Being alert or calm. Through the day and through the week, we need to find balance between the one and the other. Yet, we often catch ourselves either being low on energy when we still have so much to do or wide awake when it is time to sleep. How can you make sure that you find yourself in the right state when you need it? There is a trick, and even better, there is a switch.
Why do I need to switch?
We want to have everything, to have it right now and preferably all at once. So why not be ultimately relaxed and on the ball at the same time? As far as our physiological states of being are concerned, alertness and calm are two sides of the same coin. Either you are in the first one or in the second.
Beyond sounding friendly, our sympathetic and para-sympathetic nervous systems do real wonders for us. Both are part of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) in charge of regulating bodily functions which happen without us having to consciously think about them - heartbeat, breathing, digestion, and more. The sympathetic nervous system (SNS), also known as "fight & flight", is activated when we face danger or a stressful situation. To cope with this external threat, a series of physiological responses are triggered by this nervous system, allowing our body and brain to be alert, present and ready for action. The stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol are released in our bloodstream, our heart rate goes up and our muscles are ready and well oxygenated to fire up. On the other side, the para-sympathetic nervous system (PNS) is the one which allows us to "rest & digest" or "feed & breed". In this operating mode, our body can relax and recover from phases of stress and activity. It is also in this state that our libido and metabolism are at their best. Thanks to acetylcholine and further anti-stress hormones, our blood pressure goes down and our brain is more relaxed to memorise and perform cognitive tasks, making this rest mode presumably a desired state for productivity.
Where is the switch?
It could not be more obvious and accessible, as it literally is in the middle of your face, right there in your nose. As modern science and research looked into breathing techniques used for thousands of years in the yoga tradition, they found strong similarities. What yogis knew and what science confirmed much later is that we only breathe through one nostril at a time. This natural change of breathing pattern from the right to the left and vice versa has been described as "nasal cycle" by the German physician Richard Kayser in 1895.
Every 2 to 2.5h, one nostril shrinks due to internal congestion, corresponding with a predominant activity of the SNS or PNS. When the right nostril is open, the SNS is dominant, when the left nostril is open, the PNS is more active. This means, when you feel alert or wide awake in your bed, there are great chances that your right nostril is more open than the left. Yogis refer similarly to the SNS and PNS as pingala and ida, both of which are "nadis" or energy channels. And this is where ancient tradition meets science again: ida is linked directly to the left nostril where it terminates, while pingala terminates in the right nostril. Following the Alternate Nostril Breathing technique which consists in alternatively inhaling through one nostril and exhaling through the other nostril, you stimulate the nervous terminations corresponding to these energy channels above your nostrils and by doing so, balancing out the states of energy between active and more passive. As a result, this technique has a beneficial effect on our heart rate, it calms the mind and improves focus.
Using the switch.
Another technique called Single Nostril Breathing helps you activate the qualities of the nervous system which you need the most at a given moment. Accordingly, if you need to calm down and prepare yourself to rest, you can breathe in through the left side and exhale through the right, alway in this order: inhaling though the left, exhaling through the right. To do so, hold your right hand in front of your nose, using the right thumb to close the right nostril and the right ring finger to close the left nostril. As for the other side of the coin, if you need to be alert, then inhale through the right and exhale through the left for a few minutes. There is a reason behind inhaling on the side of the state that you wish to activate and exhaling on the side of the state that you want to decrease. Yogis have explained that inhalation enhances the activity of the energy channel on the side that you use while exhalation decreases the activity of the energy channel.
As I demonstrate in this video, other traditions such as kundalini yoga suggest that you can breathe in and out solely through the left side for five minutes to help activate the calm, rest, digestion and other qualities associated with ida, associated with PNS. Similarly, you can breathe in and out through the right side to be ready for action and enhance other qualities from the energy channel pingala, associated with SNS. I personally use this variation, breathing in and out through the nostril of your choice for the corresponding results. It is simple to memorise and goes almost incognito in the open space.
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Sources: Parasympathetic Nervous System: A complete guide. Cognifit. Health, Brain and Neuroscience / Alternate Nostril Breathing and Autonomic Function in Healthy Young Adults. IOSR Journal of Dental and Medical Sciences. 2015 / Breathing through a particular nostril can alter metabolism and autonomic activities. Indian Journal Physiology and Pharmacology. 1994 / Yogis ahead of science: One nostril breathing determines how you feel. The Yoga Space