Alternate Nostril Breathing: Mind-Body Connection

In Yogic philosophy, one of the main ways to feel the connection between mind and body is through breathing. Alternate nostril breathing is a powerful technique that can balance, calm, energise the mind. It improves concentration and creates a sense of peace and clarity.

Alternate Nostril Breathing

Here is a basic alternate nostril breathing exercise:

  1. Sit upright in a comfortable position with your back straight. Place you left hand on your left knee.
  2. Bring your right hand to your face, with your index and middle finger placed on your forehead (over your third eye area).
  3. Use your thumb to close the right nostril and inhale slowly and consistently through your left nostril. Pause.
  4. Close your left nostril with your ring finger. Move your thumb to open your right nostril, and exhale slowly and consistently.
  5. Inhale through your right nostril, slowly and consistently. Pause.
  6. Close your right nostril, open your left, and exhale through your left nostril, slowly and consistently. Pause before moving onto the right nostril.
  7. Repeat this pattern for around 10 cycles. Then, release your right hand and rest it on your right knee. Return to normal breathing.

This exercise improves the connection between both sides of the brain. It reduces feelings of stress and anxiety, lowers heart rate and relieves tension, regulate the cooling and warming cycles of the body, and revitalises your mind.

Our left nostril activates the right side of our brain, and our right nostril activates the left hand side of our brain. To activate one side of your brain more often (if you are significantly dominant in either your left or right brain thinking), you can sleep on the appropriate side of your body to activate the corresponding side of your brain.

Here are two more types of alternate nostril breathing, as described by Dr Prakash C. Malshe in his book A Medical Understanding of Yoga.

Sahita Pranayama

  • Inhale through the left nostril, counting up to 16.
  • Hold the breath by closing both nostrils, counting up to 64.
  • In this time, make a sucking in effort that creates negative pressure inside the chest cavity (uddiyana bandha).
  • Then, release the breath through the right nostril, counting up to 32.
  • Repeat the process with the other nostril to complete the cycle.

This builds up the anaerobic capacity of holding your breath on inhale.

Suryabhedana Pranayama

  • Breathe in fully through the right nostril.
  • Then, hold your breath with a lot of effort while maintaining the chin lock (jalandhara bandha).
  • Hold your breath for as long as you possibly can.
  • When it is time to exhale, do so out of your left nostril, slowly, continuously, and with patience.
  • This should be repeated continuously.

This Pranayama is said to extend life and awakening the kundalini as well as increasing heat in the body. The conflict between the urge to breathe and voluntarily suppressing this urge raises our body temperature without the need for shivering.

It is possible to raise your body temperature enough to sweat using this method. It has been studied, and the results showed that participants started sweating after 4 cycles of this procedure (taking about 5 minutes to complete). Their body temperature rose by 2 °F in this time. Where this heat is generated from remains to be investigated because there is apparently no shivering or muscle contraction involved.

There are some advantages to this. Raising your body temperature intentionally can ward off the common cold. Inducing a higher body temperature also provides the correct temperature for immune cells to thrive.

There are also some adverse effects that can arise when we practice this type of breathing. In scientific research on suryabhedana pranayama some participants got cold sores. Herpes bacteria thrives in warmer temperatures. It was also noted that the palms of the hands of some participants grew red after practising this for a few days in a row, and the skin of their palms became dry.

Interestingly, there is no medical treatment available for excessive palm sweating, so in fact suryabhedana pranayama could be a reliable treatment method.