When it comes to our health, the nose knows far more than we think.
Sit quietly for a moment, close your eyes and bring your awareness to your breath. Feel it flowing in and out of the nostrils. Now, see if you can tell which nostril is more dominant. In other words, in which nostril is your breath flowing more freely?
At any given time, most people do about 75% of their breathing through one nostril, and 25% through the other. Every two hours or so, this switches and is called the nasal cycle. Some people even become consistently more reliant on one nostril more than the other, and this can show physically. Often when you look at a person’s nostrils, you will see that one is markedly narrower than the other.
The dominant scientific reason for the nasal cycle suggests it is to do with keeping the airways moist, not allowing them to dry out. But, for the moment, this is speculation and no one really knows.
Sun & Moon
The yogis, hundreds of years ago, based a large part of their practice on the nasal cycle. They ascribed two energetic channels to the nostrils through which Prana or life force was said to flow with breath. They called the left channel or nadi, Ida, and the right channel, Pingala.
The Ida in yoga is associated with the energetic qualities of the moon; cooling, calm, passive, Yin, creative and feminine. Feelings of lethargy, confusion, desire, attachment, lack of motivation & commitment are challenging attributes associated with the channel.
The Pingala is associated with the energetic qualities of the sun; energised, Yang, masculine, extroversion, action, will, focus and order. Feelings of hyperactivity, agitation, and insomnia are sometimes linked to Pingala, along with aversion, anger, jealousy and separateness.
The Hatha yoga tradition says that our general lack of balance is caused by our constant fluctuation between the left & right channels. Hatha Yoga, to a large extent, is based around the idea of creating balance between Ida and Pingala. When both left and right channel flow evenly, we move beyond physical, emotional and mental agitation, and can access a central energetic channel, called the sushumna. The sushumna houses the chakras, and provides a conduit for raising Kundalini, accessing our full potential and accessing expanded states of consciousness.
Even if you’re not seeking enlightenment, paying attention to the breath flow in your nostrils can reap many rewards. It provides us with a useful device for managing our nervous system, energetic and emotional state.
There are many who believe the nasal cycle is linked to the left & right hemispheres of the brain. The Ida allows us greater access to the right hemisphere. Right brain dominance is linked to spontaneity, creativity, more intense emotions, intuition, problem solving, being comfortbale with the unknown. The Pingala lets us access the left hemisphere for verbal, analytical, and orderly qualities, that help with things like reading, writing, and computations.
The science on this is divided – some research suggests a link, others not. From my own experience, I think there’s something in it. Next time you wake in the morning feeling as though you haven’t slept at all, notice which nostril is more open. Or when you get a mid-afternoon lull in energy. Or perhaps when you’re wide awake, focused and clearing all your tasks. Start to become aware of the nasal cycle and how it relates to your life & energy. Understanding what each nostril means can help you match your tasks to your state; completing tasks requiring focus and linear thinking when the right nostril is dominant, foe example.
But we can also actively exert control on nostril dominance. Yoga teaches us to control and open both channels to achieve balance (a sattvic state) through techniques such as pranayama, meditation, and visualisation.
If you want to switch nostrils and energetic state, a sinus reflex can be stimulated, allowing the breath to switch sides within a few minutes. There are a couple of ways to tap into this reflex. One way is to lie on your side that is already open with that arm extended over your head and used as a pillow. Another approach is to sit and shift your weight to the buttock of the open nostril. An effective technique is Yoga Danda – once you have identified the nostril that is most dominant, place your hand under the corresponding armpit and close the arm firmly over the hand. This will open the opposite nostril creating balance.
So the nose knows that we are not at merely the whim of our emotions & energy. They often fall within our control. Learn to listen more to the language and rhythms of your body, it’s all there.
For more on the power of breath, try a free online breath session, every Friday 8-8.30am.