takes five to ten minutes. Ensure that you have some time to spend aligning your mind and breathing away from other distractions or commitments.
We recommend that you sit in a comfortable position where you can hold that same posture without strain for the full ten minutes. A meditation cushion or cozy chair makes the perfect location for some gentle breathwork. If you have those accessible, take a seat and relax.
Step 1: Inhale
Once you are in a comfortable seated position, ensure that your spine remains erect, and you breathe normally. After a few cycles of regular breath, begin breathing exclusively through the nose. Gently close your mouth and rest your lips in a relaxed position. As you breathe into your nostril, start paying extra attention to the inhale. On your next cycle, inhale fully, allowing the body to pause naturally. During this stop, you will begin to alternate.
Step 2: Pinch
Begin by gently raising your right hand and resting your right thumb against your right nostril. Place gentle pressure, ensuring that the airway is closed but that you feel no discomfort. Allow your left hand to rest in your lap or comfortably on the floor beside you.
Step 3: Exhale
While your right nostril is closed, exhale fully through the left nostril allowing the body to pause as the exhale is completed naturally. Without straining, try to exhale the entire contents of the lungs.
Step 4: Inhale
Inhale slowly through the left nostril permitting the ribs to expand and move outward.
Step 5: Pinch
At the height of the inhale, gently pinch the left nostril closed with the index and middle finger of your right hand. Your ring finger and a pinkie should remain bent, however, some people prefer to replace index and middle fingers with ring finger and a pinkie.
Step 6: Exhale
Release your thumb from your right nostril and exhale fully, allowing a natural pause at the end of the exhale. Then inhale slowly and deeply through the right nostril.
Step 7: Repeat
Repeat steps one through five for at least five minutes. As you become more comfortable with the practice, increase the duration. As a beginner, aim to have inhales and exhales that last the same amount of time. With this approach, you can aim to increase the exhale length until it is double that of the inhale.
Why does alternate nostril breathing work to soothe anxiety?
It works by focusing the mind on the breath and away from external stress causes. Centering on the breath gives the mind something that it can control and shifts the stress into the exhaled breath.
The direction of the breath through the nostrils causes a baroreflexive response in the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous system. That creates a shift from the overbearing sympathetic system to the parasympathetic system, thus decreasing cortisol levels (the stress hormone) and enabling the body to calm itself.
What are the benefits of alternate nostril breathing?
There are several benefits to this technique, including but not limited to: stress reduction, decreased cortisol levels, and a greater sense of connection between the mind, body, and breath. It also provides a weight loss mechanism, improves cognitive performance, and aids sleep.
Why do you feel better after alternate breahting?
By taking time out of your busy day to realign the mind, body, and breath, you refocus the mind allowing it a break from stress. It is suggested that this breathing practice aligns the chakras from the pelvis up through the nostrils, resulting in an interconnectedness that relaxes the mind and soul, achieving mindfulness.
Can you use the left hand to block the left nostril or right nostril?
Yes. You can use the hand that matches the nostril you wish to start with. When choosing which side to begin with, think of what is causing your stress and how you feel emotionally. Pingala and Ida have different connections to your breath and mind. Starting the technique on one side instead of the other can increase the influence of the first.