This is a very ancient conscious breathing exercise, and it is a basic practice in traditional “Pranayama,” the yogic science of breath.The practice of Alternate Nostril Breathing can have a therapeutic effect on your health, emotions, and your state of mind. And it is connected to the fascinating subject of “Left/Right Nostril Dominance.”Since the day you were born, your breath has been swinging like a pendulum, alternating back and forth between the left and right nostrils. For most people, it switches every one to two hours. (At the extreme range, it’s between forty five minutes and two and a half hours).
And so, at any given time, one nostril is more open or dominant than the other. Air flows more freely through one side or the other. Most people are not even aware of this biorhythm. Are you?
Check it now. Which nostril is more open? Left or right? Which side feels more congested or closed?
Left/right nostril dominance is connected to left/right brain activity, and even to sun, moon and planetary cycles. More importantly, a disturbance in this breathing rhythm is often the first sign of a disturbance on some other level, in mind or body.
In general, the left nostril stimulates the right brain, and is associated with emotional, musical, visual, calming, cooling, relaxing, eliminating, female or lunar activities: planting/gardening, childbirth, friendships, preparing medicinal remedies, or practicing meditation…
The right nostril stimulates the left brain, and is associated with rational, verbal, warming, energizing, male or solar activities: strenuous work, writing, hunting, debating, practicing medicine, or doing martial arts…
At certain times the breath flows through both nostrils equally, when the pendulum is in the middle… this is a very good time to check your inner state, and to take a few long slow conscious breaths, or to practice breath suspension. (Many people unconsciously reach for a cigarette or a coffee or a sweet, or some other stimulant or depressant drug at this time.)
Swara Yoga explores this nasal breath pattern in amazing depth and detail. Swara yogis assign certain activities to periods when one or the other nostril is dominant, and vice versa: they activate left or right nostril breathing to match and support certain activities.
They advise us to change our nostril dominance at the first sign of any physical, emotional, or psychological disturbance.
For example, to fight a fever they would block the dominant nostril with a cotton ball until the body temperature returns to normal. To recover from hard work, they would advise lying on your right side and breathing through the left nostril. To clear away an uncomfortable emotional state, they would suggest blocking the dominant nostril and breathing through the congested nostril for ten to fifteen minutes.
You may not want to go into the same depth or detail as these yogis, or practice some of their austere disciplines, but if you check nostril dominance when you’re in a particularly pleasant or resourceful state, and check it when you are in a difficult or unproductive state, you may make some very interesting and useful connections.
What we will do today, is begin exploring the practice of Alternate Nostril Breathing, or Pranayama.
This basic Pranayama exercise involves using the thumb and ring finger of your right hand to alternately block your right and left nostril. Most people like to rest their index finger and middle finger on their forehead between the eyebrows (over the “third eye”).
Notice that you put the exhale first, which means you first empty your lungs before drawing in a fresh new breath.
Block your right nostril with your right thumb, then exhale and inhale one breath through the left nostril.
Block your left nostril with your ring finger and exhale and inhale one breath through the right nostril.
Block the right nostril with the thumb: exhale and inhale a breath through the your left nostril.
Block the left nostril with the ring finger: exhale and inhale a breath through the right nostril.
Practice Alternate Breathing in this way for ten minutes.
You can breathe according to any regular rhythm or pace that you find comfortable. Make your exhales and inhales as long or short, or as fast or slow as you like.
Two traditional Pranayama rhythms or counts (using your heartbeats) are:
Exhale 4, hold 2, inhale 4, hold 2, exhale 4, hold 2, inhale 4, hold 2, etc. Exhale 4, hold 4, inhale 4, hold 4, exhale 4, hold 4, inhale 4, hold 4, etc.
You can also combine Breath of Fire (Lesson 14) with Alternate Nostril Breathing.
And you may want to try these Kriya Yoga Techniques, taught by Yogi Bhajan:
1. When you feel tired, sit up with a straight spine, and block your left nostril with the thumb of your left hand, keeping the other fingers pointing straight up like antennae. Take 26 long deep and complete breaths through the right nostril. Then inhale and relax.
2. When you are feeling overanxious or nervous, sit with a straight spine and block the right nostril with the thumb of the right hand, keeping the other fingers pointing straight up like antennae. Take 26 long deep and complete breaths through the left nostril. Then inhale and relax.
3. To deal with an “out of control” mind, or runaway thinking: Sit straight. Close off your right nostril with your right thumb and inhale deeply through your left nostril. Exhale completely through your mouth. Do this for 6 minutes to quiet your mind.
4. To overcome compulsive eating or for assistance during fasting: sit with spine straight, block the right nostril with the right thumb. Breathe in a long deep inhale through the left nostril. Hold the breath in for as long as you comfortably can. Then exhale through the left nostril, and hold the breath out for the same count as you held it in. Do this for 31 minutes.