Alternate nostril breathing can aid relaxation and focus and may help with respiratory problems [Photo: Bigstock]

Q&A: What is alternate nostril breathing?

16 February, 2012

Q – I have hard that alternate nostril breathing might help my asthma. Can you tell me what I need to know to get started?


A – Alternate nostril breath is a type of yogic breathing technique where you alternate inhaling and exhaling between one nostril and the other. The nose is the only organ in the body other than sexual organs that contain erectile tissue, that is to say tissue that controls the size and shape of the nasal passages. This tissue is responsible for controlling the flow of air through the nasal passages.

In the normal course of a day your breathing will naturally alternate from one nostril to the next around every two hours. Most of us are not even aware that this is happening until we get a cold or allergy and our nasal passages get completely stuffed up.

Consciously practising alternate nostril breathing helps to direct the flow of prana or vital energy in the body and purify the nostrils. It can aid relaxation and breath control and in this way it may well help asthma – though we have not seen any studies specifically linking this type of breathing to benefits in asthmatics.

Here’s what you do:

1 Sit in a comfortable seated position, and breath normally. Try to ensure you take a full inbreath and full outbreath each time – but don’t force it too much; try to get into a gentle rhythm.

2 Hold your right hand up to your nose, curling your pointer and middle finger down, into your palm. This leaves your thumb to close your right nostril and your ring and little fingers to close your left nostrils.

3 Begin by covering your left nostril first and inhaling slowly through the right nostril.

4 Close the right nostril and with thumb and hold the breath.

5 Then release the ring and pinky fingers from the left nostril and slowly exhale.

6 Inhale in the left nostril, close the left nostril and hold before releasing the thumb and exhaling out the right nostril.

7 Inhale in the right nostril, hold and repeat exhale and inhale on the left side.

It is important to stay relaxed and calm through this; at first it will seem unnatural but eventually it will become more relaxing and soothing.

Note that in general inhales should be for 2 counts, exhales should be for 4 counts and holds in between inhales and exhales should be for 8 counts. (It may be hard to hold 8 counts at first, it will get easier with more practice).

Beginners can try inhaling to 4 counts, holding for 4 counts, and exhaling to 4 counts and  make adjustments as they become more confident.

You can do this several times throughout the day. Start with just 5 minutes of breathing per session and work your way up to 10 minutes as you get more experienced.

There are no real contraindications for alternative nostril breathing but common sense dictates that you should not practised it if you have a cold or a sinus infection that has caused a total blockage of one or both nasal passages.

This breathing technique should not be practised too vigorously or too excessively and if you are pregnant it may be better to consult an experienced yoga practitioner or teacher about breathing exercises that are appropriate for you.

See also our article on the benefits of breathing exercises, here.