On the nose

In the tomb painting below, Nefertari receives the breath of life from Isis:

The Ankh was held to the nose in thousands of reliefs—hinting at an Egyptian version of pranayama that clears the physical, emotional and spiritual obstacles in our bodies by boosting the flow of energy. Breathing through the nose warms, moistens and conditions incoming air. It also mixes the flow with nitric oxide (NO) that kills bacteria and works as a vasodilator on airways, arteries and capillaries.

Most importantly though, the brain moderates its state via the nose. By exploiting the olfactory nerve’s influence over the pituitary gland the hypothalamus can regulate its level of stimulation—breathing through the right nostril tends to activate awareness; breathing through the left tends to calm it. As the brain modulates its states, the passage of air through the nostrils shifts in dominance every few hours.

Above: the Circle of Willis and the olfactory tracts

The right nostril is the accelerator. Breathing this way speeds up circulation and increases temperature, blood pressure and heart rate. It also activates the sympathetic nervous system and feeds more blood to the left side of the brain which boosts our logical, analytical and rational sensibilities.

The left nostril is the brake and is more connected to the parasympathetic nervous system. This is a relaxing state that lowers temperature and blood pressure and reduces anxiety. The left nostril shifts blood flow to the right side of the brain which handles creativity, emotions and abstract thought.

So our bodies operate most efficiently in a state of balance, pivoting between action and relaxation, doing and dreaming. As each side of the brain is stimulated in turn, oxygenated blood is regulated via our biological Ankh. Aside from regulating blood flow between the right and left, forward and rear parts to the brain, this biological Tree of Life also balances the roots (the trachea, bronchi and bronchioles) with the branches (the neurons). Blood even carries our genetic memory, as acknowledged by Carl Jung:

Who has fully realised that history
is not contained in thick books
but lives in our very blood?

Breathing through the nose then, allows the brain to achieve balance. This equilibrium eventually leads to enlightenment. Once upon a time, the fertile blood of Isis was interpreted as the waters of the “river tree” we call the Nile. Spirit then, came from the French espirit, which originated from the Latin spiritus (soul, vigour, breath). Inhaling through the nostrils was known as the “breath of life,” leading to sublime states.

So what is alchemical breathing? According to mystics, the optimal rhythm was every 11 seconds. This means 5.5 second inhales through the nose followed by 5.5 second exhales via the mouth. This works out to about 5.5 breaths a minute. Despite our perceptions, we actually uptake most of our oxygen during the exhale.

Combined with a mantra, this coherence goes by another name—prayer. When we hum a mantra, the vibrations become a reality within our experience. These melodies can convey a longing for life, love and light. Unsurprisingly, the gods and temples along the Nile were named and placed according to the sounds and sequence of the chakra system:

WAD—unity

HOR—vision

THO—voice

HUE—love

RAA—power

SOB—fertility

ATU—creation

Vibration also affects vasodilation—airflow oscillation produced by humming increases sinus ventilation and thereby nasal NO levels. In fact, NO increases 15-fold during humming compared with quiet exhalation. In a two-compartment model of the nose and sinus, oscillating airflow caused a dramatic increase in gas exchange between the cavities.

NOSE = Nitric Oxide Sonic Exchange

So we can combine breathing, mantras, mudras and incense in order to achieve enlightenment. Once our demons have been identified, we can become more unified. This is why the most important god, Atum, was known as the serpent. As the archetype of creation, his invocation was a sign of illumination:

Be conscious of your unconscious breath
As you dive the dangers of the depths.
For the psyche can only be whole
When the serpent is named
And tamed by the soul.