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Tai Chi, Breathing, and Stretching: A Guide to Sleep Relaxation

Table of Contents

If you have trouble falling and staying asleep, it may be because you’re not relaxing properly. In this guide, we’ll discuss some expert-backed relaxation techniques to help you get some shut-eye. The three primary techniques we’ll discuss are tai chi, breathing exercises, and yoga. We’ll also check out some other relaxation techniques, including meditating, focusing on a specific topic, practicing progressive muscle relaxation, and using self-hypnosis.

Note: The content on Sleepopolis is meant to be informative in nature, but it shouldn’t take the place of medical advice and supervision from your healthcare provider. If you feel you may be suffering from any sleep disorder or medical condition, please see a trained professional.

Tai Chi, Breathing, and Stretching

Meditation teacher Susie Levan, author of Getting to Forgiveness — What a Near-Death Experience Can Teach Us About Loss, Resilience and Love says that at least 7 to 9 hours, especially for older folks, are necessary for your physical and mental health. Tai chi, breathing exercises, and stretching can help you get enough sleep. Let’s take a look at an overview of each of these.

Tai chi originated in China as a martial art hundreds of years ago, and it has been used for physical and mental health ever since. Wellness expert Vinay Amin of Eu Natural describes tai chi as “the practice of synchronizing physical movement with the breath.” He says it allows you to become increasingly aware of the energy flowing around your body, which can help you calm down.

While there are many types of tai chi, most types involve using a combination of concentration, meditation, weight shifting, and slow movements. (1) Tai chi has been shown to help improve sleep quality, (2) reduce stress, and help you relax. (3)

Dr. Sarah Mitchell, founder of Helping Babies Sleep, says that controlled breathing is the most simple and effective method for helping people relax. In a 2018 study in Frontiers in Psychiatry, researchers concluded that slow, deep breathing techniques can be more effective at combating insomnia than sleep medications. (4)

A 2012 study from the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health collected survey data from 34,525 adults and found that over 55% of participants who practiced yoga reported better sleep, while over 85% noted that yoga helped reduce their stress. (5) A 2018 study in Sleep found that stretching reduced the severity of insomnia and improved the sleep of those with chronic insomnia. (6)

Yoga is especially beneficial for older folks, since yoga involves stretching. By stretching before bedtime, older people can reduce the likelihood of leg cramps at night, which will help them sleep better. (7)

Tai Chi for Sleep

Wellness coach Lynell Ross of Test Prep Insight says the aim of tai chi is to focus on breathing and movements. As such, it can help reduce stress, improve flexibility, and strengthen your muscles. She says it calms your nervous system and helps you be in the present, since it requires focusing on the sensations your body feels as you breathe.

Personal trainer Brandon Nicholas of The Fitness Tribe says, “Tai chi is like physical meditation — the subtler its effects are on the body, the greater its impact on the mind, which profoundly helps in inducing quality sleep and preventing insomnia.” He describes it as a holistic martial art that trains your mind and body, which can improve your overall wellbeing and give you greater endurance.

Practicing tai chi exercises before bedtime can help you relax. Let’s take a look at a few exercises you can try. First, let’s start with a warmup.

Warmup

This warmup comes from Lynell Ross:

  1. Perform some simple shoulder rolls and loosen your joints by turning your head side to side.
  2. Focus on your breath as you practice deep breathing.
  3. Deep breathing can consist of inhaling to the count of 8, holding for the count of 4, and exhaling to the count of 8.

Rising and Falling

Vinay Amin suggests practicing the rising and falling tai chi exercise before bedtime. To do so, follow these steps:

  1. Stand up straight with your arms at your side and your feet positioned slightly wider than shoulder-width.
  2. For the rising breath, inhale through your nose. As you do this, gradually lift your hands in front of your body. Once you reach the top of your breath, your hands should be at shoulder height.
  3. For the falling breath, exhale through your nose, slowly dropping your arms, bending your knees, and lowering your hips. Maintain your posture while dropping into a squat that you can easily hold. At the bottom of the breath, your hands should be by your side and you should be in a quarter squat.
  4. Gently inhale again, letting your breath fill your body as you slowly stand and lift your hands. This is a single full cycle. He recommends beginning with 30 to 40 cycles. Each inhale and exhale should become progressively longer. As you breathe, focus on how your breath fills your rising body and empties as you fall.

Back Twist

Lynell Ross recommends practicing the back twist exercise by following these steps:

  1. Stand with your feet pointing forward.
  2. Move your body towards one side for as far as you can bend.
  3. Move your body back so you are standing normally.
  4. Move your body towards the other side.
  5. Return to your upright position.
  6. Repeat this several times.

