Your nervous system is deeply impacted by the way you breathe. Most of us breathe with a shallow, “stressed” breath during our waking hours every day. We get just enough oxygen so that we can talk, walk, and function, but to feel joyful and high-energy consistently, we need to change how we breathe. This can be accomplished with an ancient breathing technique borrowed from yogic science called alternate nostril breathing or anuloma valoma. [i] [ii]
First off, breathing with your diaphragm, and completely filling and emptying your lungs, alters the CO2 and O2 exchange within your bloodstream. The same way that your brain and body gets more oxygen when you exercise because you are breathing more intensely to meet your muscular and endurance needs, you can breathe more deeply while sitting still to alter your nervous system and increase the happy neurohormones in your gut and brain.
The act of contracting your diaphragm increase the release of dopamine, for example – the “reward” hormone, and serotonin – the “happy” hormone. In fact, shallow breathing can decrease both of these important neurotransmitters, making it very difficult to feel happy and positive or motivated to do much of anything.
Alternate nostril breathing adds an extra element to deep breathing. In yogic science, there are energy channels that go up both sides of the inside of the nostrils to the mid-point of the brain and the pituitary and pineal glands. These subtle energy channels are also affecting our whole-brain integration. We want to be able to use all of our brain’s different synapses, across the corpus callosum, the fleshy midline of the brain.
Ida and Pingala Nadis
In yoga, the ida and pingala nadis inform the left and right nostrils, and correspond to the left and right brain. Balancing the energy through these nadis influences the subtle energy in the body. Nadis (energy channels) carry subtle energy (also called qi or prana) throughout the body. When one of these nadis becomes impeded, the energy cannot flow as it should. This usually indicates an energetic blockage in the nervous system at large.
Because most of us are in our active, go-out-and-make-things happen brain most of our waking hours, we often suffer an ida and pingala imbalance. You can do a quick test to tell if this is the case. Cover one nostril and breathe deeply in and out. Then release that side and try breathing in and out of the other nostril. You will almost always notice that one side is much more difficult to breathe in and out of.
Practicing alternate nostril breathing will help to balance these energies so that eventually both nostrils are free and clear – indicative of balanced, free-flowing qi or pranic energy.
How to Practice Alternate Nostril Breathing
1. Sit in a comfortable meditative posture with a straight spine. Rest your left hand in your lap.
2. Place your right thumb against your right nostril, moving the other fingers out of the way so as not to impede your breathing.
3. Inhale deeply through the left nostril. If this nostril is clogged, take as much time as you need to in order to fill the lungs completely.
4. Move your fingers and thumb so that you now are covering your left nostril. Exhale on that side. Before changing your hands again, breathe in again through the same nostril.
5. Switch. Exhale completely and breathe in again before changing the nostril through which you breathe.
6. Practice for 7 to 10 breathes. With practice you can also hold the breath briefly at the top of both the inhale and exhale.
With time, alternate nostril breathing can not only increase your mood, endurance, and mental clarity, but it can also tone your nervous system and remove subtle energy blocks throughout the body. [iii] [iv]
[i] Bhardwaj, A., Sharma, M., & Gupta, M. (2013). Endoscopic evaluation of therapeutic effects of “Anuloma-Viloma Pranayama” in Pratishyaya w.s.r. to mucociliary clearance mechanism and Bernoulli′s principle. AYU (An International Quarterly Journal of Research in Ayurveda), 34(4), 361. doi:10.4103/0974-8520.127714
[ii] BHAYANI, M. B., & Upadhiya, D. V. (2012). Effect of Anuloma Viloma Pranayama on Selected Respiratory Variables. International Journal of Scientific Research, 2(3), 358-359. doi:10.15373/22778179/mar2013/117
[iii] Garg, R. (2016). Effect of Left, Right and Alternate Nostril Breathing on Verbal and Spatial Memory. JOURNAL OF CLINICAL AND DIAGNOSTIC RESEARCH. doi:10.7860/jcdr/2016/12361.7197
[iv] Bioelectromagnetic and Subtle Energy Medicine, Second Edition. (2014). doi:10.1201/b17978