What to Know About Alternate-Nostril Breathing

Medically Reviewed by Carol DerSarkissian, MD on February 20, 2024
3 min read

Alternate-nostril breathing is a type of yoga breathing practice that might help you relax and lower stress.

Pranayama is the name for all yoga breathing practices. It is sometimes called the art of breath control. Alternate-nostril breathing is one type of pranayama or breathing practice, also known as nadi shodhana.

Alternate-nostril breathing doesn’t just belong to yoga, though. It's often used in mindfulness and relaxation methods to help calm the body and the mind.

As the name suggests, alternate-nostril breathing is the focused practice of breathing through alternate nostrils, one side at a time.

If you want to try alternate-nostril breathing, here’s what to do:

  1. Sit quietly somewhere you don’t need to give any tasks your full attention.
  2. Bring your right hand up to your nose and move your forefinger and middle finger out of the way. Place your thumb on your right nostril.
  3. With this nostril covered, close your eyes and exhale fully and slowly through your left nostril.
  4. Once you’ve exhaled completely, release your right nostril and put your ring finger on the left nostril.
  5. Breathe in deeply and slowly from the right side. Make sure your breath is smooth and continuous.
  6. Once you’ve inhaled completely, exhale through your right nostril.
  7. Release your ring finger and close your right nostril with your thumb again. Breathe in fully and exhale fully from your left nostril.
  8. Repeat the full process two or more times.

You can practice this breathing technique for a short time. Research shows that practicing for 10 minutes brings the most benefits.

Don’t do it while you’re driving, operating machinery, or doing anything else that needs focused attention.

The basis of alternate-nostril breathing is controlling your breath with focused attention. This kind of deep breathing has many benefits for the mind and body.

It regulates the nervous system. Stress activates your nervous system. Your body interprets stress as danger and reacts in order to prepare you. Your organs send out certain hormones that make your heart beat faster, your breathing quicken, your muscles tighten, and your senses sharpen. This is called the stress response. If you’re constantly stressed, this response can be continually activated and can lead to health problems like high blood pressure and heart disease.

Controlled deep breathing engages your rest and repair state that starts the relaxation response. This is a deep rest for your body that allows it to heal.

With regular practice, alternate-nostril breathing can bring better balance to your nervous system and less stress response and activity over time.

It lowers blood pressure. Deep breathing and alternate-nostril breathing slow your heartbeat and lower your blood pressure.

It improves breathing. Alternate-nostril breathing specifically can help you breathe better. Research found that over one month of practice, people had better oxygen flow and could exhale more oxygen. People who can exhale high amounts have healthier lungs.

Alternate-nostril breathing can make your lung muscles stronger. Deep breathing also seems to clear secretions like mucus out of your lungs, which might make room for more air deep in your lungs. This can help you breathe better. This can be helpful for early bronchitis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease ( COPD).

It lowers fear and anxiety. Shallow, fast breathing might engage some parts of your brain responsible for your emotions. When you are short of breath, you might feel angry, anxious, or afraid. Using deep breathing like alternate-nostril breathing can engage different parts of your brain that make you more aware. This can help you manage your feelings and lower your anxiety.

Deep breathing also lowers your blood lactate levels. This chemical might be linked to panic attacks.

Alternate-nostril breathing is safe for most people. Although gentle exercises like this can help your breathing, if you have a lung condition like asthma or COPD, you might find it hard to take deep breaths. Take your time through the practice. If you use inhalers, keep them nearby.

Your breath should be easy, gentle, and slow as you practice alternate-nostril breathing. Don’t force your breath or breathe fast.

If you have any of these symptoms, stop the breathing practice and see a doctor:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain
  • Fainting
  • Vomiting
  • Dizziness

Most people can practice alternate-nostril breathing comfortably at home. If you have a health condition, talk to your doctor or a respiratory therapist before starting this practice. Learning the correct breathing technique from a trained yoga instructor might also be helpful.