A good night’s sleep is an art form, a science and a necessity rolled into one. No wonder so many of us struggle to get it right. Modern life is busy; we’re working and socialising through our phones from the minute we wake up, texting through the day, then watching TV and checking emails right up until we go to bed. Our minds are busy, unfocused and existing in a constant cycle of scrolling and doing. And then we lie down in bed and expect it all to stop. But our brains are like the cartoon character who’s just run off a cliff – legs still spinning, unaware that the situation around them has changed. Sleep is slow to come. Disrupted. In some cases, absent. A doctor might prescribe sleeping tablets; your Dad might suggest a snifter of brandy before bed, and me? I believe in breath.
Breath is right there. Look – feel that? It’s happening right now and you didn’t even have to think about it. In fact, apart from blinking, breath is the only system in the body that can happen both consciously and unconsciously. Manual and automatic. It’s an untapped, free resource with the power to unlock a better night’s sleep, if only we could learn how to use it.
If you’re familiar with any mindfulness techniques you’ll know they often focus on the breath as a way to bring in-the-moment presence to the practitioner. Allowing the mind to focus on one physical thing alone is a sure-fire way to quiet a busy mind and bring us back into the moment to inhabit our physical selves, rather than being off in the mental ether, worrying about Colin from work. But breath also has rigorously-tested scientific benefits too.
“Our minds are busy, unfocused and existing in a constant cycle of scrolling and doing.”
Take an inhale through the nose. Where do you feel it? Did your chest expand and your shoulders spread back? The brain associates this kind of breathing with fight or flight situations and puts it into a sympathetic state – which is what we use for dangerous situations – rather than a parasympathetic state, which is our bodies at rest. Now try relaxing your tummy muscles and starting again, allowing the breath to expand your tummy further and fill the bottom of your lungs. We have more alveoli in the bottom part of our lungs, which are responsible for the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide molecules to and from the bloodstream, so it benefits us enormously to get more air to them.
“It’s an untapped, free resource with the power to unlock a better night’s sleep, if only we could learn how to use it.”
An active inhale that fills the lungs and a passive exhale to expel air from the basis of breathwork and the pathway to a good night’s sleep. Try the Three-Part Breath, which draws air into the belly first, ribcage second and then upper chest before exhaling all together. Or Alternate Breathing, which has its roots in yoga and helps to lower heart rate. For this, you’ll exhale completely then cover one nostril, inhaling through the other. Then uncover the covered nostril and cover the one you inhaled through, exhaling through the now uncovered one, and repeat.
Then there’s the now-famous 4-7-8 Breath. Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound, then close your mouth and inhale quietly through your nose, counting to four in your head. Hold your breath for a count of seven, then exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound to the count of eight. Repeat this four times and feel yourself start to drift off.
The key to all of this is focus and intention. I even have a recording available to help set that intention, bringing you through active relaxation, because, actually, sometimes relaxing is hard. Try switching off the telly half an hour earlier tonight, get comfy, pop on the recording and let it guide you through some simple breathwork because however stressed you are and whatever the day’s thrown at you, good night’s sleep is only ever a few breaths away.