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Breath and Natural Sleep

Man peacefully resting

With the years, most of us find we can’t take a good night’s sleep for granted. Our bodies may not rebound as easily, so inadequate sleep is not a transient concern. Now is a good time to focus on better sleep–and maximize our chances for restorative rest.

I had to prioritize sleep after I found myself dozing a few times while driving home from work. I was lucky there wasn’t a horrifying outcome. No matter how much I meditated or practiced yoga or exercised, I needed sounder sleep and more of it.

Making sleep a higher priority in my life was part desperation and part inspiration, and ultimately my fascination with sleep led me to start a natural mattress company. Among other things along the way, I learned this fact about breathing:

The mind and the breath work together. If your breath is short and shallow, your thoughts will likewise be restless. If your breathing is deep and long, your mind will relax and slow down, too. You can even alter your breath in order to alter the movement of your mind. It’s a little like the tail wagging the dog. Controlling the breath is key to many meditation disciplines and is also a feature of natural childbirth techniques.

This particular breathing technique is simple to learn; the challenge is to concentrate on it. Better sleep is a great motivation! You can begin in any position–sitting upright or lying down. If you are sitting, rest your hands in your lap or on your knees. If you are lying down, rest your arms by your side, or rest one hand lightly on your abdomen.

The main idea is to breathe deeply and focus your attention in particular on the end of the relaxed exhalation (Step 6, below). If you are familiar with the Ujjayi breath or the ocean breath in yoga, you can use those, although that’s not the focus of this exercise.

Natural Breathing

Step 1: Exhale completely
Begin by slowly and gently forcing the air out of your lungs. Don’t stress the exhalation. Just exhale most of the remaining air.

Step 2: Inhale–Part A
The first part of the inhalation will automatically happen, quite rapidly, as you fill the bottom of your lungs.

Step 3: Inhale–Part B
Once the lower part of your lungs feels full, consciously breathe in more, slowly and deeply, until your lungs feel almost full. Don’t inhale so forcefully that you feel stressed — you’re not a balloon! Leave a little room at the top.

Step 4: Hold the Breath
Hold your breath for one second, just long enough to notice that you’ve stopped inhaling and are ready to exhale.

Step 5: Begin to exhale
Exhale, more slowly than you breathed in. If you exhale too fast or too slowly, you’ll benefit less from what follows (Step 6). Remember, though–this is relaxation, not an exam. You can’t fail, and you’ll have another chance in about 10 seconds.

While exhaling, gently think: Relax the face. Relax the shoulders. Relax the jaw. Relax the abdomen. Relax the hands. Relax the eyes and the muscles around the eyes.

Step 6: Allow the breath to pause
Once you’ve breathed in all that oxygen for your cells, and then have focused on the exhalation, you won’t need more air for a few seconds. Your breathing will naturally pause–experience the stillness. The clock may tick for a few seconds, but this is an eternity of experience. If your mind chatters, enjoy the quiet of your body anyway. Calmly repeat: “Let go. Let go. Let go. Let go.”

Whatever you were experiencing in the first five steps, it’s over. Step 6 is the grand finale of relaxation. In this momentary pause from breathing, you are most free to slip into sleep…unless you’re trying. If you plan to will yourself to sleep, you’ll be awake a while.

Return to Step 1 and repeat.

You can’t force it, but with practice, this exercise will help sleep overtake you sooner and more peacefully.

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