Super Easy Breathing Exercise to Help Stress, Anxiety and Sleep

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I wrote this post a while ago, long before Coronavirus kicked in, but it’s been sitting in my drafts until now, when suddenly it seemed more relevant than ever to post it.

More than a few friends recently have talked about their stress and anxiety, with levels ranging from I can’t get dressed in the morning without crying, to I feel so overwhelmed at work I can’t sleep properly at night.

So I thought I’d write a few words about a very simple breathing exercise that’s not only helped me drift off more peacefully at night, but has been scientifically proven to help increase relaxation and reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety.

How does it work? Deep, slow and controlled breathing has been shown to activate the body’s relaxation response, leading to changes in the autonomic, parasympathetic and central nervous system.  

I’ve been doing versions of this simple breathwork exercise almost every night for many years as it’s so unbelievably simple but incredibly effective. Once you build a habit, you won’t let this one go.

The best thing is, you don’t need to carve out any extra time in the day to do it – you just do it lying in bed when you’re ready to sleep, so there’s no excuses for not having time. There’s literally nothing else to do apart from try to relax into sleep.

It’s typically the time when thoughts start racing and and stress potentially building, so have this breathing exercise ready in times of need.

Ready? It’s super simple…

  • Start by gently placing the hands on the lower abdomen to help connect with your breath.
  • You might feel your hands rising and falling with each inhalation and exhalation.
  • Breathe in and out through the nose (mouth gently closed) for a few counts of breath.
  • Start to follow each breath as it moves in and out of the body, wherever it might be – it could be in your belly, throat, chest or elsewhere.
  • After following your breath for a few rounds, start counting your in-breath.
  • Breath in: one, two, three
  • Breathe out: one, two, three
  • After a few rounds you want to start making your out-breath longer than your in breath. Do this by consciously but gently slowing down each exhalation.

So the breathwork pattern will look like:

  • Breath in: one, two, three (an in-breath comfortable for you)
  • Breath out: one, two, three, four, five

Regardless of how long your inhalation is, your can promote the relaxation response by slowing down and making the exhalation longer.

Repeat this cycle of counting a longer out-breath to in-breath four of five times. Sometimes I keep doing this until I physically feel my body untangle and unwind and quite often I’m asleep before I reach ten rounds.

An extra note…

Once you get used to extending the exhalation, you can start experimenting with a gentle hold in between the inhalation and exhalation. This is more like an internal pause rather than a forced hold of breath. It should be totally effortless.

This type of breathing workout helps to slow down your heart rate which reduces the effects of stress on the body. As a result your thoughts may calm and eventually bring the body into a quiet stillness.

Once the physical body settles, the mind follows.

Do this breath exercise whenever you feel you’re getting tense, stressed or locked in a whirl of thoughts-on-loop. Not just in bed, but any time.

A word on meditation…

If you’ve tried meditation or keen to try it but not sure where to start, start here, with the breath.

Learn how to find the breath, follow it, listen to it and watch it. This is a form of meditation in itself as there is just one point of focus, the breath. So whenever your mind begins to wander, you just bring it back to the breath.

This is one of the simplest ways to start meditating as the breath is a physical, tangible, active point of focus. Listening and watching the breath is also a great tool if you are easily distracted or find sitting in silence (trying to meditate!) too challenging.

So give it a go. Commit to just a few minutes of deep, controlled breathing every night for a few days or a week and see how it feels.

The Lowdown On Yoga Nidra – Yogic Sleep

Photo by Alice Moore on Unsplash

Yoga nidra is an old yogic practice that takes you to a deeply relaxed state between waking, sleeping and dreaming, and can be quite transformative. I’ve been doing yoga nidra as part of my yoga practice for over ten years now and as more of today’s teachers and studios are talking about and offering it, it seems fitting to share the benefits of yoga nidra and how it’s helped me.  

