Editor's note: This article contains general recommendations for yoga practitioners and teachers. It is not a replacement for the personal advice of a health professional. Yoga teachers should remain within their scope of practice: This means not attempting to diagnose, treat, or offer medical advice to students.
When my pulmonologist insisted I undergo a study for sleep apnea (cessation of breathing), I scoffed. I’m a yoga therapist! I thought. I write books on healing the vagus nerve! I train people in breathing techniques!
Nonetheless, ever curious about my own physiology, I decided to do the sleep study, which involved being hooked up to wires measuring oxygen levels, heart rate, and breath rate overnight, and got the results. “You need a CPAP!”—a continuous positive airway pressure machine, which is commonly used to keep the upper airway passages open in order to prevent sleep apnea.
My father had used one of those torturous-looking respirator-like contraptions for the last 15 years of his life, and I told myself that such a fate would never befall me, the yoga lady! But when the clinician told me that my breathing stopped 24 times an hour and my oxygen saturation dropped to 80 percent at times, I was ready. I was also ready to stop waking up with a headache. According to Johns Hopkins, chronic breath-holding can contribute to type 2 diabetes, strokes, heart attacks, and even a shortened lifespan.
Little did I know that how we breathe when asleep also affects how we breathe when we’re awake.
My dad’s tendency to hold his breath, both asleep and awake, was not all I’d inherited from him (and his father before him, who was headmaster at a penmanship school and would lose consciousness from oxygen deprivation when absorbed in calligraphy—why didn’t I just inherit the beautiful handwriting instead?). In my case, this tendency is a symptom of the rare genetic disorder, Alpha-1 Antitrypsin deficiency, that both my parents had to some degree. It’s a protein deficiency in the liver that affects the lungs as well.
After being fitted for and adjusting to the awkward CPAP machine, I became aware of how many people, including some of my nurses and doctors, slept with a hose on their nose (and sometimes mouth, too). In fact, an estimated 18 million Americans have sleep apnea (approximately one in every 15, or 6.62 percent of the population). And that’s just the people who are being tested for it.
Once I became aware of my sleep apnea, I also started to notice my tendency toward screen apnea as well, a term coined by technologist and consultant Linda Stone. Like my Grandpa Spindler when focusing on his calligraphy, when I over-focused as I scrolled or texted, I’d hold my breath. No wonder I was developing aches and pains throughout the day and feeling agitated. I also get those irritating screen reports on my phone, informing me that because of my role as an oft-comical meme maven on social media, I sometimes averaged more than eight hours of screen time a day, the equivalent of a full-time job!
When I discovered how much time I was spending online, I got real and spent several weeks away from the screen, and though some of my friends said they missed getting their daily yucks from my posts, I had to see if a respite helped (most of those memes being in circulation with or without me anyways). And help it did! Both my waking and sleeping breathing patterns improved, as did my stiff shoulders and crankiness to boot.
Ayurveda also recommends avoiding technology an hour before bed, and I find that doing so helps me nod off quicker, which is probably related to better breathing while I’m asleep.
I do have to look at screens for my work, though, and on occasion, I’m still tempted to check in on everybody and share witty posts I come across. (I don’t want to just use social media to promote my work, after all, which feels so gauche.) Linda Stone found that 80 percent of the people she studied had screen or email apnea, and the people who did not—dancers, musicians, athletes, and pilots, though no mention of yogis—were trained in breathing practices. I’ll bet that when I was a professional jazz singer I didn’t have this tendency, but that was mainly pre-Internet.
Here are a few ways to remind yourself to keep breathing:
1. Notice when you aren’t breathing. Check in every so often and take some long vagus-nerve (our primary parasympathetic nerve) stimulating exhalations that last longer than your inhalations. Try humming your breath out, count a long exhale, or use ujjayi breath to extend your exhalation.
2. Look beyond the screen from time to time, even if you’re glued to it for work. I’ve put a bird feeder outside my office window, which helps. Try not to distract yourself with another screen when you do this, like your television. You’ll probably find yourself taking easier breaths.
3. Get up and move/express yourself. Dance, vocalize, do simple stretches, take a walk. These are natural easers for the breath.
4. Explore breathing practices that don’t involve breath retention and keep conditioning your breath to maintain a smooth, even, continuous flow; try brahmari (humming breath). Place more emphasis on how your breath feels in the moment than how you think you “should” make it behave. Focus only on breathing a few times during the day.
5. Put your phone on airplane mode every now and then, or turn off work notifications after work hours.
Remember that we can unlearn habits we have acquired and that awareness of those dysfunctional breathing patterns is a tool in and of itself. It’s how neuroplasticity works: As we gradually change patterns, the brain changes.
Better sleep hygiene, like getting to bed at a regular time, warm baths, attention to calming the breath with a sandbag on the abdomen to encourage diaphragmatic breathing, crocodile breath, or inhaling thinking so and exhaling with a long silent ham (hum) can help for a more easeful, unforced breath while awake or asleep. So, yes, fewer sleep apneas and screen apneas.
And hey, even those of us who help others with breathing and wellness need reminders, and on that note, I think I’d better get up and stretch and watch my squirrels enjoy the bird feeder for a while.
If you'd like to learn more, here is a glorious article on the same topic plus a lot of cerebral and astute connections to embodiment.