My first introduction into Swara Yoga was in India, attending Yoga School in an immersion course. Prior to my first induction, I had no previous awareness that my nostrils took turns being dominant or that this had anything to do with which tasks I could perform more effectively or how my psychology was affected by such. The thought had just never crossed my mind, nor the wisdom, my path.
Swara means “breath,” and yoga is, of course, the unification or yoking of the breath to itself. In other words, through becoming aware of the way the breath flows, and how to shift it at will, we can learn to unify the breath and thereby the hemispheres of the brain which affect our entire experience.
It has been scientifically shown that our nostrils take turns breathing throughout the day and night. On the regular, the left flows for 90 minutes, both nostrils flow for 90 seconds and then the right flows for 90 minutes, both flow again for 90 seconds, and then the pattern is repeated. The left nostril controls the right hemisphere of the brain which is spatial, creative, and introverted, generally. The right nostril is connected to the left hemisphere, which is linear, aggressive, and detail-oriented, the dominance of which creates a more extroverted individual. When both nostrils are active we have access to the merging point, where both hemispheres are contributing their wisdom, and we are, at least for a moment, in balance.
Practicing yoga, and especially alternate nostril breathing techniques such as Nadi Shodhana, helps to harmonize the flow of breath in the nostrils so that we are more often breathing out of both nostrils, thereby accessing full-brain potential, and thereby our full selves.
There are so many vital functions in the body which are controlled and affected by this airflow fluctuation process, such as REM and non-REM sleep patterns, verbal and spatial cognitive processing, the release of endocrine hormones, and the circadian and ultradian rhythms of the body. This basically means that sleep patterns, the depth to which we are able to sleep, the way we process and communicate information, and so many vital hormone related issues such as blood-sugar metabolism, stress, blood pressure, and the ability to heal are all affected by our swara patterns.
The use of Swara Yoga and the practices which support its knowledge are vital when understanding imbalances in the body/mind and how to correct them. For it can really be as simple as blocked nasal passages which need correcting in order to turn a limiting or debilitating situation around.
Every organ, gland, and system of the body have a connection to the ida and pingala dominance energies in the body—controlled by right and left nasal dominance. Ida is the left nostril breath; it is right brain activity, feminine energy, lunar force, and more passive, receptive and intuitive. People with overly active ida nadi—which shows up in dominant left-nostril breathing—can be more introverted and less connected to social interaction in the outside world. It has been shown that autistic children very often show up as overly left-nostril dominant. The right-nostril breath is associated with pingala nadi, connected to the left hemisphere of the brain and the active component of our nature. Those who are overly right-nostril breath dominant will be more outwardly driven, social, and more aware of words and language, in conversation, but less aware of the subtle energies behind what is being spoken (where right brain awareness is needed).
All of this is controlled by the hypothalamus in the brain, and can be easily altered through controlled nostril breathing. By observing which nostril is active, even right now, you can assess which brain hemisphere is active and then alter it, if you choose, through alternate nostril breathing exercises. These sorts of pranayama help to train the brain to work with both hemispheres together, instead of separately. When this skill is cultivated, life becomes more well-rounded, a depth is realized in the self, and all interactions are up-leveled to include both the intuition as well as the articulative abilities of speech.
Through practicing alternate nostril breathing certain body ailments can be remedied, such as the common cold, the flu, high and low blood pressure, stress, anxiety, endocrine hormone imbalances, even headaches and any systematic disorder. What is needed is, in fact, the return of homeostasis to the body, which alternate nostril breathing helps to restore, for it stimulates both the sympathetic as well as the parasympathetic nervous system to work alternately, and in rhythm, instead of overworking one side or the other.
Swara yoga can also assist you to approach various situations most effectively. When you know the science of the breath, you can choose which nostril dominance, if any, would be most helpful to you in any given situation. For example, if you were about to paint a painting, you might want to come into left-nostril dominance, to activate ida nadi and your right brain. If you were about to take a spelling test, right nostril activity would be important. For meditation or even social engagements, both nostrils would be preferred to be active, for then centering comes easily and communication with heart, possible.
The more I study and practice the art of Swara Yoga, the more I see my life open up into a magical expression, where things that may have previously been “challenging” are suddenly simple. By learning to breathe more and more through both nostrils, my life is increasingly more harmonious and powerful and empowerment becomes my natural state. Anytime I catch myself breathing out of only one nostril or the other, I have to ask myself what just happened? Was I disempowered somehow? And how might the situation have changed had both hemispheres of my brain been involved. Swara Yoga up-levels life and brings mastery into the here and now. I highly recommend becoming familiar with your breath patterns and choosing balance more and more with every breath.