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Alternate Nostril Breathing

          “Alternate nostril breathing” is kind of like “remembering to breathe,” one nostril at a time.   

It's simple to do and has some pretty amazing effects.

Simple to Do

Basically, it involves closing off one nostril while breathing through the other. You switch nostrils several times then breathe through both.  Here’s how:

  • Sit comfortably in a chair, with your back straight but relaxed.

  • Inhale left: Using your right thumb, close off your right nostril, and inhale through your left nostril.

  • Exhale right: Using your right index finger, close off your left nostril, and exhale through your right nostril.

  • Inhale right: Now, keeping your left nostril closed, inhale through your right nostril.

  • Exhale left: Close the right nostril and exhale through the left nostril.

That’s one cycle of alternate nostril breathing. 

Do this cycle two more times, closing the nostril you’re not breathing through:

  • Inhale left
  • Exhale right
  • Inhale right
  • Exhale left

  • Inhale left
  • Exhale right
  • Inhale right
  • Exhale left

Then breathe normally through both nostrils.

          The slower you breathe, the smoother and more relaxed your breathing is, the more effective this technique will be. It will also be more powerful the more you can let your attention flow with the breath – that is, don’t stand apart from it as a spectator, but really experience the sensations of the breath as it moves in and out from nostril to nostril.

          Why would you want to do this kind of back and forth dance between your nostrils? 

Physiology of Breathing and Your Nostrils

          There’s what’s been called “a nasal cycle” that goes on in all of us all through the day and night. For a period of about 1½ to 2 hours, the air flows more easily in one nostril than the other.  Then it switches, and flows more easily in the other nostril for the next 1½ to 2 hours.  The whole process is controlled by our autonomic nervous system (the ANS).

          When the air is flowing more easily in your left nostril, your sympathetic nervous system (the SNS) causes the blood vessels in that nostril to constrict, making it easier for air to flow.  At the same time, your parasympathetic nervous system (the PNS) causes the blood vessels in your right nostril to expand, causing slight congestion in that nostril.  This process then reverses itself in about 1 ½ to 2 hours. 

Amazing Effects

          By learning to control which nostrils your breath flows through, you can bring about some pretty major changes in how the brain functions.

Regulating Left-Right Hemisphere Activity

          Air flowing into your left nostril stimulates the right hemisphere of your brain.

          Air flowing into your right nostril stimulates the left hemisphere of your brain.

          If you are about to engage in some activity that requires left-hemisphere type thinking (analyzing details of a situation in a black-and-white, linear way), it could be helpful to stimulate your left hemisphere.  So, for example, let’s say you’re about to sit down to work on a budget.  If before you start, you take about five minutes to close off your left nostril and breathe through the right one, you’ll stimulate your left hemisphere and make it easier to think clearly about your budget.

          On the other hand, if you’re painting, writing a piece of music, or thinking about a relationship, you’re going to want to have a fully active right hemisphere.  And you can do this by closing off your right nostril and breathing through the left one for a few minutes.

          If you just want to be in a calmer, happier, more contented state, then alternating nostrils is the way to go – close off the left and breathe through the right (stimulating the left hemisphere), then close off the right and breathe through the left (stimulating the right hemisphere).  Keep doing this and you’ll bring your brain into a state of profound harmony.

An Experiment in Balancing the Brain

       Dr. Leonard Laskow, a consultant in behavioral medicine, has been experimenting for years with various ways of using the breath to transform his mind.  In one experiment, he was hooked up to an EEG (an electroencephalogram which measured his brain waves).

       First, he did some alternate nostril breathing as we described it above, using his fingers to close alternate nostrils.  Sure enough, after just a short time, the EEG showed that his left and right hemispheres came into a well-balanced state, functioning in a synchronous, harmonious, or “coherent” manner.  This is a very desirable achievement as many activities will be carried out much more easily when the brain is balanced.

       Next, Laskow did the same thing, only this time he didn’t use his fingers to close off his nostrils. He just focused his attention on the air coming in and out of alternate nostrils.  And what did the EEG show?  A similar state of left-right balance, coherence, synchrony.

       That means any time you’d like to be able to function in an optimal way, you don’t have to make people wonder why you’re playing with your nostrils.  You can bring your brain into a coherent state just by intentionally paying attention to the air flowing through alternating nostrils.

       If you want to learn more about the dramatic benefits of balancing your left and right hemispheres, we refer you to the Story of Paula in the Brain Pages section of this site.  

Effortless Breathing

         Ideally, breathing exercises should done with a minimal amount of effort.  If you’re feeling tense or being too “effortful” when doing a breathing exercise, you may actually be creating more tension, which will make it harder for you to breathe.  So in order to get the full benefit of the breathing exercise, think of it as a relaxing and enjoyable experience. (One reason we’ve created the breathing videos with calming images and relaxing music is to help create that sense of ease and relaxation.)


        Rather than thinking of breathing exercises as just one more item on your to do list, try doing them when you really want to relax or have more energy.  And let it be fun. Experiment with incorporating ocean breathing, spinal breathing, and other breathing exercises into your life in ways that are specially tailored to your needs and circumstances.