What Is Anulom Vilom?

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on November 27, 2021
3 min read

There is a whole branch of yoga solely dedicated to breathing exercises. This branch of yoga is called pranayama. 

While there are many different kinds of yoga practice dedicated to breathing, perhaps the most common of pranayama exercises is anulom vilom. Sometimes it is referred to as alternate nostril breathing. To do it, you simply use your finger to restrict your breathing in one nostril and then breathe in and out with the non-restricted nostril.

You alternate which nostril you are restricting, breathing in one side at a time. You then restrict the other nostril and breathe in on the opposite side.

Pranayama comes from the very first writing about yoga: Patanjali’s Sutra on the eight limbs of yoga. Religions such as Buddhism and Hindusim use it to aid in spiritual practices. 

Prana is the Sanskrit word for energy, while Ayam means to expand or to control. The goals of pranayama are to balance and energize the body in order to center the mind. In the original texts, pranayama was meant to prepare a person for physical yoga practice.

Today, people do pranayama both on its own and as a part of a yoga practice. As both yoga and pranayama have spread outside India, their religious associations have also changed. Most pranayama done around the world doesn’t take place in a religious context and people of all faiths practice it. 

Yoga and meditation have become more popular in recent years. They have become especially popular for people who seek to find alternative methods of treatment and management for their health issues. Because of this, there have been many studies on the physiological effects of yoga and pranayama.

Some studies show that anulom vilom balances the body's autonomic nervous system, the part of the nervous system that functions automatically and deals with your internal organs.

In a survey of 44 studies, anulom vilom was found to have a positive effect on:

  • The autonomic nervous system
  • The cardiopulmonary system (heart and lungs)
  • Cognitive (mental) functioning
  • Problem-solving
  • Motor memory retention
  • The respiratory system
  • The circulatory system
  • Treating bronchial asthma
  • Diabetes treatment
  • Pain management
  • Tuberculosis, an infection that attacks your lungs

There's also early research that suggests practicing anulom vilom regularly may help with heart function, metabolism, aging, and more.

Many people also report that anulom vilom is also helpful in managing mental health concerns like stress, anxiety, and depression. Many people find that it helps them feel a positive change in their overall well-being. While there aren’t any studies that measure pranayama’s impact on mental health in a controlled way, researchers have noted its effectiveness. 

There are many different styles of yoga. Even within each style of yoga, sometimes individual teachers teach differently. Because of this, there is no standardization of anulom vilom. However, you usually do it while you’re seated in a lotus or crossed-legged position.

Some of the different variables for how anulom vilom is practiced are: 

  • Which nostril is held down first
  • How long each nostril is held down
  • When to hold your breath
  • The length of time of inhales and exhales

In addition to basic changes in the exercise, some teachers will teach their students to focus on different elements of the practice, which can change your experience. 

For example, if you have a teacher that teaches you to focus on holding your breath versus a teacher that focuses on sharply exhaling; it can make anulom vilom very different for you. 

There are no known risks or negative side effects to anulom vilom. But here’s no standard way that people practice it, so the data creates varying data around anulom vilom and pranayama vary.

Many studies recommend seeking out a trained yoga teacher so that you can learn how to effectively practice it in a safe environment. This may also help you get the most benefits out of this ancient yoga practice.

Anulom vilom may be a good extra practice to help you manage your health and sense of well-being. But if you want to treat a serious condition, you shouldn’t use it as a sole treatment plan.