Contrary to popular belief, we seldom breathe through both our nostrils. When we take a breath, there’s no doubt in our minds that the next breath will come. Similarly, there’s also no doubt in our minds about the way we breathe [actually we hardly ever give it a thought].That’s why it comes as a big surprise to know that we seldom breathe with both our nostrils simultaneously. According to Yoga, Ayurveda and some solid research, most people—about 85 per cent of people—breathe with only one nostril at a time.
The patternIn the eastern parts of the world, this has been an ancient discovery. There’s even a body of yoga dedicated to it called Swara Yoga.
As per Swara Yoga, we breathe through both nostrils only for a brief period during the day. The rest of the times, one nostril is dominant than the other in breathing, and while that is happening the other is recessive. Each nostril is dominant alternatively; the switch typically happens every four hours or so.
In the recent times [in 1895], Richard Kayser, a German nose specialist was the first to notice this breathing cycle.
How it happensThe change of breathing pattern from one nostril to the other happens in an interesting manner. An erectile tissue present in the nostril [which most people are unaware of], gets swollen to block it.
At the same time, the swollen tissue in the other nostril returns to normal opening up the nostril. The swelling and contraction happen gradually and for the brief period when the switch is on, we breathe through both nostrils. We also do so at dawn and dusk.
Also, usually we breathe through the same nostril every morning, for three consecutive days, after which, for the next three days, we breathe through the other nostril. This periodic alternation of the nostrils maintains the balance of our system.
How it affects usOur nostrils are linked with our autonomic nervous system, the olfactory lobe and the hypothalamus, which controls emotions and motivation.
Swara Yoga teaches that breathing through the right nostril increases acidic secretions leading to increased gastric acid production in the stomach, while the left nostril increases alkaline secretions. The natural alternation of breathing through the right and left nostrils helps balance acid and alkaline levels in our system.
Breathing through the right nostril also increases our blood glucose levels, which go down when we breathe through the left nostril [1988 study by Backon].
Further, we take in more oxygen when we breathe through our right nostril [as per a 1993 study]. As per a Vivekananda Kendra Yoga Research Foundation, Bangalore, study breathing through the right nostril several times a day for a month increases our oxygen consumption by 37 per cent.
Breathing through the left nostril four times a day for a month significantly increases the baseline level of volar galvanic skin resistance [GSR] resulting in increased sweat gland activity in the palm.
Since each nostril is linked to opposite sides of our cerebral hemispheres, breathing through the right nostril activates the left hemisphere [the logical side of the brain] and the left nostril activates the right hemisphere [brain's creative side]. When the pattern is changing, we change sides in our sleep. The side on which you lie is the nostril, which is dominant at that time.
Purposeful breathingAlthough the alternate breathing is natural, sometimes it does not happen as smoothly as it is meant to.
According to yogis, this causes behavioural and health problems. To regulate this imbalance, yoga prescribes pranayama techniques like Anulom Vilom or Nadi Shodhana, which involve deliberately breathing through alternate nostrils by blocking a nostril with your thumb.