SBO Pranayama

Hillary is doing yoga!

Hillary is doing yoga! What I said to the SMH about this:

I was just interviewed for the Sydney Morning Herald by excellent Journalist Sarah Berry about the story that Hillary Clinton has been doing alternate nostril breathing to calm her. She made a lot of claims about the supposed benefits and a few people have also asked me what I thought. So here is the link to Sarah’s article and my longer version of what said to her about Hillary’s practice and the practice of alternate nostril breathing in general.

I just listened to the online video of Hilary speaking about her practice. She is doing a simple variation of Nadi Shodana pranamaya, which she says is having a calming effect and it may well be doing that for her, which is better than taking pharmaceutical drugs I guess. This is a potentially amazing technique that can do all that she says it can do, and much more, if done properly, but few people can actually do the proper technique.

Read the article here.


Her technique involves using her fingers to block one nostril while breathing into the other nostril. She includes a breath hold, an inhalation retention, between the inhale and the exhale. She also says the inhalation should be diaphragmatic, which is great, but many people think they are using their diaphragm, but are actually breathing stressfully into their chest. From her online video interview with Cooper and the extracts of her book online it is not possible to say what she’s actually doing, and people copying her technique from the instructions she gives could be easily mis-lead by either breathing too much or breathing too stressfully, but as i said above, at least she is endorsing a non-pharmaceutical approach to stress.

She says that the technique can stimulate the left side of the brain (the more logical side) and the right side of the brain (the more creative side) more equally. This is a good thing, and if the technique is done properly yoga science and modern science says that this is actually the case.


It sounds like she is getting some benefits however, and many people can also get some too if they try what she does. The positive effects may be from the following things:

  • She may be getting a calming effect from breathing diaphragmatically – if that is what she is actually doing, but as i said above, many people do this erroneously, and to really feel this the ribs should not expand at all and you should feel the breathe first in your lower abdomen, lower back and or the pelvic floor.
  • She may be getting the benefits an increase in circulation, because nasal breathing (even in both nostrils) stimulates the release of the powerful neurotransmitter nitric oxide that acts as a circulatory enhancer.
  • She may be getting benefits because she is regulating her breath and that may increase her heart rate variability, which can really improve parasympathetic nervous system health
  • She may be getting a mental calming by having something so focus on mentally to distract away from other thoughts.
  • She may be getting more stimulation of the left and right side of her brain with right and left nostril breathing respectively. Various studies going back about 35 years show that relatively greater integrated EEG value in one hemisphere correlates with predominant airflow in the contralateral nostril. However, the mechanism of this stimulation is unclear at this stage and could be via differential increases in circulation or via the autonomic nervous system.
  • She is highly likely to be breathing more than normal i.e. hyperventilating, and thus getting some sense of anaesthesia due to release of endogonous morphine (endorphins), and also the reduction of blood flow to the brain that happens with hyperventilation and gives a light headed effect that some people find pleasant, or euphoric, simply helps to reduce mental chatter, but others will find makes them dizzy and or nauseous.


Many of the reported benefits of the technique depend on doing the correct technique. However, Hillary is not really doing the proper technique for Nadi Shodana Pranayama. The technique described in ancient yoga texts says that the technique should be done not by blocking the nose with the fingers but actually by blocking the nose with the tongue, which is stretched backwards into the throat and up the nasal passages. The tongue should go backwards into the back of the throat then alternately up the right nostril passage to breathe into the left nostril and then taking the tongue to block the left passage so that you can breathe into the right nostril. This technique requires for you to have previously used various tongue lengthening methods for sometime so that the tongue is long enough to reach the back of the throat and up into the nasal passages.

This tongue method has many advantages over using the fingers, such as the following:

  • The tongue does not inappropriately stimulate the nasal hairs that are in the nasal cavity. It is understood now that it is the air passing over the nasal hairs (cilia) inside the nasal passage that actually stimulates the function of the opposite side of the brain, e.g. left nostril breathing stimulates right brain and vice versa. But when the fingers press on the nose to block them they also stimulate the nasal hairs and thus can confuse or destroy the effect on left right brain function.
  • Taking the tongue that far back actually stimulates kidney function as the tip of the tongue is the tip of the kidney acupuncture meridian.
  • Taking the tongue back (called khechari mudra) helps you breathe much slower and breathe much less, and creates beneficial state of hypo-ventilation (breathing less than normal), which gives far more stimulation of the parasympathetic nervous system (and the internal organs of immunity, reproduction and digestion), much greater calming of the nerves, and much more blood flow to the brain.
  • Additionally, she is unlikely to be breathing less than normal (hypo-ventilating), which is what will give the real benefits, unless her breath hold is very long – i.e. so that each breath cycle is greater than one minute, which is unlikely based on her age and health I think, especially since most people cannot breathe less that one breath a minute.
  • In the full technique the breath hold is associated with the activation of specific trunk muscles that give the effects of the Valsalva manoeuvre, which is very powerful, but is difficult to do safely for normal people. When it is done properly it can give the effects of a type of autogenous hyperbaric oxygen therapy, that has tremendous healing potential.

