Yoga is a favored practice for people from all walks of life, oftentimes it is a spiritual activity but for millions of people all over the world it is used to target ailments and their symptoms. There has been suggestions that yoga may bring relief to patients suffering from sleep apnea. There is also some speculation that it may even be a cure.
But are any of these claims correct? Could your sleep apnea really be relieved through downward dog?
In this post, we are going to be taking a deep dive into the world of yoga and the benefits it can bring, as well as taking a look at how practicing yoga might help with your sleep apnea.
What Is Yoga?
If you are not familiar with the practice of yoga, upon hearing the term it may ignite images of a bearded man in the mountains sitting in lotus pose and chanting omm. Whilst this may be an accurate depiction of the practice for some people, yoga has changed and developed over thousands of years making it more accessible to those who wish to practice for something other than a spiritual purpose.
Yoga In Spirituality
Yoga is a practice that is thousands of years old and comes from the Hindu traditions in the main. For those using it for their spirituality it is much more than simply holding postures and taking physical exercise. Whilst these asanas, as they are known, are a big part of the practice there are other aspects such as meditation, breathing exercises and even lifestyle changes such as diet and sexual practices.
Yoga For Exercise
Whilst the practice of yoga developed in the eastern world, it has made its way to the western world with a bang, however for many people in the west, yoga is more of a physical exercise regime.
There are hundreds of yoga asanas, each of them providing different benefits internally such as aiding digestion, externally such as toning of the visible muscles and weight loss and mentally, bringing stress relief and even aiding with mental health conditions.
But one of the most notable benefits of developing a daily yoga practice is that it provides excellent advantages where sleep is concerned. For this reason, there are many studies taking place to show connections between yoga and the improvement of sleep apnea and whilst these studies are still in their infancy, it certainly looks promising.
One such study was conducted by a yoga practitioner who worked alongside her clients to practice what is known as pranayama, or breathing exercises. In this study, the clients did notice some relief of their symptoms such as a clearer airway and a more open feeling in the chest when repeatedly performing yoga asanas.
So, Will Yoga Cure My Sleep Apnea?
One of the things that yoga cannot do is completely cure sleep apnea. Through research, we have seen that there are those who claim that this has happened for them, but this has not been backed up by a medical professional.
Even though yoga is not a cure for sleep apnea, that isn’t to say that it can’t help with symptomatic relief and even improve sleep apnea.
There are several ways in which yoga can help, take a look at the following:
- Through the use of yoga asanas, the patient can find relief from obstruction in the airways. This is done by gradually opening the chest cavity through asanas designed specifically for this purpose. Not only will this physically help with the symptoms of sleep apnea but it may also bring relief for sore and aching muscles that may be experienced after a particularly rough night’s sleep.
- Pranayama, or breathing exercises can allow the patient to clear the airways and if this is practised on a regular basis will begin to become second nature. Once this occurs, the patient will notice that this naturally carries over into their breathing whilst asleep. Many people have naturally conditioned themselves to breathe into their chest, when looking at a newborn baby, you will notice that their stomach rises and falls with each breath. This is how humans are naturally meant to breathe and the use of yoga pranayama can reintegrate this method of breathing.
- Meditation is another important aspect of the yogic lifestyle and whilst it won’t provide any symptomatic relief for sleep apnea, it can help to bring an all round sense of calm which can be invaluable for those who find that they are stressed or distressed when thinking about their sleep apnea. Being calm is also conducive with a restful sleep each night.
What Are The Benefits Of Yoga?
We have already seen that yoga can bring about some great relief for those suffering with sleep apnea, but there are a wealth of other benefits that can be seen from developing a yoga practise. We want to briefly touch on these so that you can see how the practise may help in other areas of your life
- Grow your flexibility
- Develop higher levels of stamina
- Work on your balance and coordination
- Aid in digestion
- Weight loss and muscle toning
- Relief from mental health problems such as anxiety and depression.
- Improve cardiovascular health.
- Improve respiratory health.
- Improve the body’s resilience to injury and illness.
- Higher levels of energy.
- Improve metabolism.
- Aid in better sleep.
It isn’t difficult to see that including yoga in your life will bring many health benefits, including relief for any problems relating to your sleep apnea.
What Are The Most Obvious Benefits For Sleep Apnea?
We mentioned earlier that using yoga pranayama can retrain us into breathing into the stomach, which is a more natural way of breathing. When you begin practicing, it may feel anything but natural, however over time it will become second nature.
In addition to this, yoga may clear any blockages within the airways which can be a massive issue for those with sleep apnea. With continued practise, your lung capacity will increase and this can help you to breathe much more freely.
The muscles used alongside the respiratory system can become weakened when they are not used in the correct manner. Through the use of yoga pranayama, these muscles will regain their strength and therefore will function much better. This will have a direct impact on sleep apnea symptoms.
It is recommended that a healthy adult should be achieving between six and eight hours sleep each night. However, if you suffer from sleep apnea, you will know that this is not always possible and disturbances to your sleep may be extremely frequent. This can lead to feelings of extreme fatigue in the morning, which of course is not helpful when you have a life to lead.
