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Meditation & Relaxation for Better Sleep

Written by Dr.Craig Liebenson, Certified Pain Management, Rehabilitation & Sports Health Professional

Did you know the key to improving your sleep may be as simple as relaxing before bed? During the day we all get ‘wound up’. Unwinding is a pre-requisite for good sleep. What is this process?

Modern life is fast paced

Modern life is fast paced. What this does is ramp up our sympathetic nervous system’s ‘fight of flight’ response. This is an involuntary reaction by our nervous system that served an evolutionary purpose for survival. However, whereas cave people spend a lot of time relaxing in between hunting and gathering, modern life often keeps our stress levels high thus making it hard to fall asleep.

Fortunately, there are countermeasures to enhance our ability to relax and ‘wind-down’ from our non-stop lives. Mindfulness, meditation, breath work, and muscle relaxation techniques such as the body scan are proven ways to shift from a sympathetic nervous system state to a rest and recovery parasympathetic state.

So, if you have read my article on ‘Sleep Hygiene’ and are still finding it difficult to get that restorative sleep everybody should have, let’s explore how you can utilize scientifically proven ancient practices and modern techniques of psychology to get you into that state of mind for quality rest.

Inportance of Mindfulness

Yoga Nidra or Non-Sleep Deep Rest: Cultivating Relaxation & Mindfulness

How am I Breathing?

The Physiologic Sigh

Cognitive Functional Training (CFT) & Pain

Summary

Importance of Mindfulness

Kabat-Zinn (2003) defined mindfulness as “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment to moment.” Mindfulness involves sitting without judgement and allowing thoughts and feelings to come and go. “Mindfulness training includes focused attention to breathing, body sensations, and mindful movements.” (McKernan 2020)

Mindfulness practice is over 2,000 years old. All the world’s religions include this practice in some form. Buddhism is most closely associated with modern mindfulness approaches where it is described as “sustained attention to an object or sensation and repeatedly disengaging from distracting events, so as to maintain focus on the object.” (McKernan 2020)

The great benefit of mindfulness is that it can improve cognitive function and focus if practiced regularly. Mindfulness-based treatments have been shown to reduce anxiety and depression. There’s also evidence that mindfulness can lower blood pressure and improve sleep. It may even help people cope with pain. (National Institutes of Health)

“For many chronic illnesses, mindfulness meditation seems to improve quality of life and reduce mental health symptoms,” says Dr. Zev Schuman-Olivier of Harvard University.

After understanding the importance of mindfulness in physical and mental health the question is how do I practice it and where should I start? Well…why not start with a scientifically proven practice that has been around since 700BC and was systematically developed by the writings of Swami Satyananda Saraswati in the 1960s (Pandi SR, et al 2022) known as ‘Yoga Nidra’ or ‘Yogic Sleep.’ Let’s explore the benefits of this practice together and see how it benefits your overall well-being.

mindfulness

Yoga Nidra or Non-Sleep Deep Rest: Cultivating Relaxation & Mindfulness

Yoga Nidra can help you relax, fall asleep, and reduce stress and anxiety. Yoga Nidra has been updated and called Non-Sleep Deep Rest (NSDR); a term coined by Stanford neuroscience professor Andrew Huberman. It involves a "self-inducing a state of calm" and "directing our focus to something.” In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Sundar Pichai Microsoft CEO said he uses NSDR to help him unwind. According to Huberman, “Yoga Nidra/NSDR (Non-Sleep Deep Rest) replenishes dopamine, reduces cortisol, reduces total sleep need.

lie on your back and scan your body for places of tension
place your focus on your breathing

1. First, lie on your back and scan your body for places of tension. For instance, in your lower back, shoulder shrug muscles, neck, jaw, or forehead. Also, notice if you’re holding your breath.

2.Then, place your focus on your breathing feeling your abdomen rise and fall.

Progressively slow down your exhalation
Place your attention or ‘mind’s eye’ on breathing areas of muscle tension

3. Progressively slow down your exhalation. Imagine that your lower rib cage is expanding outwards with each inhalation.

4. Place your attention or ‘mind’s eye’ on breathing areas of muscle tension which you identified with the body scan and try to relax those regions.

5. Keep repeating by finding those tension points on the body and relax those areas one by one until your body feels fully relaxed and is ready to melt away.

This can lower your heart rate and help you shift from a sympathetic to a parasympathetic state. Your brain may even switch from beta waves, which are associated with a busy mind, to alpha waves, which correlates with a heightened state of relaxation.

This form of mindfulness is often referred to as “non-doing”. Dr. Amishi Jha a professor of psychology at the University of Miami and specialist in Cognitive Neuroscience recommends trying this in different postures such as sitting where she recommends “sit upright, but not uptight”. Dr Jha recommends thinking of brief mindfulness practices as push-ups for the mind.

In effect by starting with a body scan and progressing to shifting your attention to your breathing your practicing being intentional about focusing your awareness. Your ‘mind’s eye’ is like a spotlight, and you cast it first on key areas that hold on to or store tension and then to your breathing which you direct to deepen by using your diaphragm rather than accessory breathing muscles such as in your neck or shoulder girdle areas.