Circling Arms Form

  1. Brandon Nicholas suggests practicing the circling arms form exercise by doing the following:
  2. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, making sure your weight is evenly distributed across your feet.
  3. Cross your arms with your palms facing your body.
  4. Inhale, slowly raising your arms over your head and clasping your hands.
  5. Exhale as you slowly lower your arms in a circling movement until they are at the starting position.
  6. Repeat these steps until you feel relaxed.

Horse Stance

Lynell Ross also recommends the horse stance exercise. To do this, follow these steps:

  1. Stand with your feet wide apart, keeping your spine and neck straight.
  2. Bend from your knees to 90 degrees.
  3. Lift your arms until they are aligned with your chest.
  4. Hold this position as long as possible.
  5. Repeat this exercise multiple times, but stop if you begin feeling pain as you bend.

Breathing Exercises for Sleep

Next up, we’ll review some steps you can take to practice breathing exercises. Take a look through each of these, and pick one to try first.

Exhale Longer than You Inhale

Lynette Suchar, a yoga and meditation teacher at studio BE, says you should start with a few deep breaths in and out of your mouth. She then recommends exhaling longer than you inhale by an increased count of two. For example, try inhaling for four seconds and exhaling for six seconds. She recommends you repeat this five to ten times.

Count to Four

Dr. Mitchell provides some directions you can use for a breathing exercise, which involves counting to four. Here’s how it works:

  1. Inhale for four seconds.
  2. Release for four seconds.
  3. Hold your breath for four seconds.
  4. Repeat multiple times.

Doing this especially helps if you wake up at night with stressful thoughts, in that it helps bring your mind back to counting, which though simple and mundane, can help you relax.

Alternate Your Breathing Through Your Nostrils

Lynette Suchar says alternate-nostril breathing before bedtime can help calm your nervous system. She says you can do this by following these steps:

  1. Use your right hand to place your index finger at the left nostril crease and your thumb at the right nostril crease. Don’t squeeze yet.
  2. Close the left nostril with your index finger and breathe through your right nostril.
  3. Close the right nostril and exhale through your left nostril.
  4. Inhale through the open left nostril and exhale through the right.
  5. Repeat this for five to ten rounds.

Use Essential Oils While Breathing

Milana Perepyolkina, author of Gypsy Energy Secrets: Turning a Bad Day into a Good Day No Matter What Life Throws at You, says that essential oils have been used for millennia to treat anxiety. She says it’s best to use them while practicing breathing exercises. To do this, follow these steps:

  1. Put a few drops of essential oils on your palms and rub them together.
  2. Cup your nose and inhale as you count to four.
  3. Exhale to the count of four.
  4. Inhale to the count of four.
  5. Exhale to the count of four.
  6. Repeat this for several minutes.

She recommends using the following essential oils:

  • Lavender
  • Petitgrain
  • Marjoram
  • Valerian
  • Ylang Ylang

Yoga for Sleep

Now let’s take a look at four different yoga techniques you can use. Try the one that you think will help you relax the best.

Legs up the Wall Pose

These directions come from an article from the Harvard Medical School:

  1. Place your mat perpendicular to a blank space on your wall.
  2. Sit on the mat and move your left or right side to the wall as close as you can.
  3. Lie on the mat and place your legs up the wall.
  4. Relax your arms by your sides. (8)

Lynette Suchar says that holding this position for five to fifteen minutes will help you fall asleep.

Sitting Mountain

The University of Arkansas provides this set of directions for the sitting mountain pose:

  1. Sit upright in a chair, keeping your shoulders rolled down and back so that they are away from your ears and ensuring your head is in line with your spine.
  2. Put your feet on the floor so they are directly under your knees.
  3. Face your palms forward, placing them either by your side or on your thighs.
  4. Inhale for a count of three to five, then slowly exhale until you expel all the air. (9)

Locust

Lilianne Sanders, a licensed yoga instructor at Total Shape provides these directions for the locust pose:

  1. Lower yourself to your belly into the Plank position, keeping your elbows under your shoulders, your back straight, and your abdominal muscles engaged.
  2. Deeply exhale while putting the tops of your feet on the floor and clasping your hands behind your back.
  3. Inhale while looking forward and lifting your chest and arms.
  4. Repeat this for one minute or for 10 to 15 breaths.

Spinal Twist Stretch

This next set of directions for the spinal twist yoga pose comes from trainer Chris Higgins of Calisthentics-gear.com:

  1. Lie on your side (you can do this on the floor or on a mattress).
  2. Bend your knees slightly deeper than 90 degrees at your hips, keeping your knees from overlapping while bending them 90 degrees.
  3. Align your hips and shoulders and position your head and spine in a straight line.
  4. This step is a variant to holding your knees. Extend your lower arm in front of your body to chest level, keeping it on the floor or mattress while reaching to the rib cage with your upper arm.
  5. Pull your shoulders back and down without moving your torso.
  6. Exhale and slowly rotate your torso by using your upper arm to pull your rib cage. Do not rotate your hips, since this causes your upper thigh to slide backward when you twist. Avoid rotating your hips as you pull your rib cage around with the upper arm. Hip rotation causes the upper thigh to slide backward while twisting.
  7. Continue rotating your torso until you’re in a comfortable position.
  8. Hold this position for 15 – 30 seconds, then release and relax for 30 seconds.

