Deep breathing with controlled pauses and the directing of respiration through the nostrils works to eliminate stress.
Alternate Nostril Breathing
It physiologically calms the sympathetic nervous system, and mentally refocuses our anxious thoughts into our body and breath. Alternate nostril breathing has a long history as a pranayama that reduces anxiety, stress, and depression, through relaxation and realigning the mind, body, and breath. The ancient yogis intuited through self-observation about the cycles of the body and how the breath can shift our energy, and modern science is now providing evidence. We at Anahana are going to teach you how so that you can apply the practice and start receiving its many benefits today!
What Is Alternate Nostril Breathing?
Alternate nostril breathing is a traditional yogic breathing technique, also referred to as Nadi Shodhana 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 and was described 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. This allows the emotions and mind to be quieted through the control of the breath and body. Alternate nostril breathing has been shown to have beneficial effects on cardiovascular autonomic regulation, which can have a positive effect on cardiovascular diseases and anxiety. In Sanskrit, alternate nostril breathing practices are known as Anuloma Viloma and Nadhi Shodhana, which have subtle differences.
Connecting The Mind, Body, And Breath
Traditional yogic practice balances and aligns the two 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 decongests each nostril in a reciprocal fashion (Pendolino et al., 2019). This imbalance of breath can create changes in the moods and emotions felt by the individual, and therefore can be used to shift emotional responses.
Emotional Control Through Alternate Nostril Breathing
The nostrils are each believed to have different emotions, feelings, and control over the mind and body. The left nostril, also known as the ida, is considered to be 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 main senses. It is believed that your taste, touch, smell, sight, and sound will be more sensitive; with a greater ability to hone in on each individual sense. When the left nostril becomes too strong, the individual may feel more passive and begin to show signs of depression (Yoga International, 2021).
The right nostril is known as the pingala and is connected to the masculine presence. It is thought to be related to the sun, with a warm and strong presence. 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 have a negative effect on the overall mood of the individual (Yoga International, 2021).
It is believed that the Ida and Pingala work on a swinging pendulum. As one becomes more predominant, the other weakens. The activities and interactions that we have on a daily basis determine where in the swing our emotions rest. Alternate nostril breathing brings about a sense of centering. The pendulum is set in the middle of the Ida and Pingala, thus allowing the individual to focus and level out their emotions.
How Does Alternate Nostril Breathing Work?
Alternate nostril breathing helps to soothe and to prevent anxiety by calming and regulating the sympathetic nervous system. This has been shown in several studies, including a study on the acute effects of cardiac oscillations during and immediately following slow yogic breathing (Bhaghat et al., 2017). Also, in a randomized controlled study by Kasturba Medical College, where they analyzed the changes in anxiety levels during public speaking engagements following alternate nostril breathing (Kamath et al., 2017). Since the sympathetic nervous system is in control of the fight or flight mechanism of the body, calming the sympathetic nervous system allows the hormones initiated during the fight or flight response to decrease. When you are in a stressful situation this mechanism kicks into high gear causing an increase in hormones. The main 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 as people, we 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 anxious situations. A long-term increase of cortisol can lead to cardiovascular diseases, inflammatory conditions, and several psychological disorders (O’Donovan et al., 2010).
Alternate nostril breathing stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system. This action decreases the energy available for the sympathetic response, lowering cortisol levels and the flight or fight response. This will lessen chronic stress and the anxiety that we feel by lowering the heart rate and allowing the body to respond in a slower and more controlled manner. Alternate nostril breathing synchronizes the cardiorespiratory system by increasing heart rate variability and raising blood pressure in a controlled setting. This also permits us to focus on our breathing rather than the stressors in our lives. This shift in thought brings the mind and the body back together; allowing them to align and the breath to soothe. Telles et al. (1994) found that breathing exclusively through the left nostril reduced sympathetic nervous system response, leading to decreased activity within the sweat glands. Breathing exclusively through the right nostril was shown to increase oxygen consumption by 37% and to raise the resting metabolism. Higher resting metabolism is an important factor for weight loss and maintenance of body mass. When Telles et al. (1994) observed alternate nostril breathing where each of the nostrils was covered for one full cycle of breath, they found an 18% increase in total oxygen consumption. Along with an overall decrease in sympathetic nervous system activity, 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 difficult to focus; However, the study showed that individuals who practiced alternate nostril breathing for six weeks, were less anxious before and for the duration of their presentations.
Who Should Try Alternate Nostril Breathing?
Alternate nostril breathing is a calming practice that is beneficial to anyone who is experiencing chronic stress. Whether that be a diagnosed 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 and for individuals working to lose weight.
When humans burn fat when exercising or through increased metabolism, the fat cells are removed from the body through exhalation. They are 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 uptake raises the oxygen available for activity and the metabolic process. As the metabolic process accelerates, fat will be used as fuel and converted into carbon dioxide. During the slow and controlled exhalation used with alternate nostril breathing, there is a greater amount of carbon dioxide expelled from the body. Thus increasing the rate that the fat byproduct is removed. Although alternate nostril breathing does not directly affect fat loss, it does contribute to its mechanisms.
