Our stress levels and the quality of our sleep are deeply, intimately linked. Without adequate sleep, our mental and emotional wellbeing becomes compromised and our self-regulatory functioning declines. Unfortunately, when our stress levels rise, we often find it difficult to fall asleep or stay asleep. If left unchecked, this cycle can undermine your health.
By using a time-tested breathing exercise called nadi shodhana—in English, that means simply alternate nostril breathing—you can balance out your stress and relaxation responses, and enjoy deep, sound sleep.
The Tremendous Power of Your Breath
Most of the time, we breathe unconsciously, yet the process holds tremendous power. Breathing acts as an interface between our somatic nervous system, which operates under our conscious direction and sends out signals that control muscle movements, and our autonomic nervous system, which typically operates without our guidance or input and governs the internal environment of the body. Our somatic nervous system lets us walk, while our autonomic nervous system keeps our hearts beating.
We can use our breath to redirect our autonomic nervous system from a state of stress to a state of relaxation. By re-patterning our breathing, we can decrease our cortisol levels—the hormone responsible for our fight or flight response—and release serotonin and melatonin instead—hormones that promote calmness and happiness.
How Alternate Nostril Breathing Helps You Achieve Harmony
Alternate nostril breathing, a technique developed over centuries by Ayurvedic practitioners and master yogis, is thought to harmonize the right and left spheres of the brain and bring the body into a more balanced state. While studies have yet to capture its exact effects on hemispheric functioning, it’s clear that alternate nostril breathing can rapidly improve your mental state and lead to impressive long-term benefits, such as lower blood pressure … better respiratory capacity and endurance … and enhanced fine-motor coordination and performance.
Tips on Trying Alternate Nostril Breathing for Yourself
To try alternate nostril breathing for yourself, begin by settling into a comfortable seated position and closing your eyes. Let your left hand rest gently on your thigh and raise your right hand to your nose, resting your pointer and middle finger on the bridge of your nose, and placing your ring and pinky finger on your left nostril and your thumb on your right nostril. The following steps outline one breath cycle:
- Use your thumb to softly close your right nostril, and inhale deeply and smoothly through your left. Your breath should last for at least four slow counts.
- At the top of the breath, use your ring and pinky finger to close your left nostril and release your thumb from your right.
- Exhale through your right nostril with the same relaxed, long breathe.
- Inhale through your right nostril.
- Close your right nostril and release the closure of your left.
- Exhale through your left nostril.
When you complete one cycle, repeat steps 1 through 6 for as long as you like. Before opening your eyes, relax both arms by your sides and breathe naturally for moment or two.
Incorporating alternate nostril breathing into your bedtime routine will help you fall asleep easier, stay asleep throughout the night, and wake feeling more rested the next morning. Try it out tonight and see what you think!