Other Relaxation Techniques

Let’s take a look at some other relaxation techniques. While they may not all work for you, you may find one or two useful.

Meditate

Susie Levan says that stress and anxiety can sometimes lead to sleep issues. Meditation can help with this. She says, “As we practice the art of meditation, we help our body to do what it most naturally yearns to do at the end of the day—to rest.”

Meditation teacher and hypnotist Monica Bey agrees, saying that meditation can help you sleep since it can calm your body, spirit, and mind. She says that five minutes of meditation each night can improve your quality of sleep.

To meditate, she suggests closing your eyes. Then allow your body to drift into a meditative state, which can then lead you to fall asleep.

She also suggests doing two to five minutes of meditation in the morning. This will help you start the day at peace, which can reduce the amount of “wind down” time you need to spend before bedtime.

Focus on a Specific Topic

Katey Collins of Bee Happy Therapy recommends focusing on a specific topic to naturally allow your worries and fears to disappear. To do this, follow these steps:

  1. Choose a topic, such as places where you would like to travel.
  2. Identify a place that you would like to explore that starts with an “A,” such as “Aruba.”
  3. Think of a place that starts with a “B,” such as “Brazil.”
  4. Go through the entire alphabet in this manner until you fall asleep.

She also says that if your mind wanders, recognize the thought and remind yourself that you can address that thought tomorrow. Then bring your focus back to the exercise.

Practice Progressive Muscle Exercises

You can also use progressive muscle exercises. Joy Rains, a mindfulness trainer and author of Meditation Illuminated says you can do this by following these directions:

  1. Lie on your back in a comfortable position and pay attention to your body. Counteract distracting thoughts by gently bringing your attention back to how your body feels.
  2. Beginning with your feet and ending at the top of your head, gently tighten each muscle group for five seconds before releasing. Be sure not to strain.

This type of exercise works best when taking slow, deep breaths, according to Karen Azeez, a holistic wellness coach and author of The Kindfulness Solution, Transforming your Body and Life through Greater Awareness and Self-Compassion.

Practice Self-Hypnosis

Monica Bey recommends practicing self-hypnosis to create an automatic sleep response. Do this by following these steps:

  1. When you feel yourself beginning to drift off to sleep, press your left pinky finger and thumb together.
  2. While keeping your pinky and thumb together, stare at the back of your eyelids until you fall asleep.
  3. Repeat this for multiple nights in a row to create a subconscious pattern in which putting your pinky and thumb together creates a subconscious trigger for sleep.

Last Word From Sleepopolis

That’s a wrap on our sleep relaxation guide! We hope you’ve been able to see how tai chi, breathing exercises, yoga, and other relaxation techniques can help you unwind before bedtime. Please remember that we aren’t medical experts, so this information should not be considered medical advice.

References

  1. National Survey Finds People Use Dietary Supplements and Yoga for Wellness Reasons, Chiropractic for Treating a Condition. https://www.nccih.nih.gov/research/research-results/national-survey-finds-people-use-dietary-supplements-and-yoga-for-wellness-reasons-chiropractic-for-treating-a-condition
  2. D’Aurea, C et al. Effects Of Resistance Exercise And Stretching On Sleep Of Patients With Chronic Insomnia. Sleep. Apr 1, 2018. https://academic.oup.com/sleep/article/41/suppl_1/A146/4988420
  3. Jerath, R et al. “Self-Regulation of Breathing as an Adjunctive Treatment of Insomnia.” Frontiers in Psychiatry. 2018. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6361823/
  4. Wei, M. “Yoga for better sleep.” Dec 4, 2015. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/8753-201512048753
  5. Stretching before sleep reduces the frequency and severity of nocturnal leg cramps in older adults: a randomised trial. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1836955312700681?via%3Dihub
  6. Wang, X et al. “The Effect of Mind-Body Therapies on Insomnia: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6393899/
  7. Si, Y et al. “Tai Chi Chuan for Subjective Sleep Quality: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials.” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7439202/
  8. Xiang, Y et al. “Does Tai Chi relieve fatigue? A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials.” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5381792/
  9. “I have osteoporosis. Is chair yoga right for me?” University of Arkansas. https://www.uaex.edu/life-skills-wellness/health/physical-activity-resources/chair-yoga.aspx

Paul has authored dozens of articles on life and business, contributed to e-books, written software curriculum for adults, and coordinated multiple blood drives. He’s also married to a woman who, admittedly, is smarter than him, and he has a young son who is not smarter than him (yet).