One of my favorite yoga breathing (pranayama) practices for singers is Alternate Nostril Breathing. Ancient yoga practitioners believed that there were thousands of energetic channels, or “nadis” running throughout the body. Current research likens these channels to the nervous and endocrine systems which can influence our physical and mental states. Right-nostril breathing has a stimulating effect on the body and mind (activating the Sympathetic Nervous System), while left-nostril breathing has a calming effect (Parasympathetic Nervous System).
Yoga breathing techniques often emphasize inhaling through the nose. In addition to balancing the ANS, breathing through the nose filters dust and warms the air coming into the lungs. You may find that you can more easily breathe through one nostril in the morning, but by mid-afternoon, the opposite nostril breathes more easily. In fact, researchers have found that nostril dominance shifts every two to four hours. For individuals who have sustained sinus injury, sinusitis, a severely deviated septum or other respiratory difficulties, one nostril may be significantly more open/dominant than the other.
I often use this breath at the beginning of a lesson, or perhaps as a pause when transitioning from one song to another. In the voice studio, alternate nostril breathing can significantly improve vocal function and mitigate a number of pedagogical concerns. In one illustrative example, this was particularly helpful tool for Katy, a college musical theater major with a rich mezzo timbre. One day during a warm-up, her voice seemed fatigued, raspy, and disconnected. After a few questions regarding her energy and health, we tried all of the usual “vocal freedom” exercises, including Straw Phonation. Nothing worked. Finally, Katy exclaimed that she was heading to a calculus final right after the lesson and that she felt totally locked in her “left-brain.” Essentially, she couldn’t exhale. Her SNS was overloaded and her PNS was under-stimulated. After several rounds of alternate nostril breathing, she began a phrase, inhaling only through the left side (stimulating the PNS). Her voice soared. It was clear, calm, and completely connected. Although Katy’s concern presented as a vocal symptom, at the core was a nervous system imbalance.
In addition to balancing the nervous system, I find that this type of mindful breathing helps to alleviate muscle tension throughout the body, specifically muscles in the face, jaw, tongue, and neck. Students can cue to sensation in the sinuses, base of the tongue, rib cage, back, abdomen, and any other physical place where they feel breath. A key component to cueing to sensation is giving the student permission to experience the breath wherever they feel it moving in their body.
- Sit in a comfortable position with your eyes slightly downcast. Be sure that the base of your skull and neck are comfortable and your chin is slightly tucked.
- Hold out your right hand. Touch your pointer and middle fingers to your palm at the base of your thumb.
- Cover your right nostril with your right thumb and inhale slowly through your left nostril.
- Close off your left nostril with your right ring finger and then exhale through your right nostril.
- Inhale through your right nostril.
- Close off your right nostril with your thumb and then exhale through your left nostril.
- Repeat steps three through six for five to ten cycles, trying to maintain a consistent length between inhale and exhale (e.g., three counts in, three out; five in, five out, etc.)
- Release your hands to your lap and breathe calmly through both nostrils, noticing any sensations that arise in your breath and body.
*Adapted from: Megan Durham. “Yoga for the Choral Ensemble, Part 1: Exhaling With Sound.” Choral Journal, vol. 60, no. 7, Feb. 2020, forthcoming.