Inspiration can come from the oddest places, such as The Complete Natural Medicine Guide to Breast Cancer by Sat Dharam Kaur. Here’s what she has to say about breathing through the nose, which I think has interesting possibilities for breath in singing:
When the left nostril is dominant, the right hemisphere of the brain exhibits more activity….When the right nostril is dominant, the left hemisphere in the brain shows more activity….The 20-minute period when both nostrils are dominant is a time of integration between the hemispheres….It is the time of reconciliation between mind and body, when we are more open to receive and pay attention to the messages from the body. It is the time when we are primed to receive intuitive impulses, inner guidance, and connect to our spiritual selves. (pp. 92-93)
Now, as singers we are all too aware of our nasal cavities, especially when they are stuffy or irritated. And sometimes we hear voice teachers and choir directors advise us to inhale through the nostrils rather than the mouth for singing, which is good advice because it slows and warms the breath, so that it feels less “desperate” and draws attention to the high-and-forward mask resonance that many of us strive to achieve. But it’s frustrating when your sinuses are acting up, or if you are experiencing that part of the breath cycle where you’re only breathing sluggishly through one nostril. More from Kaur:
When we are chronically stressed, the breath cycle becomes derailed. Most often it speeds up, so that the nostril shift will occur within a shorter period. We may also become dominant in one nostril, rarely breathing through the other. This can lead to over dominance in one hemisphere of the brain, problems occurring particularly on one side of the body and dominance of either the parasympathetic or sympathetic nervous system. We lose our pre-programmed equilibrium. (p. 94)
Kaur’s message on nose-breathing didn’t register with the singer in me as much as it did the sorceress in me (the Sorceress part of SoundSorceress, naturally). I immediately thought of pranayama, which is the practice of breath control in yoga. I learned a particular technique of this from a fellow magical friend: Close the right nostril and breathe in slowly through the left, then switch nostrils and exhale through the right. Next, inhale on the right, switch, and exhale on the left. Repeat in a slow, even pattern.
It was difficult for me to get the hang of this the first few times because my nostrils are nearly always 100% one or the other. But then I discovered that my nostrils balanced after doing a full set of tai chi. A little bit of exercise did the trick. So then I sat down to do pranayama after my round of tai chi, and…holy smokes! Not only did my breath balance, but my mind balanced. My emotions balanced.
And so far, after a few days of doing this routine, I find myself breathing through both nostrils equally more and more. And it’s making a difference in many of the things I do every day, including singing.
So this was a really valuable piece to add to my arsenal of respiratory care, which includes good diet, hydration, and the right vocal warm-ups when it’s time to sing.
And it leaves me with a question I’d like to ask: Do you find that your nasal cavities open up more after exercise? How else can you balance your breathing in both nostrils?