breathing and sleepBreathing and sleep

Breathing is an essential skill for sleep. Our nervous system is activated when we breathe deeply and this helps to initiate relaxation and sleep process.  It’s quite surprising how many of us have actually forgotten how to breathe. Many yoga teachers have found out that they need to retrain their pupils to breathe as their breathing has become’ shallow’ and fast (stemming from the chest rather than from the belly).

Dr Nerina Raklaham describes (in her book Tired But Wired) very interestingly about her observations regarding breathing. She has studied breathing in depth and was puzzled by a discrepancy between what she researched and what she observed. She writes that breathing is one of the first aspects affected when we become tense and anxious. As soon as our brains register threat, the stress hormones shift our breathing up to the chest area. The problem lies in here. When we breathe from the chest we start to feel tired as we only have about 20% access to our lung capacity! If this happens regularly, it means that we are continuously deprived of oxygen. As a consequence, we are yawning, sighing or even hiccupping. As we breathe 20-25 thousand times per day, it sure makes a difference how we breathe. Even worse, when we breathe from our chest it can literally take us into a state of anxiety and/or panic attack.

Several factors can cause chest/shallow breathing: lack of exercise, excess abdominal weight, stress, anxiety, poor posture (don’t slump!), smoking, poor diet, excess caffeine, sugar, starvation.

Breathing techniques

Ayurvedic physicians have been perfecting breathing techniques over 5000 years to manage better pain, insomnia and various other issues. This ancient science is called pranayama (also includes controlling of inner spirit of life). Prāṇāyām (Sanskrit: प्राणायाम prāṇāyām) is a Sanskrit word meaning “extension of the prāṇ or breath” or, “extension of the life force”. The origin of this yogic discipline lies in ancient Bharat (India) and what is known as present day Hinduism.

For our purpose, we will focus on breath control for better relaxation and sleep. There are two basic methods of deep breathing: core breathing and diaphramic breathing. The former is essential for the purpose of falling asleep. The latter is a more active deep breathing method increasing focus during waking hours.

Core breathing stems from the lower abdomen. It is deeply relaxing and often used for meditation. Most of us unconsciously breathe like this when we are sleeping. Core breathing is most useful when we are lying or sitting still and able to fully relax our mind and body. Don’t do this while driving or managing a machine etc.

Relearning breathing: an exercise

  1. Choose a convenient position, you can sit comfortably or lie down.
  2. Start by observing your breathing. Don’t try to control or change anything.
  3. Start relaxing. Let your breathing follow its natural rhythm.  You can close your eyes.
  4. Pay attention how your breathing is moving your body (belly, chest, shoulders, etc)
  5. Ground yourself if sitting (place both feet firmly on floor hip width apart)
  6. Straighten your posture, relax your hands and drop your shoulders.
  7. Follow your breathing and start lengthening your exhale.
  8. Aim to have twice as long exhale as inhale.
  9. Stay relaxed, don’t do anything forcefully.
  10. Keeping slowing your breathing and after each exhale/inhale pause shortly (few seconds, if it comes naturally).

The key is to let breathing flow naturally and then step by step aim to prolong exhalation. When exhalation gets longer, let breathing pause briefly. You can deepen your inhalation (but keep it much shorter than exhalation – the focus is on exhalation) and pause briefly after inhalation as well (not as necessary). When the breathing starts to follow this rhythm, it pauses and lengthens the exhale naturally. As you practice more, you can achieve the slower, natural breathing faster. Typical yoga classes always end with above described breathing moments.

Alternative posture: legs up to wall

Some people don’t get it. We are so used to keep our bellies tight (not to show any unnecessary fat or wobble) that letting belly go up and down can prove to be very hard. The idea of core breathing is to let the belly move and breathing flow freely. If the above breathing exercise either sitting or lying down did not work, you can try to put your legs against the wall. And if this feels too ‘easy’ place a bolster under your bottom. Or a bolster and blankets to make it very high.

This ‘legs up to wall’ posture drives automatically breathing to belly, boosts relaxation and slows down breathing. It’s also a very good posture for your body circulation and brings blood to heart. This is essentially vital posture for people who work at their desks most of the days. Try for 10 minutes and you become totally refreshed, legs tickling and core breathing refreshing your mind.

This asana is called viparati karani (legs-up-the-wall-pose) and Donna Karan (well-known American yogini) says it’s the most restorative yoga asana. If you don’t have time to do anything else, do legs up the wall and relearn breathing while resting and meditating.

Test your briefing

If you are interested to know whether you breathe poorly or will, you can test your breathing in many ways (also DIY). Find more information testing your lung capabilities from British Lung Foundation or National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. You can also do great DIY test following the guidance from Yoga Journal.

References & Disclaimer

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