Why You Breathe Out of One Nostril at a TimeOct 25, 2022
Can you tell which side of the nose you are breathing through?
Have you ever noticed that most of the time you are breathing out of one nostril or the other and that the breath switches back and forth throughout the day and night?
Whether you are breathing on the right or the left or the middle, each creates a number of different measurable effects in the body and brain that with training you can also subtly feel in your mind and energy. And if the breath does not naturally switch from side-to-side it can be an indicator or even cause of illness. Scientists are catching up to what yoga has pointed out for a thousand years or more- that the flow of your breath between the nostrils is more significant than you might imagine.
Oscillation in the Body
Many of the functions in our body oscillates between two different states- the rest and digest function of the nerve system oscillates with the activation side of our nerve system, the heart rate speeds up and slows down, the blood pressure dilates and constricts, and our breath comes in and goes out. And in about 85% of the population, the breathing oscillates between one nostril and the other, over and over throughout the day and night. This is a cyclical switch done by your nervous system which happens everywhere between an hour and four hours, although this varies between people and can be influenced by your body position.
Although yogis have been aware of this for thousands of years, the nasal cycle phenomenon was re-discovered in a Western scientific context in 1895 by a German nasal specialist named Richard Kayser.
How your nose accomplishes this switch is via erectile tissue which is similar to the erectile tissue in a penis or clitoris. Erectile tissue will swell in one nostril while the in the other side, it will shrink which opens that nostril up for breathing. You might have noticed If you lay down on one side, after a few minutes, the nostril on the opposite side will start to open for more breath. This happens because the erectile tissue on the side you’re lying on will swell up so the one on the opposite side will decrease its swelling and the breathing will switch. For example,
"Lay down on your left side, your right nostril will start to open, and your left nostril will close"
Science indicates that whatever nostril you are breathing in and out of greatly affects the body and the brain. For example, a study done in 1988 showed that right nostril breathing increases blood glucose levels, while breathing through the left lowers it. Isn’t that interesting? So we could speculate what might happen if a person was permanently breathing only on the right nostril and there is some evidence to show that
"Breathing through the right nostril only for many years without switching may be an incredibly significant cause of diabetes!"
Another study from 1993 shows that when you are breathing on the right nostril you are using significantly more oxygen than breathing through your left. And in a study published in 1994, when you are breathing through the left nostril, the right hemisphere of your brain becomes more active. So good balance of the mind and body is reflected by and influenced by this oscillation of our breathing from nostril to nostril. Even when you go to sleep on one side, you likely move from side to side while sleeping to switch the breath back and forth at regular intervals.
The Yoga Perspective on Nasal Cycles
From the yoga view, all of these phenomena are exactly in line with what yogis have observed and encoded in their teachings for a thousand years or more. Breathing on the right nostril is associated with the sun, or solar energy, while breathing on the left nostril is associated with lunar qualities. Now while the metaphors of this often go deep and wide in the yoga context, one could imagine that if you are embodying the active, outgoing mood shift that comes with breathing on the right nostril, that one would need more blood glucose. Yoga suggests that we should only eat food when we are breathing on the right nostril for example.
Breathing on the lunar channel activates the right hemisphere of the brain which is, in simplistic terms, the side of our brain which deals in creativity and expansive consciousness.
Swara Yoga - The Original Nasal Cycle Science
'Swara' Yoga is a sub discipline of yoga which studies this oscillation between nostrils in great detail. It suggests that we breathe on one nostril for about 48 minutes to one hour, moves to the middle for about 12 minutes and then over to the opposite nostril for another 48-60 minutes.
Within each cycle are sub cycles of where inside the nostril the breath is positioned. Breath, if you can pay close attention, will move between five positions in the nostril which are said to relate to the sub-cycle of the five elements of earth, water, fire, air and space. It is believed that if one can correctly observe which nostril is open and what element is dominant at any one time, they can come into harmony with much bigger cycles present in the universe and find auspicious timing for any activity. Like if you were to initiate a venture it might be best to have your breath on the right nostril or if you were to go into meditation its best to have your breath in both nostrils and so on.
Influencing the Nasal Cycle
In order to influence the breath flow that it is where it should be depending on the activity one wants to take, some yogis carry with them a kind of y-shaped piece of wood called a yogi staff, which hooks into the armpit and helps them put pressure into that side of the body. As you will remember, when we lay on one side, the erectile tissue will swell in the nostril on that side while the erectile tissue in the other will shrink. So an astute yogi might move the staff from the right to the left depending on how he or she wants to influence the breath according to the activity.
You can use this same principle by putting pressure on one side with your opposite fist. For example, if your left nostril feels blocked, you can make your left hand into a fist, put it between your arm and your torso on the right side and use your right arm to add a little pressure. Within a short while, you should notice that the left nostril starts to open.
Science seems to have only uncovered a fraction of what yoga has pointed to as it relates to the oscillation of the breath in the nasal cycles and it would point strongly to that the movement of breath between nostrils is significant in nervous system balance.
For some, the breath does not switch because the structure of the nose is out of alignment, making one side physically more impinged and restricting the airflow. If this is something you are experiencing, it is well worth checking with your doctor to see if it can't be corrected surgically.
From everything I have experienced in my practices and study of yoga and breathing practices, getting balance in the breath between the two nostrils is not only important, but also significant and goes much more deeply than it appears. Your physical and mental health are impacted by the flow of your breath. I made a video on a yoga breathing exercise which you use to switch the breath from side to side to create balance in the mind and body. You can check this out here
If you’d like to go deeper into yoga breath exercises, you may be interested in a course I made on the 3 breath practices of the Mysore yoga tradition to balance the breath flows and harness their power I’ll leave a link to that course here.
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