Hence the proper technique is amazing and very effective but is not really available to most people in the West as it is physically, physiologically and mentally too hard. That is, it not only requires the physical control and coordination of many muscles, and the physiological ability to deal the the high levels of carbon dioxide that come when you breathe less than one breathe per minute, but also requires a great deal of mental-control based on the ability to ‘visualise’ special images and sounds according to an ancient tradition that is mostly lost to the modern world.

Here is an extract (with some references to the science of what happens when you breathe through nostril and its effects on the brain etc) from our textbook written for RMIT University, by Bianca Machliss and myself, on the “Applied anatomy and physiology of yoga”.
9.7.5 Relationship Between the Nasal cycle, the Autonomic Nervous System, and Cerebral Hemispheric Dominance:
The nasal cycle relates to the alternating nature of breathing through different nostrils throughout the day to automatically regulate temperature and metabolism. The sympathetic and parasympathetic branches of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) [Section 9.5] regulate the nasal cycle. The nasal cycle is also linked to the sidedness of the right and left cerebral hemispheres [Section] of the brain.

Electrical studies on the brain reveal a correlation between cerebral hemispheric dominance and the nasal cycle [Shannahoff-Khalsa, 1993]. Other related studies have shown that breathing through the right nostril is related to activation of the sympathetic nervous system, while breathing through the left nostril is related to the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system [Haight & Cole, 1989; Mohan & Eccles, 1989 Backen, 1990; Stancák & Kuna, 1994;Schiff & Rump, 1995].

These studies have demonstrated that people who are chronic right-nostril breathers (due to congenital or accidental blockage of the left nostril) tend to:

  • Sleep less than most people
  • Experience more positive emotions than most people, Have a tendency to be hotter than most people, and
  • Tend to get stressed more easily.

Studies have also shown that people who are chronic left nostril breathers (due to congenital or accidental blockage of the right nostril) tend to:

  • Sleep more than most people,
  • Experience less positive emotions than most people,
  • Have a tendency to be colder than most people, and
  • Tend not to get stressed so easily. Applications of the nasal cycle to nadis, asanas and pranayama:
Science is only beginning to understand the links between the nostrils, the nasal cycle, the two halves of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) (i.e. the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system), the left and right cerebral hemispheres of the brain, and body posture. Yogic science has incorporated this type of knowledge for millennia. However, most of the yogic information about this subject has either been lost, or is not being taught by those who know about it. The right nostril represents the external terminus of the pingala nadi, which is a subtle channel that can heat and stimulate the body through the sympathetic nervous system. The left nostril represents the external terminus of the ida nadi, which is a subtle channel that can cool and calm the body and which is related to the parasympathetic nervous system.

Posture can also affect the lateralisation of the nervous system in the same manner that the nasal cycle affects the parasympathetic and sympathetic chains of the ANS. Postural asymmetries between the lateral halves of the body will cause the patent cavity of the nasal airway to change sides [Haight & Cole, 1989; Backen, 1990]. In addition, unilateral muscle activation is correlated with contralateral cerebral hemisphere activation [Schiff & Rump, 1995]. Yoga practitioners should work with asana (postural) and vinyasa (movement) practice to discover the asymmetries in the body and then work towards correcting what is abnormal and try to understand the cause of the asymmetry. Take note of the natural asymmetry in the body (resulting from organ sidedness etc.) and notice how this affects the functioning of the whole body [Appendix B]. Each asymmetry in the body reflects some sort of imbalance between the sympathetic nervous system and parasympathetic nervous system. It is well known in yogic and scientific circles, for example, that compression of the left underarm with a yoga danda (a rod or staff), or even with a strong ha-amsa bandha [Section, Appendix C] will cause the radial pulse of that arm to slow or stop while closing the nostril on the same side, and opening the nostril on the opposite side.

Breathing through the more efficient or dominant nostril is associated with increased activation of the contralateral (opposite) cerebral hemisphere, and with improved performance on cognitive tasks, which reflect the functions of that hemisphere [Shannahoff-Khalsa, 1993]. There is a similar relationship between nasal efficiency and emotional functions of the cerebral hemispheres. Following left nostril forced breathing, subjects report a more negative emotional state, score higher on an anxiety test, and tell stories that are more negative in emotional tone [Schiff & Rump, 1995].

Breathing through the left nostril stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system and movement of prana through ida nadi, while breathing through the right nostril stimulates the sympathetic nervous system and movement of prana through pingala nadi. Yoga practitioners are advised to work with nadi sodhana pranayama (alternate nostril breathing) and gently manipulate the pressure of the fingers over the nose so the breath length and volume is the same on both sides of the nose. Other useful practices are surya bhedana pranayama (inhaling through right nostril only, and stimulating pingala nadi), which stimulates the sympathetic nervous system and significantly heats the body, and candra bhedana pranayama (inhaling through left nostril only, and stimulating ida nadi), which stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system and significantly cools the body, and calms it down. Research has indicated that surya bhedana pranayama and candra bhedana pranayama have a balancing effect on the functional activity of the left and right hemisphere [Stancák & Kuna, 1994]. Care should be taken when experimenting with these pranayamas, especially candra bhedana pranayama, as one’s emotional state can also be affected [Schiff & Rump, 1995].

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