I recently returned from an overseas trip and since then my sleep-wake cycle has been  more wonky than usual. Even the usual melatonin and magnesium regime wasn’t delivering this time.  But I found some relief returning to my late night Yin yoga class where the emphasis is on moving slow and holding deep stretching poses for a long period of time.

Oh and breathing. Deep, full, rhythmic, diaphragmatic breathing done with the intent of focusing and slowing down the ‘monkey brain’ that lives within.

Despite the fact that I have to really think about doing this kind of breathing, it really is the most natural form. Watching a baby breathing gives you an idea about diaphragmatic breathing. steam cloud Baby bellies are rising up and falling down gently and rhythmically. That’s how we are meant to breathe. Like newborns.

Generally in the hustle and bustle of daily life, in situations that cause stress, and even during aerobic exercise when you think you are taking deep breaths through the huffing and puffing, humans breathe shallowly from the chest. We are also so used to ‘sucking our stomachs in’ to improve our profile or to fit into a tight waistband (ladies, I know you know what I mean when I say the word Spanx!) that it is foreign to us to actually allow the diaphragm to do its job.

But this type of breathing is critical for health. Diaphragmatic breathing relaxes the muscles, massages the internal organs, and allows more oxygen to flow through your body which feeds all cells. With breathing relaxation techniques, the body also is more efficient at removing waste products from the tissues and organs. Breathing from the diaphragm is the most natural and easiest way to elicit the relaxation – and therefore – the sleep response. Haven’t you ever heard someone (ummm, maybe even me?) drift off with a little snore while lying in Savasana at the end of a yoga class?

So how does it work? What is a diaphragm?

The diaphragm is a strong dome shaped muscle between abdomen and chest. When you breathe into your diaphragm, it pushes downwards – away from chest, causing your abdominal muscles to relax and rise.  Lungs expand and allow air to be drawn in.

Here is key reason why diaphragmatic breathing is so important:  it stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which works in the opposite way to the sympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system slows your cardiovascular system and relaxes your muscles. It is the ‘rest and digest’ system, versus the sympathetic system which is all about ‘fight or flight’. It makes sense that you are not going to be able to sleep, or calm that ‘monkey brain’, if you are in a mode to be alert to, or run away from perceived danger.

How to practice diaphragmatic breathing:

Even if you are not in yoga class, you can practice diaphragmatic breathing and use it as a tool for sleep promotion or even relaxation during the day. Some studies show that 10 minutes of deep breathing twice a day can significantly lower blood pressure.

  • You can do this in bed – or if during the day, find a quiet place where you know you will not be disturbed.
  • Lie down on your back and put your right hand on your diaphragm (just below the belly button).
  • Close your eyes and breathe through your nose.
  • Put your left hand on your upper chest. You should feel no movement here. The breathing should come from your diaphragm and your right hand will gently rise and fall.
  • Notice the feeling and how it differs from chest breathing.
  • Consciously breathe through your nose, keeping your mouth closed. Feel the rising and  falling of your diaphragm.
  • When you become used to breathing into your diaphragm, bring your attention to the flow of your breath. Just notice the flow. Is it smooth or jerky? Smooth it out, make it flow gently and smoothly.
  • Do not rush your breath. Be gentle. Let it flow and you will discover a rhythm to the breath.
  • If your mind strays to you ‘to do’ list or to any other conscious thought, simply bring your attention back to your breathe.

Be patient. While breathing sounds like an easy thing to do, diaphragmatic breathing – like yoga –  takes practice.