A study completed in 2016, found that the implementation of alternate nostril breathing in the daily routine of women improves memory, specifically in terms of verbal and spatial recall (Garg, et al. 2016). 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. The increase in airflow through the right nostril increases hypothalamus activity (center of autonomic regulation). A higher level of activity within the hypothalamus will activate the contralateral hemisphere, particularly the temporal lobe, which in females means there is an increase in activity within the spatial and verbal performance area (Garg, et al. 2016). Try alternate nostril breathing before your next exam!
Alternate nostril breathing may not be right for you if you have high blood pressure or a respiratory condition. Anyone with elevated blood pressure should avoid holding their breath. This action will acutely raise blood pressure (for the short term), as circulation is increased to ensure the brain continues to receive oxygen during the lapse in respiration. Individuals with respiratory diseases or illnesses such as asthma should also use caution when performing alternate nostril breathing exercises. The redirection of airflow 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 begin to feel dizzy, lightheaded, or nauseous.
Give Alternate Nostril Breathing A Try
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 own speed and easily adjusted for your capabilities and comfort level. With each exhale, a hold or pause may also be added 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 can be completed anywhere. However, the greatest benefits will be felt when the practice is done in a quiet and calm space where you can focus fully without becoming distracted.
The practice only takes five to ten minutes. Ensure that you have some designated time to spend aligning your mind and breath away from other distractions or commitments.
We recommend that you sit in a comfortable position. This can be anywhere and in any position, as long as 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 and relaxed seated position, ensure that your spine remains erect and breath 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 move into nostril breathing, begin paying extra attention to the inhale. On your next cycle inhale fully, allowing the body to naturally pause. During this stop, you will begin to alternate.
Step 2: Pinch
Begin by gently raising your right hand and resting your 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 naturally pause as the exhale is completed. 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.
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 practice, you can aim to increase the length of the exhale until it is double that of the inhale.
Alternate Nostril Breathing: Frequently Asked Questions
Why does alternate nostril breathing work to soothe anxiety?
Alternate nostril breathing works by focussing the mind on the breath and away from external causes of stress. The action of centering on the breath gives the mind something that it can control and shifts the stress into the breath that is exhaled. The direction of the breath through the nostrils causes a baroreflexive response in the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems that results in a shift from the overbearing sympathetic system to the parasympathetic system. This decreases cortisol levels (the stress hormone) and enables the body to calm itself.
What are the benefits of alternate nostril breathing?
There are several benefits to alternate nostril breathing, 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 good after alternate nostril breathing?
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 alternate nostril breathing aligns the chakras from the pelvis up through the nostrils, resulting in an interconnectedness that relaxes the mind and soul.
Can you use the left hand to block the nostrils?
Yes, 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 are feeling emotionally. The Pingala and Ida have different connections to your breath and mind. Beginning the technique on one side instead of the other can increase the influence of the first.
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- Burke, A. & Marconett, S. (2008). The role of breath in yogic traditions: Alternate nostril breathing. Biofeedback, 36(2), 67-69. www.aapb.org
- Garg, R., Malhotra, V., Tripathi, Y., & Agarawal, R. (2016). Effect of left, right, and alternate nostril breathing on verbal and spatial memory. Journal of clinical and diagnostic research: JCDR, 10(2), CC01-CC3. https://doi.org/10.7860/JCDR/2016/12361.7197
- Kamath, A., Urval, R.P., & Shenoy, A.K. (2017). Effect of alternate nostril breathing exercise on experimentally induced anxiety in healthy volunteers using the simulated public speaking model: A randomized controlled pilot study. BioMed Research International, 2017, 1-7. https://doi.org/10.1155/2017/2450670
- O’Donovan, A., Hughes, B.M., Slavich, G.M., Lynch, L., Cronin, M., O'Farrelly, C., & Malone, K.M. (2010). Clinical anxiety, cortisol and interleukin-6: Evidence for specificity in emotion-biology relationships. Brain Behaviour and Immunity, 24(7), 1074-1077. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bbi.2010.03.003
- Pendolino, A.L., Scarpa, B., & Ottaviano, G. (2019). Relationship between nasal cycle, nasal symptoms and nasal cytology. American Journal of Rhinology and Allergy, 33(6), 644-649. https://doi.org/10.1177/1945892419858582
- Rung, O., Stauber, L., & Pace, T. (2021). Alternate nostril breathing to reduce stress: An option for pregnant women survivors of intimate partner violence? Journal of Holistic Nursing, XX(X), 1-23. https://doi.org/10.1177/0898010120983659
- Telles, S., Nagarathna, R., & Nagendra, H.R. (1994). Breathing through a particular nostril can alter metabolism and autonomic activities. Indian journal of physiology and pharmacology, 38(2), 133-137.