Why Alternate Nostril Breathing is Important

Imagine how great it would be to have a switch that, when operated, would enable you to consciously choose between your right and left brain hemispheres, intuitive and analytical intelligence, sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, fight/flight reflex and rest/relaxation, and between the male and female, solar and lunar, aspects of your psyche. How great it would be if, when required, you could switch from being compassionate to doggedly determined. Or from charged with energy to completely relaxed within a few minutes. Or from extrovert (physically present, expressive and outgoing) to introvert (reflective and absorbing) within a short time. This switch does in fact exist and it is not at all hidden. It is the prominently protruding olfactory orifice right in the middle of your face: your nose.

The fundamental proposition of pranayama is that the two poles of creation, the male and female poles of the cosmos, are represented in the hemispheres of the body and brain of the individual, and are associated with the right and left nostrils respectively (Shiva Svarodaya stanza 52). In yoga they are called the solar nostril or Pingala (the right one) and the lunar nostril or Ida (the left one).

The right brain hemisphere, which is more intuitive and holistic, is powered by the left nostril. The left brain hemisphere, which is more analytical and dissecting, is powered by breathing through the right nostril. Try it out: Study an academically difficult subject such as law, medicine or physics and see how far you get when breathing through the left nostril. You are far better at memorizing and dissecting difficult subjects when breathing through the right nostril (Shiva Svarodaya stanza 114). Obviously, when studying too much you will become unbalanced, as you keep using the same part of your brain and nadi system over and over again.

Then undertake another experiment and try to be empathic and compassionate to the woes and suffering of another being when breathing through the male, analytical right nostril. It won’t work. You will, like a computer, analyse what they are doing wrong and suggest improvements to their current strategy. That is not what is needed in this situation. Instead, they need your listening, under- standing and empathy to heal and feel the nurturing, human traits that are powered by the left nostril.

Or try to understand complex poetry, music or paintings. You need to holographically feel all the many dimensions that the author felt to really appreciate a great artwork. Feel how all of this becomes suddenly possible when you do use the left nostril, which enables you to sit back, relax, zoom out of a narrow view and receive complex connections, which are far greater than you.

A complete, integrated human being is not just 100% male or female but, depending on circumstance, is capable of activating either male or female circuits of their psyche and thus their capabilities. This is reflected in the Indian image of Ardhanarishvara. It is an androgynous form of Lord Shiva and his female aspect, Devi Parvati (Shakti), the god that is half woman and half man.

The next dualistic pair we will look at is the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches of the nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system governs the fight-or-flight reflex. It is activated through stress and, by emitting adrenalin, it mobilises your energy resources. It is activated through the right, solar, male nostril. When breathing through the right nostril you will be able to perform strenuous physical tasks like fighting for your life against foes, running from danger as fast as you can or lifting heavy stones to erect pyramids (Shiva Svarodaya stanza 115).

If it is that effective, why don’t we always breathe through the right nostril? Because overemphasizing the sympathetic nervous system will cause us to burn out. It is good for short bursts of energy but, if we overemphasise it, we will become irate, suffer insomnia and tend to develop a type-A personality. Not to mention that we will have only 50% of the capabilities of a complete, integrated human being.

The parasympathetic nervous system enables us to recharge, rest and sleep, and experience pleasure. It is activated by breathing through the left nostril. Your work breaks will become more effective when breathing through this nostril. You will find more enjoyment in spending time with friends and loved ones, going to the beach or walking in nature when breathing through this nostril. Nursing and caring for a child will come more naturally when breathing through the left nostril. Try it out.

Whatever subject you speak about, if you need to address a large audience you need to do so while breathing through the right nostril. The right nostril governs efferent (outgoing) nerve impulses such as the ones used when speaking, working with your hands, running, defecating, urinating or when being the active partner during sexual intercourse. However, breathing too much through the right nostril can give people the impression that you like the sound of your own voice, or that you are too physical or cannot surrender when that becomes appropriate. It is hard to see your own mistakes or shortcomings when breathing through the right nostril.

The left nostril governs the afferent (incoming) nerve impulses. When you need to listen, see, feel, smell or taste, use the left nostril. Use this nostril also when reflecting on yourself or wanting to be self-critical. Afferent also means being receptive. During the moment of conception it is essential that at least the female breathe through the left nostril because she is receiving the spirit of the child into her womb. Some cultures went even further. In the case of some Australian Aboriginal and African tribes the male left the village to receive the child through dreaming. This is a typical lunar, left-nostril function, and it shows maturity of a culture if a fully initiated and integrated male can enter what normally would be considered the female domain to receive and embrace new life.

The afferent (incoming) nerve current, however, can also be too dominant and this will express itself by one being overly introverted, meek, not expressive enough, possibly even depressive, and not being able to stand up for oneself. This can be effectively counter- acted through activating the efferent (outgoing) current by inhaling through the solar, right nostril.

Catabolism is the metabolic breakdown of complex molecules into simple ones. It happens during digestion of food. When eating and breaking down food in the stomach, breathe through the right nostril. Similarly to powering an analytical, dissecting solar mind, use of the right nostril also powers the breakdown of food in the digestive tract. Anabolism is the metabolic synthesis of simple molecules into complex ones. It is what we colloquially call recovery, rest and nurturing. It takes place mainly during sleep and relaxation, and it is powered by the left, lunar nostril. Assimilating the broken-down elements of food is done more effectively when breathing through the left nostril. That is why around 90 minutes after food intake the svara (flow) should ideally switch to the left nostril.

