Our breath is intimately connected to our nervous system in a feedback loop. Due to stress and computer work, we tend to breathe shallowly which supports the sympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system stimulates “fight, flight, freeze, or freak out.” This may cause more stress or the feeling of “wired but tired” which can leave many people unable to fall asleep and sleep through the night.
Studies have found that adults who receive more sleep at night also report feeling lower levels of stress. So how do we begin the process of getting more sleep? Breath work is a great way to help the mind slow down and move you into a more relaxed state that is ready to move into a deep sleep. In yoga, breath control is known as Pranayama. Pranayama comes from two Sanskrit words: “prana”, meaning breath or life force, and “yama” meaning to control. Below, we’ll discuss four breathing techniques to practice before you go to bed so that you can quickly fall into a deep sleep.
“Breath is the bridge which connects life to consciousness, which unites your body to your thoughts.”~Thích Nhất Hạnh
Three-Part Breathing For Sleep
Three-part breathing (also known as abdominal breath or yogic breathing) is a great place to start with pranayama. Try inhaling from the bottom of your belly using deep, full slow breaths to fill the three parts sequentially.
- Lie down and observe your normal breathing pattern, inhaling and exhaling through your nose.
- Place your right hand on your chest, and left hand on your belly.
- Take a deep inhale through your nose and let your belly open forward, then your rib cage, followed by your upper chest, shoulders, and throat.
- Exhale smoothly through your nostrils from the top to the bottom, allowing your chest and shoulders to drop, then letting the rib cage relax inward. Finally, the belly moves inward.
- Use the abdominal muscles and rib cage muscles to push even more air out of the lungs.
Two to One Breathing, also called extended exhale
Two to one breathing is a great support for the parasympathetic nervous system which controls how the body functions at rest. It’s activated through exhalation and calms one’s being and encourages relaxation. Try the following exercise and adjust the number count to your personal needs.
- Inhale through your nose and count to four. (1, 2, 3, 4)
- Exhale through slightly opened lips and count to eight. (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8)
- Repeat this pattern until you feel relaxed.
Bhramari, humming bee breathBhramari comes from the Black Indian Bee, as a reminder of the sound you’ll make when exhaling in this practice. It helps sooth the nerves, nurtures peace, dissipates anger, and leads to a deep sleep. Bhramari is best performed right before getting into bed, when seated on a mat, with a straight spine.
- After you’ve found a comfortable seat, close your eyes and keep your lips slightly parted.
- Bring your thumbs to your ears to gently close them. Do not stick your thumbs inside of your ears.
- Separate your fingers and place them on the crown of head.
- Breathe in slowly through your nostrils.
- Exhale slowly and create a hmmmmm sound in the back of your throat, resembling the sound of a buzzing bee.
- Repeat the breath 10 times in a smooth, steady pattern, bringing focus to the middle of your forehead.
Alternate Nostril Breathing for Sleep
For most of us, we don’t recognize that during the day our body changes the predominant side of nostril breathing depending on what the body needs. This science of nostril breathing is called Swara yoga. Right nostril breathing supports the more aggressive, more alert side of our nervous system (or sympathetic). Left side nostril breathing supports the quieter, relaxed side of our nervous system (or parasympathetic). When you go to bed, try this breathing technique:
- Using your right hand, close your right nostril with your thumb and breathe slowly through your left nostril.
- Close your left nostril with your ring and middle fingers, pausing for a quick moment.
- Lift your thumb and exhale from your right nostril.
- Leave your thumb lifted and inhale through your right nostril.
- Close your right nostril with your thumb, pausing for a quick moment.
- Lift your ring and middle fingers and exhale through your left nostril.
- Repeat until you feel relaxed.
I hope these exercises have allowed you to relax and begin the process of a better night of sleep. Did you know allergies can lead to insomnia due to the overstimulation in your brain? I wrote more about this in my article “Treating Allergies May Aid Insomnia.”
If you’re interested in taking an in-depth look at what’s causing you to lose sleep, schedule a 1-on-1 consultation with me. I’d love to help!
Dr. Melanie MacLaren, ND, RYT