If you’re suffering from sleeplessness, it’s tempting to turn to sleep aids and other external solutions. Before you do, however, first try a simple and free solution: focused and mindful breathing.
Trouble falling sleep isn’t just about feeling tired the next day or stressed because you’re not falling asleep when you want to. Sleep (or lack thereof) has serious impacts on hormone production, metabolism, and more. Thankfully, we can tap into some basic breathing techniques to calm our bodies and increase our chances of getting to sleep peacefully.
Belly breaths are just deep breaths, like the kind babies take. Sounds easy, right? Well . . . why aren’t we using it more then? Hectic days and high stress levels cause us to breathe really shallow breaths, while our stomach stays empty and tight the entire time. Using belly breaths, we’re expanding our lungs, filling them up to the maximum of their capacity, and letting the air come down into our bellies and spread all over our body.
All it takes is a little bit of practice and focus. Lie on your back, or find a comfortable seat and place your palms on your belly. First, close your eyes, and start observing your breath. Inhale and exhale, inhale and exhale . . . focus on each one and notice the way they impact your body. Now start paying attention to your hands: Are they moving at all? Are they rising when you inhale and dropping when you exhale?
If the answer is no, turn your attention to that area of your body and mindfully breathe into your belly. Try completing 5-10 full cycles and start feeling your shoulders drop and your whole body start to relax.
Once you’ve conquered deep belly breaths, try this three-part yoga technique that brings even more awareness to the way our body responds to mindful breathing. Start by sitting in a comfortable position or lying down. Place one hand on your chest and the other on your belly. Inhale and feel your lower hand rise up as your belly fills up first, then your ribcage, and lastly your chest. When exhaling, feel your upper hand dropping first, then your ribcage, and finally, your belly.
This takes some time getting used to, so don’t worry if you need to repeat it a few times before you get it right. The goal isn’t to get your hands to rise and fall to a certain extent; it’s to feel your whole body fill up with fresh oxygen, utilize deep breathing, and feel your body get into rest-and-digest mode.
Breath counting is an age-old technique that helps you break away from your thoughts and focus on your breath.
Counting our inhales and exhales can seem like a chore at first, as we never purposely do so in any other aspect of our lives. Do you know how long your breaths are? Yeah, me neither. Actually, we might even be surprised by how shallow and short-lasting they actually are. Working ourselves up to a 4 or 5 count is hard, as we need to retrain our brains and teach our full lung capacity to take in as much oxygen as possible.
Start by sitting in a relaxed position and your back straight. Inhale while counting to 4; exhale while counting to 4. After a few cycles, start extending the exhale . . . slowly, gently . . . without holding the breath. Work your way up to a 1:2 ratio and continue for 3-5 full breaths.
If this exercise feels good . . . try this next one, as it’s an interesting and tested method.
4-7-8 Breath (The Relaxing Breath)
Inhaling for a count of four, holding for a count of 7, and exhaling for a count of 8. This well-known technique was created by Dr. Andrew Weil from Harvard who specializes in holistic health and alternative medicine; he has made it his life mission to help people fight off insomnia.
When learning the technique, Dr. Weil recommends to sit with the back straight, place the tip of our tongue against the ridge of the tissue behind the upper front teeth, and to keep it there throughout the entire breathing exercise. Before starting, exhale completely through your mouth while making a whooshing sound. Yes, it sounds a bit awkward, but just give it a go. And then, inhale for 4, hold for 7, exhale for 8, once again making the whooshing sound as you do so. Repeat three more times for a total of four breath cycles.
So, what’s the deal behind these numbers? These specific counts allow the body to replenish the oxygen in the most efficient way and force the mind to focus on regulating the breath, rather than thinking about the day we had, things we need to do, and stress out about things we cannot change.
Visualizing While Breathing
Trying to picture our breath going in and out of our body is a really cool way of turning our attention inwards, instead of having our thoughts swirl around our brains. When inhaling, start by visualizing the air as a little, light bubble (that symbolizes oxygen, relaxation, and zen), getting in through our nose and mouths, flowing through our neck into our lungs and our bellies, and from there, spreading all over our bodies, to the edges of our fingertips and the tips of our toes.
Exhale, and imagine a dark bubble (that symbolizes toxins, stress, and other things we need and want to get rid of) getting out and cleaning our whole body. Repeat this 3-5 times and feel your whole being get a pound lighter.
Nadi Shodhana (Yoga Pranayama)
Or sometimes called alternate nostril breathing. It might feel weird at first, but pretty soon, you’ll be craving its calming and cooling properties. Sit up in your bed, your back relaxed against your headboard. Place your thumb on your right nostril to gently block it and inhale through your left. Close your left nostril with your ring finger, lift your thumb, and exhale through the right nostril. Inhale through the same nostril and once again, switch up the fingers, press with your thumb, and exhale through the left nostril.
Repeat 5-10 times, trying to breathe deeper with each breath cycle you take. The yogic belief is that Nadi Shodhana purifies and detoxes the energy channels in our bodies, stripping away the stress, lowering our heart rate, and inviting peace and relaxation.
Breathe in, breathe out. It’s such a natural action, but one that most of us do in rather tense and unnatural ways. Learning how to control and regulate our breath can help us in many life situations, as our stress and anxiety levels can significantly decrease once we figure it out. Falling asleep faster and getting rid of insomnia is one of the things we should be working on every single day of our lives, as proper rest and recovery is the key to optimal health and longevity.