Here are two excellent resources for learning this practice:

1. Non-Deep Rest (NSDR) Protocol by Andrew Huberman

2. Yoga Nidra for Sleep (8 minute NSDR practice) by Kelly Boys

Stress, threat & mood all affect our health & performance. Mindfulness training is a proven countermeasure. See how the Military & a neuroscientist deployed this.

3. Mindfulness in the Military | Amishi Jha, Major General Piatt, Anderson Cooper

Performing NSDR for just a few minutes in the middle of the day can substitute for a nap. It can help when you feel you might not have had a good night’s sleep and are starting to run out of energy.

How am I Breathing?

The most common stress related breathing pattern occurs with vertical chest breathing (figure 1) predominating over horizontal abdominal breathing (figure 2).

vertical chest breathing
horizontal abdominal breathing

figure 1

figure 2

Joseph Pilates said, “Before any real benefit can be derived from physical exercise, one must first learn how to breathe properly...Our very life depends on it” Ask yourself during a breath in do your shoulders rise? Ideally breathing occurs horizontally not vertically. Sometimes we even catch ourselves holding our breath in and discover that we’re shrugging our shoulders up towards our ears. Or, we might realize we sigh frequently which is a sign that we were holding our breath in for a long time. With practice you’ll start using your diaphragm automatically, breathing through your abdomen and lower rib cage rather than your upper chest and neck.

Nearly half the population are mouth breathers. By breathing habitually through your nose, you increase the amount of Oxygen that you take in. The nose also filters air and humidifies it. This can help with anxiety, chronic sinusitis, congestion or even with sleep apnea. Nasal breathing is even a treatment for panic attacks. Slowing down your breath, especially the exhalation, is a great relaxation method.

A KEY TO CONSIDER:

Remember inhales increases your heart rate while exhales slow your heart rate. By focusing on your exhalation and avoiding breath holding during the day you can reduce your stress levels and increase your focus.

HOW SHOULD I APPLY THIS?

Start slowly. Just sit quietly before bed with your eyes closed for just 3-5 minutes. Remember this is a practice. Our minds like to wander so we’re not supposed be good at quieting the mind. However, by sitting regularly you’ll find that your mind wanders less, your breathing deepens, and you will begin to fall asleep easier. If you can build up to 15 minutes that is a nice goal but start with less. Eventually, you can even use these practices during the day, and it will break the drumbeat of stress and tension that builds up. In this way when you do get ready for bed you will have a lower resting heart rate and less tension.

meditation

The Physiologic Sigh

Another valuable breathing exercise is called the physiological sigh. It was first discovered in the 1930s and re-emerged about 10 years ago based on research from UCLA neurobiologist Jack Feldman and Stanford biochemist Mark Krasnow.

This breathing technique is very simple:

  • 1st perform a double inhale through your nose (with no exhale in between)
  • Then immediately perform a full exhale (through your mouth) to empty your lungs.

We do it naturally when levels of carbon dioxide in our bloodstream get too high. It creates a relaxing sensation by releasing a lot of carbon dioxide very fast.

The physiologic sigh is an excellent way to calm down and reduce stress or autonomic arousal.

The Physiologic Sigh

Cognitive Functional Training (CFT) & Pain

CFT is a powerful method for reducing the impact of musculoskeletal pain and its effect on our lifestyle. It is about gaining confidence that pain doesn’t have to be feared or limit our daily living. In CFT a behavioral experiment is performed where threatening positions and movements are explored and we become mindful of our involuntary reactions such as breath holding, facial grimacing, or increased muscle tension.

Positions to explore include

- sitting, standing, lying down, kneeling, and going on all 4s.

sitting
standing
lying down
going on all 4s

Movements to explore include

- toe touch, bodyweight squat, lunges, bridges, etc.

toe touch
bodyweight squat
lunges
bridges

By becoming aware of these programmed responses, the first step is to relax our facial muscles and regulate our breathing. This is a surprisingly effective tool in regaining control of your life when faced with chronic, disabling pain.

Try this behavioral experiment. Explore a variety of positions starting with - sitting, standing, lying down, kneeling, and going on all 4s. Perform a body scan for any areas of muscle tension or pain. Then, ask yourself if you’re holding your breath. When breathing is it primarily with your chest or abdomen?

Once you’ve observed these connections between breathing, tension and pain begin to voluntarily relax any areas of tension such as in your head and neck, shoulder girdle, or lower back. Finally, direct your focus to breathing with your lower rib cage horizontally. Be aware and direct your inhalation to laterally expand your ribs to the sides. A tight elastic band can be wrapped around your lower ribs to give you a feeling of resistance to focus breathing outwards.

Following performing the body scan, muscle relaxation and breathing exercises in a variety of standardized positions re-test the fundamental movements mentioned above like your toe touch to see if you feel a) less tense and b) less pain. Practice this method three times/day as brief ‘movement snacks’ and there’s a good chance within a few weeks you’ll start to experience greater confidence in valued life activities and even less pain.

SUMMARY

Breathwork, mindfulness, meditation, etc can improve your ability to relax and thus fall asleep. There are many different methods, but the most important rule is just to slow your breath, especially your exhale. We’ve recapped a few that are most valuable - Yoga Nidra or NSDR, the Physiologic Sigh, and CFT. Start with just a few minutes per day. Give these methods a try!

Dr. Craig

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