Though it is one of the most important functions of our body and something we’re supposed to spend one-third of our life doing, many people struggle to get to sleep at night.
A 2018 study by the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine found about 1 in 4 Americans experience acute — or short-term — insomnia every year. Apart from re-energizing you for another day, adequate sleep can help improve concentration and productivity and even lower one’s risk for weight gain.
According to Mayo Clinic, insomnia — difficulty staying or falling asleep — can result from various factors, such as stress, changes in life events, mental health disorders, stimulants, and other medical conditions.
And more severe cases can bring about health complications, such as an increased likelihood of substance abuse, and may also lead to high blood pressure and heart disease.
If insomnia is something you regularly experience, there are several sleeping exercises involving breathwork to try out before resorting to medication.
Hilario Patino, a Rio Grande Valley meditation expert with decades of practice, shares a few breathing methods rooted in ancient yoga that can help relax your body and prepare you for a good night’s sleep.
The 4-7-8 breathing technique requires inhaling for four counts, holding your breath for seven counts, then exhaling for eight counts.
“You’re expected to really breathe into your diaphragm, meaning you push the stomach down so lots of oxygen enters your lungs,” Patino said. “It makes the interchange between oxygen and carbon dioxide more efficient.”
Effective oxygenation of the brain, he adds, allows it to expel toxins to help it better control the body’s functions.
Similar to the 4-7-8 technique, the 20-20 requires inhaling and exhaling for a number of counts. Patino said this is the method he himself uses.
“Don’t attempt the 20-20 version until you have been grounded in the 4-7-8,” he cautions.
For 20-20 breathing, you simply inhale for a count of 20 then exhale for the same count.
If you’ve mastered the 4-7-8 technique but you have not worked up to breathing in for 20 counts, you can attempt a modified version in which you inhale for as many counts as you can and exhale for just as long.
Tense and Relax
Begin by lying flat on your back in bed with your arms to your side and quickly inhale and exhale two deep breaths through your mouth.
“You tense your whole body, ankle, foot, thighs, stomach, neck, forehead all at the same time while doing this,” Patino said.
Then after the two breaths with the body tensed, you release the tension and do the same two deep breaths, then repeat alternating a tensed and relaxed body.
“After about five sets, your body gets very relaxed,” said Patino, adding this is his personal favorite method. “These kinds of practices should not just be done sporadically. You must take the time to make this a routine.”
“This kind of breathing is supposed to balance the internal energy in your body — positive and negative energies,” Patino said.
For this exercise, you sit on your bed or another seat while keeping the soles of your feet on the floor. Take your thumb and close your right nostril, then inhale with just the left nostril. Switch and close your left nostril to exhale from the right nostril. Then reverse and keep the left nostril closed to inhale through the right, then switch and exhale through the left. Repeat switching sides until you feel at ease.
Apart from these techniques, other natural remedies that can help combat insomnia include meditation or just reading a book.
“Read something good that feeds your mind positive thoughts,” Patino said. “Sleeping with a relaxed body and a peaceful mind are good medicines for insomnia.”
If you would like to try these exercises but are already taking over the counter medication to help induce sleep, Patino recommends slowly weaning yourself off.
“For example, if you’re taking it every night, maybe you can take it four times a week at the beginning, then three times a week, then two, then one, and see how your body copes,” he said. “It’s not good to immediately stop what you’re doing because the body has been used to it. Gradual things really work as long as you’re consistent.”