1. 2:1 breathing
Make your exhalation twice as long as your inhalation. You’ll activate the body’s relaxation response—and pave the way to a better night’s sleep.
Have you ever noticed that when your nervous system is jacked up, your inhalations are longer than your exhalations? Short exhalations make us vulnerable to anxiety and depression, cause toxins to accumulate, and create an imbalance in the autonomic nervous system, all of which contribute to insomnia. The antidote? Make your exhalation twice as long as your inhalation. You’ll activate the body’s relaxation response—and pave the way to a better night’s sleep.
To begin, lie in shavasana. Place one hand on your abdomen and one on your chest. Tune into your breath. (If your chest is moving, relax your rib cage and focus on breathing solely into your abdomen.) Let the inhalation and exhalation be approximately equal in length.
Gradually deepen the breath and slow it down: On your next exhalation, gently engage your abdominal muscles and push a little extra air out of the lungs. Allow your abdomen to rise slightly higher as you inhale. Then begin to count your in- and out-breaths in even ratios—starting, perhaps, with 3:3, then moving up to 6:6—whatever is within your comfortable capacity.
Let your breath flow quietly and smoothly through the nostrils, and when you are ready, let the next inhalation be a little shorter than the last. Gradually adjust your breathing to achieve a 2:1 ratio, exhaling for four counts and inhaling for two, for example. Focus on creating a smooth transition between your in- and out-breath, and back off a bit if you feel any urge to gasp for air.
If you sustain this breathing pattern for a few minutes, your heart rate slows, your blood pressure drops, and your muscles begin to relax. When practiced correctly, 2:1 breathing eliminates wastes from the lungs while calming and nurturing the nervous system. You can do this practice for as long as it is comfortable.
2. Counting Breaths
If you’d like to take 2:1 breathing a step further, here is another practice you can use as a transition into sleep.
After establishing effortless 2:1 breathing, begin counting breaths. Take:
- 8 breaths lying on your back
- 16 breaths lying on your right side
- 32 breaths lying on your left side.
Very few people complete this exercise. Sweet dreams.
3. Resting at the heart
If 2:1 breathing sounds like too much work, try a yogic solution—use your mind to calm your mind. This exercise coaxes the mind out of the eyebrow center (ajna chakra), where it lodges in the waking state, and entices it into the heart center (anahata chakra)—its home in the sleeping state.
Lying on your back in bed, close your eyes, bring your attention to the heart, and think “one.” Bring your attention to your left shoulder and think “two”; left thigh, “three”; the navel center, “four”; the right thigh, “five”; the right shoulder, “six”; back to the heart, “one”; and so on, moving with relaxed attention at a comfortable pace. Let the mind busy itself moving in this pattern and it will tire and come to rest at the heart center, its sleeping abode. As you begin to drift off, break the counting pattern to avoid straining the mind. If you have a personal mantra, you can settle into mental repetitions, which will bring you to rest at the center of your being. Or you can also simply roll over and sink into sleep.
If you snore or suffer from nightmares, try nasya, an ayurvedic oiling practice, up to twice daily on an empty stomach and at least an hour before or after showering. Lie on your back, face up, with a pillow under your shoulders and your head tilted back so your nostrils are parallel to the ceiling. Put three to five drops of medicated nasal oil or warm ghee in each nostril. Rest with your head in this position for one minute.
For more insomnia tips, see Sleep Better Tonight! 6 Bedtime Rituals, 4 Poses for Insomnia (And A Calming Breathing Practice), and Homeopathy for Insomniacs.
Former Yoga International editor-in-chief Shannon Sexton writes about food, travel, yoga, and natural health.