Translated from Sanskirt, yoga nidra means yogic sleep. It’s a guided relaxation technique that leads to a light withdrawal of external senses while connecting to internal awareness and still maintaining full consciousness. Through a systematic sequence of verbal instructions, it helps to release physical and mental tension, relieve stress as well as help with issues such as insomnia and anxiety. 

My teacher, Swami Pragyamurti at the Satyananda Yoga Centre in London treats the advanced classes to a monthly session and beginner classes to one a week, so I’ve experienced firsthand how amazing the practice is.  Now that I’m teacher training and learning to deliver yoga nidra myself, I can share its incredible benefits and see how much people really do love it. 

A tonic for tiredness – and more

You know the feeling after a really hard day when you body is heavy with tiredness and your mind is full of fog. That’s when I reach for a yoga nidra recording. However exhausted I might be, I know it will recalibrate and recharge me. 

A full yoga nidra is 30 mins but even a short versions (around 20 mins) will be effective at settling the body, mind and emotions. I always wake up feeling refreshed, reenergised, and with eyes and mind bright and alert. Over the years it’s helped me feel calmer in mind and has helped to ease physical tiredness. It’s honestly quite magical.

The practice can also work on a deeper level to help heal and transform, making it a tool for some yoga therapists in the treatment of trauma, stress and anxiety. The use of the resolve / sankulpa is also thought to help initiate change in a person’s life as that intension is mentally repeated in a subconscious state.

Studies have shown it can calm the nervous system, increase the relaxation response and act as a powerful tool for coping with stress.

What happens during yoga nidra? 

During the practice of yoga nidra you lie on the floor (it can also be done seated) with back and legs flat against the floor in shavasana (relaxation pose). Something to cover the body  may be helpful as body temperature drops when lying still so it’s important to have appropriate cover so the body can remain warm and comfortable. 

If it’s a full yoga nidra, and one that follows the traditional sequence, the teacher would go through eight stages. Shorter versions, or versions for beginners, might be cut down to three or four. The stages are:

  1. Settling the body – one of the most important stages – by connecting to the physical body and becoming aware of the different senses, such as touch and sound, it’s an effective route to relaxation 
  2. Breath awareness – connecting to the sound, touch and flow of breath through the body 
  3. Resolve – a positive intention or change you’d like to see in your self or life (in Sanskrit this is called the Sankulpa) 
  4. Rotation of awareness – a systematic sequence of verbal cues through the body, starting on the right side. The teacher will go call out each body part and you follow, visualising or repeating each one mentally  
  5. Pairs and opposites visualisation – describing sensory opposites, such as cold and hot to facilitate deep imagination and visualisation  
  6. Visualisation story – a creative journey that might have some symbolic meaning 
  7. Resolve – returning to your resolve, mentally repeated three times again – this is like sowing the seeds of transformation
  8. Externalisation – the teacher will externalise your senses and bring awareness back to the physical body so you awake safely and comfortably 

All you have do is listen and follow mentally. Each stage sends you deeper and deeper into a relaxed state and if your teacher has the right tone, pace and intonation, you might fall quickly into sleep or drift in and out of sleep. This is completely normal! Staying awake and aware is the aim but a good yoga nidra often ends up with a few snoring heads. 

How to do yoga nidra 

Yoga nidra is always delivered and guided by a teacher so if you read descriptions online about how to do yoga nidra yourself (I’ve read a few, worryingly high up on google searches) these are incorrect and seem to be describing relaxation in shavasana (corpse pose), which can be done on your own but is a totally different practice.

To do yoga nidra you need a teacher to deliver it or a recording. Online recordings (there are many now on YouTube) can be a bit hit or miss so I have a few good ones from teachers I like bookmarked on my iTunes and on CDs. A classical version for beginners can be purchased and downloaded here and another traditional version on YouTube here.   

There are several schools and traditions offering yoga nidra sessions (as well as teacher training) now but the Satyananda tradition is the most well known for bringing this ancient practice into the modern day over the last 40-50 years. You can read more about this in the well known text Yoga Nidra from the Bihar School of Yoga. 

