This article is a slightly modified version of one I posted to Taileaters.com
The Sacred Nose
Proper nostril breathing for me has been a long and arduous journey in itself. I have been a nose-picker for most of my life. Picking my nose has always been the hardest and most long-standing compulsive habit to break, having never broken it for any sustained period the entirety of my life. By compulsion, while immersed in thought my finger often somehow found its way to my nose and I felt I could not control it, since it happened unconsciously since early childhood. By the time I was generally aware, the damage was done. The unconscious aspect made it seemingly impossible to stop; for years I could only grow awareness of a habit I resented.
In picking the nose, the mucus always came back more intensely than before. It seems as though the habit itself further propels the habit by nature of how the nose functions. As well, when the nose was picked more aggressively, tangible damage seemed to be inflicted, which could only heal by the compulsion’s lessening or cessation. As my awareness grew, I noticed a concurrent pattern in the compulsion to pick it and a further build-up of mucus as a result. Thus, nose-picking seems to feed a never ending cycle, much like any other habit, compulsion, or addiction might.
Another association was that whenever I found myself in a circular form of thinking, more mucus built up in the nose. This seems to occur simultaneous to either holding the breath, or unconsciously breathing in through the mouth while lost in thought. Due to the association with thinking, I concluded that, perhaps like someone picking scabs, nose picking primarily occurs as a response to emotions and the resultant anxiety and circling thoughts in the mind. In picking, humans distract from thoughts. Furthermore, as air slows or even ceases through the nasal passages, mucus builds up further. In this sense, the actual movement of air through the nose is what seems to naturally clear out the nostrils of mucus. Thus, nostril breathing feeds into clearer nostril breathing.
As a clear cause for irritation in the nostrils, causing more mucus to form, picking leads to more blockage, which leads to more mouth breathing and thus thinking, which leads to further passage restriction, ad infinitum, pushing any lost in this habit towards further mouth breathing. Only in some inner resolution with my father–himself a nose picker–did my nostril blockage and compulsion finally hit a breakthrough. This resulted primarily from an experience with psilocybin. Since this breakthrough I haven’t looked back.
The Nostrils In Science and Symbols
In the above painting, the left side has gateways, which are often reminiscent of nostril passages, leading to Heaven. On the right, the mouths of monsters and entryways resembling faces with fiery demonic mouths lead into Hell.
Below, another gateway has Jesus standing inside, while a gaping mouth serves as entry into Hell.
“For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” – Matthew 7:13-14
“…the nose and its lining membrane perform three valuable services to the body in rendering the inspired air fit for the lung; the nose humidifies the air, warms it, and purifies it. Since this membrane is a delicate structure with a complex function, it may readily be understood that when the membrane is damaged, its functions are interfered with and the body as a whole suffers.” – Albert Seltzer (1963)
Clearing My Nostrils
Here is one helpful method for fast, clear, nostril breathing, taught to me by a local Shaman. For the great many who do not know how to even begin, like me, perhaps their nostrils inflamed or clogged so thickly, this practice is my favorite and produces immediate results. The purpose is to clear restricted passages enough such that more air can pass through and nostril breathing becomes ever easier, cascading as a healthy habit as more air is drawn through nostrils and they clear themselves naturally.
To perform this exercise, stand or sit in a comfortable relaxed position. Allow your lungs to empty and breath to clear. Then, breathe in quickly and deeply into the nose, especially if it feels uncomfortable or hard to do; breathe in through the nose as intensely as possible. Then breathe out with the same intensity, not caring about any snot that may eject. Repeat this at least a total of 5 times, but more is always better. If my nose starts to become clogged due to whatever I ate recently or anxious thoughts, I may need to extend this to 10 or more. If you have never done this and have restricted passages, perhaps try 20.
After trying this exercise yourself, notice the feelings in your body, paying particular attention to the temperature (hot/warm/cold) and the location of any sensations. For me, the feeling always occurs in the same place. If you practice this exercise, where do you feel it?
This exercise gives me a rush of warmth around my upper chest area, a feeling as though mucus or inflammation is draining away down further into the chest.
After clearing the nostrils, conscious nostril breathing can still feel uncomfortable and unnatural if the nose has been clogged a long time. But if nostril breathing is difficult, endeavor to continue a conscious practice for 30 minutes, focusing entirely on the nostrils at first and then perhaps moving around or doing something simple while continuing this focus.
The Vital Force
Above, the shape of nostril, the “Gateway to Heaven” in China, and the shape of the lungs, which are all similar to my eyes.