It is because of the anabolic/nurturing character of the lunar nostril and the breaking down/catabolic character of the solar nostril that Raghuvira says in his Kumbhaka Paddhati that movement of prana in Ida (left nostril) is called nectar, while that in Pingala (right nostril) is called poison (Kumbhaka Paddhati of Raghuvira stanza 14
). With the tools given so far you will under- stand this otherwise surprising statement. You will also understand Sundaradeva’s claim that the right nostril burns morbidities through heat (a catabolic breakdown) (Hatha Tatva Kaumudi of Sundaradeva XXXVI.27).

Note that the metabolic/physical function of each nostril is also related to its mental function. We could call the lunar mind anabolic in that it is nurturing, absorbing and synthesizing. The solar mind is catabolic in that it breaks down by means of dissecting arguments and analyses structures by breaking them down into their constituents. Whereas the solar mind is able to zoom in and dissect / break down a picture into minute details, the lunar mind can synthesise missing contexts and zoom out until the whole is seen. Choose your nostril according to which function is required at any given time.

You may also activate the respective svara (nostril flow) according to whether you need to activate your body or your mind. Sundaradeva states in his Hatha Tatva Kaumudi that prana, the life force (i.e. the body), resides in the right nostril, while manas (the mind) dwells in the left nostril. He calls this revelation the great secret (Hatha Tatva Kaumudi of Sundaradeva XXIII.38). However, it is not a secret any more if we take into consideration the previous paragraph on afferent and efferent nerve currents. When the left nostril is predominant, afferent currents rule, which are those that carry sensual impressions back to the mind to be analysed. In other words the left nostril activates the mind. When the right nostril flows, efferent (outgoing) nerve currents are predominant. This presupposes that the mind has come to a conclusion and the nerves now carry the mind’s signals outwards to activate a physical response. This means that the right nostril activates the body. For this reason the shastras (scriptures) state that during strenuous physical activity the right nostril should be activated.

You will also be able to vastly improve your health by mastering the svara (flow). Sundaradeva says in his Hatha Tatva Kaumudi that disorders caused by aggravated pitta are to be treated by breathing through the left nostril, whereas diseases caused through aggravated vata and kapha subside when breathing through Surya, the right nostril (Hatha Tatva Kaumudi of Sundaradeva X.33). Additionally there are pranayama techniques dedicated to altering your dosha constitution. Shitali pranayama reduces pitta, while Surya Bhedana pranayama increases it when required. Chandra Bhedana, Shitali and Sitkari increase kapha and reduce pitta, while Ujjayi reduces kapha and increases pitta. According to yoga shastra, Bhastrika reduces and expels all three doshas and thus creates a balance between them. All of these techniques will be explained in detail in their respective chapters.

Breathing through the appropriate nostril when performing particular activities is said to lead to success. The Vasishta Samhita says one should breathe through the right nostril during sexual intercourse (in the case of the male), eating, amassing wealth and participating in martial activity (Vasishta Samhita V.46). Notice the penetrating, devouring and aggressive nature of all of these activities. The authoritative text on this particular matter is considered to be the Shiva Svarodaya, and it would be worthwhile for everybody interested in pranayama to study it deeply. This text says that obtaining nourishment, (Shiva Svarodaya stanza 104) giving birth and dying, (Shiva Svarodaya stanza 106) and keeping wealth in security need to be done when breathing through the left nostril. Notice the nurturing and surrendering character of these activities. Other right-nostril activities, according to the Shiva Svarodaya, include researching things that are difficult to understand (such as science, which is a male, dissecting activity), (Shiva Svarodaya stanza 81) studying the scriptures (again analytical, dissecting intelligence) (Shiva Svarodaya stanza 116), performing the shatkarmas (destroying impurities), teaching or influencing others (a penetrating activity) and mercantile activities like trading (again analytical).

Yoga should generally be practised during the left svara (flow through Ida) according to the Shiva Svarodaya. Yoga is about nurturing the relationship with the Divine and your true self. It is successful during left svara and inauspicious during right svara. This view is sup- ported by Sundaradeva, who says that all pranayamas need to start with the left nostril, while they are useless when initiated through the toxin- and heat-producing right nostril (Hatha Tatva Kaumudi of Sundaradeva XXXVII.4). He also says that he is a yogi who always practises through the lunar (left) nostril, which controls amrita, thus attaining the elusive nectar of immortality (Hatha Tatva Kaumudi of Sundaradeva XLI V.47).

Summarizing, when studying scripture and analysing yogic technique, you need to breathe through the right nostril because your mind needs to activate its dissecting, catabolic function. However, once you have digested the rather abstract content of this book, switch to the left nostril and activate your female psyche. You will then be able to zoom out, put all of the various pieces of the puzzle together and assimilate them as a whole. When practising yogic technique your mind needs to synthesize, put together and function anabolically, so breathe through the left nostril.

 

This is an excerpt from my 2012 text Pranayama the Breath of Yoga.

 

About Gregor Maehle

Gregor Maehle started his yogic practices over 38 years ago. For almost two decades he yearly travelled to India where he studied with various yogic and tantric masters. Gregor spent 14 months in Mysore, India, and in 1997 was authorized to teach Ashtanga Yoga by K. Pattabhi Jois. Since then he has branched out into research of the anatomical alignment of postures and the higher limbs of Yoga. He obtained his anatomical knowledge through a Health Practitioner degree and has also studied History, Philosophy and Comparative Religion. Gregor lived many years as a recluse, studying Sanskrit, yogic scripture and practising yogic techniques. He has published a series of textbooks on all major aspects of yoga. His mission is to re-integrate ashtanga vinyasa practice into the larger framework of Patanjali’s eight-limbed yoga in the spirit of T. Krishnamacharya. He offers trainings, retreats and workshops worldwide.
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