So, if you’re struggling to find ways to deeply relax, you want to feel well-rested, and release physical and mental fatigue, try yoga nidra. Would love to hear what you think.

 

6 Best Natural Sleep Products 

Viridian Cherry Night best natural sleep products

If you’re stressed out by sleepless nights you’re not alone. Apparently 56% of adults say lack of sleep is stressing them out*. April was Stress Awareness Month so here are my favourite natural sleep and relaxation products from supplements to sprays that I use, recommend and often write about.Wishing you a calmer and more peaceful night…

1. A.Vogel Dormeasan

When I’ve struggled to sleep in the past, this has been my favourite way to nod. Made from organically grown valerian root and hops. Simply add 30 drops to a dash of water, 30 minutes before bedtime and swig it back. You may not like the taste but it’s short and sharp, works beautifully and worth the restful night. avogel.co.uk  

A.Vogel Dormeasan

2. Viridian Cherry Night

A powder mix of magnesium, red date, cherry extracts and the amino acid glycine. Add one teaspoon to water or juice and drink half an hour before bed. A friend of mine swears by this and was surprised how quickly it brought on sleep and how deep that sleep was. Viridian.co.uk

Viridian Cherry Night

3. Potter’s Nodoff Plus Mixture

This has the consistency of a cough syrup which makes it super convenient to take. You can easily reach for a teaspoon and jump into bed. Contains passionflower, hops, valerian and skullcap, all clinically proven to aid sleep. pottersherbals.co.uk

Potter’s Nodoff Plus Mixture.jpg

 

4. Pukka Night Time

If you prefer popping a capsule pill then try Pukka Night Time. Containing valerian too but also the ancient Ayurvedic herb ashwagandha root which aids relaxation. The outer capsule shell is vegetable based / vegan and all the herbs are harvested from highly fertile organic soils via Pukka’s fairtrade programmes.  Contains no dairy, wheat, gluten, added sugar or soya and no GMO ingredients. pukkaherbs.com

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5. This Works Deep Sleep Pillow Spray

I was sceptical about a pillow spray at first but after diligent testing night after night, I became a total convert and dare I say a bit of an addict. I loved spritzing my pillow and duvet edges with this and letting the aromatherapeutic scents drift around and work their magic. You don’t need to suffer from sleepless nights to experience this product – if you’re prone to endless thoughts before falling asleep this gently relaxes and unwinds. thisworks.com

best natural sleep products This Works Deep Sleep Pillow Spray

6. Fushi Passion Seed Oil

For an alternative to tinctures, supplements and sprays I’ve also tried a calming natural body oil. This maracuja oil by herbal health and beauty brand Fushi is obtained from the the passion flower, known for its calming and stress relieving properties. Harvested from Uganda and supporting over 200 families via a women’s cooperative. I recommend adding a few drops to your bath or applying it as a body oil before bed. I also found an impressive array of Fushi night time tinctures here – can’t wait to try them!

Fushi Passion Seed Oil

Finally, it’s worth mentioning that since adopting a regular breathing practice before bed I’m now able to nod off fairly calmly without help from herbal remedies. This has been a transformative habit and highly recommend it as a way to de-stress the body and mind. You can read more about my bedtime breathing practices here.

Let me know if there’s a product or practice that works for you!

*Research conducted by the Henry Potter Advisory Committee on behalf of Potter’s Herbals.

An Experiment: The Benefits of Meditation

keep calm and breath...

I didn’t mean to put meditation to the test but last January I signed up to an eight-month meditation course and thought I’d better get a head start with some practice.

I’d already done a Vipassana (10-day silent meditation retreat) a few years ago but I thought the lessons were quite unsustainable, extreme and far removed from the realities of the everyday. This new meditation course promised to touch on different techniques so I was looking forward to it.

Also, at the start of the year I remember feeling utterly frazzled from too much work, strung out from a relationship breakup and tired of not getting enough rest.

So I decided to make a change and change my ways.

Continue reading “An Experiment: The Benefits of Meditation”