You're far from alone if you have trouble sleeping. Our modern lifestyles, combined with local & global stressors, can make it tough to get restful sleep. In a previous post, we shared healthy habits that can help you sleep better. In this post, we talk about simple ways to breathe yourself to sleep! These are time-tested pranayama (breath) techniques that are free and always available!
How Conscious Breathing Affects our Physiology
Feel it for yourself. Try this right now: Inhale deeply and slowly through your nose (if you can) into the bottoms of your lungs and belly. Slowly exhale through your nose and continue the exhale until you feel all the air has been pushed back out of your lungs. If you can, let the exhale last longer than the inhale, or pause at the end of your exhale for a few seconds before you inhale again. Repeat 2 more times.
Can you feel how a few deliberate, slow breaths create more calm and space in your mind and body?
Conscious deep breathing practices affect the vagus nerve, which is the longest cranial nerve. The vagus nerve connects the brain stem with the neck, heart, lungs and abdomen. It helps regulate heart rate, satiation & digestion, sweating and speech and is especially tied to the parasympathetic nervous system (the "rest and digest" part of the autonomic nervous system).
Taking deep, full breaths with complete exhales can lower our blood pressure and improve the oxygenation of our blood. When we take shallow breaths and don't fully exhale, our heart rate increases and the sympathetic ("fight or flight") nervous system is engaged. This can increase blood pressure and stress hormones. Conscious breathing is a powerful key to controlling our own physiology!
How to Breathe Yourself to Sleep
Next time you have trouble falling asleep or you wake up at night, let these simple breath practices come to the rescue! Start with the 2 suggestions below:
1. Smile. Smiling releases dopamine and serotonin and can reduce stress and heart rate. You don't have to feel happy, just smile.
2. Contemplate gratitude for the blessings in your life. Feeling grateful can put things in perspective, decrease stress and improve your mood.
Now, try Whiskey Breathing, 2-to-1 Breathing, or Alternate Nostril Breathing (all described below), and prepare to return to dreamland.
Like whiskey, this breath practice will slow you down! This is also called "Square Breathing" or "Box Breathing" and involves equal counts for the inhale, hold, exhale, hold. The goal is to complete about 4 cycles per minute.
- Lie quietly, and breathe in slowly for a count of 4.
- Hold the breath for a count of 4.
- Exhale slowly for a count of 4.
- Hold the breath out for a count of 4.
Continue until you're blissfully out!
Emphasizing the exhale engages the parasympathetic rest & digest mode and turns down the reactive sympathetic nervous system. The aim of 2 to 1 Breathing is to exhale for twice as long as you inhale. Here's how:
- Relax your body and focus on your breath. Place one hand on your chest and one on your abdomen. If your chest is moving as you breathe, focus on breathing into your belly.
- Begin to count the duration of your inhale and exhale. Let them be equal until you feel calm.
- When you're ready, deepen your exhale by contracting the abdomen to push as much air out as you can. To inhale, release the abdomen and let the air in.
- Begin to shorten the length of the inhale and increase the length of the exhale until your exhale is about twice as long as your inhale. Don't strain, just take it easy and slow.
- Continue until you start to drift off.
Alternate nostril breathing calms stress and anxiety and helps restore our physiological and emotional balance.
- Lie down comfortably and rest your left arm at your side or on your belly.
- With your right hand, place your thumb on your right nostril and another finger on your left nostril.
- Close your right nostril with your thumb, and take a slow deep breath through your left nostril.
- Close your left nostril with your finger and hold both nostrils shut for a brief moment at the end of the inhale.
- Release your thumb from your right nostril and exhale through the right nostril. Pause briefly at the end of the exhale.
- Inhale slowly through the right nostril.
- At the top of the inhale, hold both nostrils closed briefly.
- Exhale slowly through the left nostril, and pause at the bottom of the exhale.
- Repeat for at least 5 to 10 cycles. Try to match the length of the inhale, hold, exhale, hold, as in Whiskey Breathing above.
You can have a good night's sleep!
Once you start practicing healthy sleep habits and calming breath practices, you'll probably experience better sleep than you've had in a while. Stick with it. Doing these practices keeps me calm if I'm awake at night, rather than lying in bed feeling stressed about not sleeping. Most of the time these techniques send me back to sleep within a half hour or less.
Try Sleep Balm for a little extra help!
If you wake up at night you could reach for a tin of Sleep Balm and rub some on the soles of your feet & on your neck. The soothing blend of lavender, cedarwood, vetiver and patchouli essential oils promotes calming and smells beautiful. Try it before you go to bed too as part of your nighttime routine.