Left Brain, Right Brain: Balancing Breath Practices
Did you know that you don’t breathe from both nostrils equally? Truth be told, nostril dominance switches every two to 2.5 hours without any interference from us. Sounds strange, but scientists have studied this phenomena, which the yogis discovered hundreds of years ago. In 1895, a German physician, Richard Kayser, observed these periodic cycles which scientists term “nasal cycling.” Interesting, but does it matter? Multiple research studies indicate that nasal cycling is related to the way our bodies function.
Breath and the Nervous System
Our central nervous system is comprised of two parts: the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), nicknamed the “fight-or-flight” response, and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), or “rest-and-digest” response. According to scientists, at any given moment we have sympathetic dominance on one side of the body (and breathe mostly through that nostril) and parasympathetic dominance on the other. This switches throughout the day, affecting both bodily functions and energy levels.
When the sympathetic system is dominant on the right side and the parasympathetic on the left side, we enter a more active, stimulated state and the following are true:
- right nostril and lung dominance
- increased locomotor activity
- increase in heart rate, blood pressure, respiration, body temperature
- increased levels of cortisol, testosterone and endorphins
On the other hand, when the sympathetic system is dominant on the left side, the body assumes a more restful state. Not only are the left nostril and lung more dominant, but all the things listed above– heart rate, cortisol levels, etc.– decrease. Understanding how the breath affects each of part of the nervous system enables us to have some influence over it.
Solar and Lunar Channels
According to yogic tradition, nostril dominance influences the flow of energy in our body. For example, when breathing through the right nostril, we activate our pingala nadi, or solar channel. The solar channel stimulates the more “masculine” functions of the brain. Left brain dominance is associated with qualities of being analytical, verbal, and orderly. Further, it stimulates the sympathetic nervous system, giving us a boost when tired, lethargic or depressed and aids digestion.
By contrast, breathing through the left nostril activates the ida nadi, or lunar channel. Associated with the “feminine” functions of the brain, right brain functioning tends to be more visual and intuitive. Nicknamed the “analog brain,” right brain dominant people frequently excel at creative, non-linear tasks and holistic thinking. Because it stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, left nostril breathing produces a soothing and calming effect to mind and body. The graphic below provides a summary of the differences between brain hemisphere functions:
Of course, bisecting the body as male and female is not intended to suggest that women cannot be logical or assertive or men can’t be nurturing or intuitive. Rather, it reminds us that all humans are made of both the sun and the moon—the masculine and the feminine. Yogis believe that we all possess a mix of these qualities. As such, one of the goals of yoga is to bring balance between these forces.
Three Balancing Breath Practices
While asanas that emphasize cross body movements provide one path for balancing the solar and lunar energies, so does pranayama. If you’ve practiced yoga for a while, you are probably familiar with Nadi Shodhana, alternate nostril breathing. Yogis frequently practice Nadi Shodhana prior to meditating for to calm and focus the mind. In addition, this breathing technique balances the brain hemispheres and harmonizes the body’s masculine and feminine energies.
The practice of Chandra Bhedana, or moon breathing, calms the nervous system. It’s often used to promote sleep. Chandra Bhedana reduces body heat, lowers blood pressure, steadies the mind and reduces mental tension.
On the other hand, to bring more heating and stimulation, try sun breathing, or Surya Bhedana. Surya Bhedana is warming and nourishing and can be used to relieve depression, low energy and fatigue.
While these pranayama practices usually involve hand mudras, or gestures, to direct the flow of the breath, I often teach it using only awareness.
Try this simple, awareness-based version of Chandra Bhedana:
1. Sit in a comfortable seated position with a straight spine.
2. Close your eyes and focus your attention on your natural breath for 2-3 cycles.
3. As you feel ready, begin to lengthen your inhale and exhale, coming to a ratio of about a four count inhale and a six count exhale. If you feel short of breath, back off and try a lower ratio, such as two counts in and three counts out. Stay with your chosen ratio for 3-4 breath cycles. Feel free to continue with the ratio, or not, as you proceed onto step 4.
4. Next, bring awareness to your left nostril. Visualize inhaling through your left nostril and exhaling through the right. Don’t worry if at first you don’t feel the breath moving in through the left and out the right. Stick with the practice for at least 5-6 cycles of breath, or for 1-2 minutes.
5. Release the practice and allow your breath to return to its natural pattern. Observe any sensations or aftereffects.
For Surya Bhedhana, follow the same directions, inhaling instead through the right nostril and exhaling through the left.
While nostril dominance shifts independently throughout the day, knowing how to make use of the body’s sun and moon channels furnishes you with a powerful tool for managing energy and mood. Explore these practices for yourself and notice how your breath acts as a mirror of your inner landscape.
original 1/11/21; updated 1/16/23