Going further than the nostrils as the proper way to breathe, the Daoist worldview refers to the breath as the vital force. Although the implications are vague, they may be suggesting that it is a potent means through which energy can be channeled, life extended, and some inner source of strength and magic, unlocked.
“When the intelligent and animal souls are held together in one embrace, they can be kept from separating. When one gives undivided attention to the (vital) breath and brings it to the utmost degree of pliancy, he can become as a tender babe. When he has cleansed away the most mysterious sights (of his imagination), he can become without a flaw.” – Lao Tze, Tao te Ching (10)
The breath, through the nose, is central to taste, smell and every other sense by getting us out of thinking and is also, as Lao Tze suggests, central to channeling some inner human potential, force. In several verses previous, the vital force is even suggested as key to life extension (Lao Tze, 6).
An interesting parallel with this is also seen between Jung’s concept of the Anima and Animus. The Animus is the masculine aspect in women, representing material control and manipulation, skills necessary for living in the male, material-oriented world. The Anima, the essential part of the feminine present—but sometimes suppressed—within all men, is visualized as the breath by Jung. Jung connected the breath through the Anima as being essential to the male’s journey towards wholeness–he called it individuation, I call it the Hero’s Journey. The breath, exercised properly, is one of many tools which connects males with this other aspect of themselves crucial to psychological well-being.
As an extra practice if you already breathe regularly through your nostrils, consider also exercising your lung capacity through the nostrils by taking small breaths repeatedly as long as you can before being forced to exhale, or in pulling further air into your diaphragm after your lungs have reached their maximum. Admittedly I don’t fully grasp what Daoists suggest is attainable through managing the vital force as breath, the Tao te Ching leads me to conclude that increasing lung capacity, holding the breath, is involved.
Other Practices in Better Nostril Breathing
A few other key experiences with my nose seem relevant to mention here. When I am eating, particularly while eating too quickly, I stop breathing through the nose and instinctively return to mouth breathing; my brain is hyper-focused on the act of eating and not tasting the food. Only when I slow down and breathe in through my nose while chewing can I actually taste the food in my mouth; the nostrils, every bit as much as the mouth, is critical to the sense of taste. In my practice, I have to eat more intentionally, slowing down, to prevent myself from consuming food like some savage, piling it in without tasting anything, returning to mouth breathing in the process.
As well, through growing my awareness of my nostrils, I notice after eating that I experience a concomitant increase in mucus in my nose. My nose is apparently inflamed when I eat, lasting a couple hours or more after finishing the meal. Certain foods make it much worse. While inflamed, proper nostril breathing is harder for me until a portion of the food is digested and the inflammation lessened.
To help combat this and keep the nose unrestricted, one practice might be interval fasting, in which someone limits their intake of food to only certain hours of the day, say a 12 or 10-hour window. While I reach this practice through a desire to breathe easier through my nose–less inflammation and mucus resulting from not constantly eating–fasting proponents point to the growing body of research showing how our bodies age in significant part as a result of eating. Specifically, telomere length shortened in one prominent study, with much recent research suggesting intermittent fasting and calorie restriction can have various health benefits (Weir, 2017). Among these benefits for me, are clearer thoughts.
Changing a Habit
Simply shifting my viewpoint towards the nostrils as the gateway to Heaven, in a very real literal and symbolic sense of better well-being, has further helped instill a more sacred view of the nose and–combined with clearing the passages and conscious breathing–helped me start to eliminate a long-standing habit. By holding the nose as sacred, essential to proper breathing, I take far more seriously now any compulsion to allay stress/thoughts through that act. Although the world tends to view nose picking as taboo because of the ‘gross’ factor, the real reason it is taboo, and consequently why people pick their noses in private, is it being extremely counterproductive to humans’ overall health, mental health in particular.
Wim Hof Breathing
I came across the Wim Hof method as an additional tool for breathing. The Wim Hof breathing method works to rapidly increase oxygen into the body. Wim Hof suggests this is key to oxidative stress due to oxygen deprivation and having an inflamed body. Although nostril breathing is the proper method for breathing in a resting state, Wim Hof is a method of hyperventilation through the mouth which quickly restores healthy oxygen levels in the body; afterwhich, a person returns to normal nostril breathing.
In this video I demonstrate my attempt at the Wim Hof method.
There is research to support Wim Hof breathing. Among the best research is that Wim Hof’s breathing method decreases proinflammatory cytokine production. Cytokines seem to be one major causes of inflammation. Much research is now building upon the idea that inflammation is related to a number of negative health outcomes, including mental health disorders. Thus, Wim Hof breathing can decreases symptoms of depression and anxiety, among other mental health issues through reduction of cytokines.
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