I know that when you’re exhausted and trying to look after your health in the midst of busy family life, new techniques need to be simple and easy to remember, yet effective.
I’m not a naturally good sleeper – I’ve had to work at it! After years of Yoga & mindfulness practice, research and experimentation, I’ve settled on some easy breathing techniques for better sleep, and as far as my private Yoga clients are concerned, the simplest are often the best.
There are many very effective breathing techniques for better sleep from the Yoga tradition, but I’m simplifying these two to their bare essentials. The last thing you need when you’re lying in bed trying to get to sleep is to try to remember a complicated breathing ratio or procedure.
Many practices offered on the internet use pauses on the inhalation. This can be very effective but if you’re suffering from low blood pressure, an autoimmune disorder or accumulated exhaustion, sometimes pausing after the inhalation can cause feelings of discomfort in the head or dizziness, adding to the challenge.
Luckily, I know from personal experience that these very easy, simplified breathing techniques for better sleep do actually work. I live with a snoring husband and a snoring labrador, plus our local nocturnal population of possums, Eastern Spotted Quolls, and Tassie Devils; all of whom are capable of waking me up in the middle of the night with interesting thumps, screeches, yells and wildlife parties. If any of this chaos wakes me up, I use these easy breathing techniques to help me get back to sleep simply and easily.
These aren’t “quick fix” techniques and it may take a few nights in a row before you start to feel them working, but their simplicity makes it more likely that you’ll keep using them and find them highly useful and effective in the long run.
An important helpful tip…
When trying any of these techniques, close your eyes and rest the direction of your gaze downwards. One of the problems with trying to remember counting and ratios is that many of us will look upwards, or up and to the side while we try to remember them, stimulating parts of our brain that make it even harder to get to sleep until it all just seems too difficult. Gaze your eyes downwards in a relaxed way behind your closed eyelids and you’ll feel calmer and less inclined to worry needlessly about exact counting.
Easy breathing technique for better sleep 1: lengthened exhalations
Begin by noticing your breathing, just as it already is. Let your breath take its time. Does your inhalation, or your exhalation seem longer?
One of the simplest yet most powerful things you can do to feel calmer and more relaxed is to lengthen your exhalations. And yet you don’t want this to be a struggle; otherwise trying can just set up more anxiety and frustration. So if it’s challenging, maybe you can begin with just letting your exhalation last one moment longer – lingering with it until you feel you’ve well and truly breathed out as much as possible, feeling empty of the breath but without strain. Maybe you can also spend a moment in the pause at the end of the exhalation. Then let your inhalation just be light and effortless – just a waiting process really, for the next, more deliberate, lingering exhalation.
If you practise this without struggling too much with it – just keeping it easy – then each thorough, complete exhalation will help to set up a longer cycle of breath. It may take a while but with practice you’ll find yourself able to exhale for longer and longer durations. Eventually you might be able to allow your exhalation to last up to twice as long as your inhalation, but if you’re new to breath work, don’t push it! Be content with just the longest exhalation you can manage, without struggle or strain. It’ll get easier.
The great thing about this one is that you can also practice it during the day just to feel more at ease and relaxed, or to ease feelings of stress. Practising it during the day will make it even easier to remember at night when you’re trying to get to sleep.
Easy breathing technique for better sleep 2: left nostril breathing
Again, it’s always best to first notice what your breathing is already like, just as it is. Let your breath take its time, and try not to interfere with it for a few cycles, just letting it do its own thing. See if you can find an easy way of letting your exhalations be thorough and complete, as if you’re emptying yourself of the breath, and just being a bit pleasantly lazy about breathing in. Let your breath be soft and quiet as it flows past the tip of your nose.
In this easy technique, you’re only going to be breathing through the left nostril. It’s a very simplified version of a much longer and deeper practice of Yoga alternate nostril breathing, but it’s still very effective.
I’ve taught children suffering from the effects of trauma to do this by lying on their right side, closing the right hand into a gentle fist, and placing the right hand between the pillow and the right side of the nose, so that the right nostril is comfortably squashed and compressed. The only nostril left to breathe through is the left one, and this can have an incredibly calming effect on the nervous system. It’s been very helpful for children I’ve worked with suffering from PTSD with nightmares and insomnia, and it’s easy to remember and easy to do. They often fall asleep in this position after a few minutes.
So try closing off your right nostril in a comfortable way. You could use your right hand thumb over your right nostril while resting the right side of your head on your pillow.
Often, if you are feeling very wired up and awake, your left nostril will not feel very clear and easy to breathe through. (That’s no accident! When the right side nostril is clearer, we’re more likely to feel alert and perhaps even restless). If it’s really difficult to breathe through the left nostril, don’t allow it to become a struggle. Struggling is counterproductive. Find an easy way into the method; maybe you can take one or two very gentle breaths through the left nostril to begin with, closing off the right, and then let your body breathe the way it wants to so that you don’t feel breathless or stressed. Then maybe, just for a moment, you’ll need to take a breath through both nostrils, or yawn, or even a mouth breath if your nose is a bit blocked. As soon as you’re ready, you can try another left nostril cycle of breath or two. Just trying gently will actually help the left nostril to start to feel clearer, and easier to breathe through. Don’t force – be gentle and patient, and persistent, and after a while you’ll drift off to sleep.
With regular practice, the effects of this left nostril breathing on the nervous system are so deep that I feel I need to add a caution here; don’t use this technique during the day if you suffer from depression or low energy. There is a balancing alternate nostril practice called Nadi Shodhana that you can use during the day that I’ll describe in another, future post.
Keeping it simple
So, to sum up and make it all as simple and easy as possible for the sleep deprived, you now have two breathing techniques for better sleep to choose from…
Either practise lengthening your exhalations, or comfortably squash your right nostril so that you can only breathe through the left.
Just make sure you keep it easy and gentle, and let your closed eyes soften downwards.
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