Yoga can help with getting a more restful night’s sleep and there are plenty of practice options, including the use of yoga nidra before bed. We will touch more on this subject later on. Having a better sleep will leave you feeling more energetic throughout the day, in turn allowing you to be more productive.
If you often find yourself feeling stressed as a result of your sleep apnea, yoga is an excellent way to relieve these feelings and can invoke a feeling of calmness and relaxation. When you practice regularly, this feeling will stay with you from one practice to the next.
External Issues Which Cause Sleep Apnea
For some people, external factors play a part in sleep apnea. These issues are usually related to smoking and alcohol which can cause sleep apnea. Yoga can help with quitting or reducing bad habits which can have an effect on your overall health, therefore reducing sleep apnea symptoms associated with these.
Some people may also find that they suffer with sleep apnea as a result of being overweight. Since yoga is a physical activity, weight loss can be achieved through regular practice, meaning that sleep apnea symptoms can improve.
Yoga Asanas For Sleep Apnea
We have talked about how certain yoga asanas, or poses can be extremely beneficial in opening the airway, providing pain relief from muscle aches and bringing about a feeling of calm. There are, as we mentioned earlier, hundreds of yoga asanas, however there are a few that are particularly useful for patients with sleep apnea.
- Cat/cow – begin on all fours with your ankles directly underneath your knees and your wrists directly underneath your shoulders. On an exhale, round the spine up toward the ceiling and bring your head down. It helps to imagine that you are trying to pull your belly button into your spine. Hold the pose for a moment and then inhale and round the spine in the opposite direction. Drop the stomach towards the ground and push your shoulders and chest forward. You should feel an opening in the chest. On top of this, the pose is ideal for relief from stiff back muscles.
- Locust- this is another excellent chest opener and can be done by lying on your front on the ground. Ensure that the legs are straight, then clasp your hands together behind your back, keeping the arms straight. As you inhale, lift the chest off the floor, keeping the rest of the body flat to the ground. Hold the pose for as long as is comfortable.
- Seated twist- Sit in a cross legged position and make sure that you keep your back straight. Now bring your left hand to your right knee and your right hand to the floor behind you. As you breathe in, allow your spine to lengthen, then as you breathe out, twist just a little more. This will open your chest and bring relief to any back aches.
- Legs up the wall- This is a very simple pose that can bring calm and relaxation before sleeping. Find a wall and lie against it with your backside touching the bottom of the wall, this will allow you to place your legs in a vertical position up the wall. The pose will bring a reverse flow of gravity, in turn delivering a very calming effect.
- Downward facing dog- probably the most well known yoga asana of all time, downward dog will bring amazing relief from aches and pains all over the body. Start on all fours and then tuck your toes under. It is important to remember to keep your wrists under your shoulders and your ankles directly under your knees, your body will be best supported this way. Now using your core strength, push up, on an exhale into an ‘A’ shape. Your chest should be pushing towards your head and your pelvis reaching for the ceiling. Many beginners will find it difficult to get their feet to place fully flat on the floor, and this is OK. As you do this pose more and more, your body will adapt and your feet will go flat. This pose stretches out the legs, arms and back making it perfect for sore or stiff muscles.
Pranayama For Sleep Apnea
Breathing exercises based in the yogic tradition are one of the most essential parts of tackling sleep apnea using the practise. These techniques are ideal because they allow you to bring an awareness to the breath, which for many people isn’t something they think about very often.
We breathe naturally and don’t usually pay attention to what we are doing. By bringing awareness, you are contributing to that all important goal of altering your natural breathing technique and carrying this over into your sleep.
There are a variety of different pranayama that you can do to open the airways and bring some relief from your symptoms.
- 3 part breathing. This is one of the best pranayama for training yourself into belly breathing. It involves deep inhales and lengthy exhales. You can begin by taking a slow deep breath in through the nose (if your nose is blocked, you can breathe through the mouth but the nose should be the first choice). Allow the breath to first fill your stomach, you will feel it rising, then allow it to rise up into your chest and then into the throat. Take a moment once your body is filled with air and then slowly release the breathe first from the throat, then the chest and finally the belly.
- Alternate nostril breathing. If you are looking for a pranayama to perform before going to sleep as a way to relax, this is the one to do. Using your right hand, place your thumb over your right nostril, blocking it from being able to take in, or let out any air. Now take an inhale through the left nostril, hold for a moment and place your ring finger down over the left nostril whilst releasing the thumb from the right. Now breathe out through the right nostril and back in through the right. Once you have completed the inhale, free the ring finger from the left nostril and replace the thumb over the right. Now repeat the process on the other side. You can keep going like this for as long as you wish.
- Equal part breathing. In order to successfully change your natural pattern of breathing, it is important to be able to control the breath. This exercise will give you the opportunity to practise this. This one is as simple as making your inhales and exhales the same length. We find that five seconds is usually a great length of time to start with but as you gain more control, this can be extended.
- Direct breathing. Another brilliant exercise for achieving calm and relaxation is to direct the breath to a certain area of the body. This can also work wonders for pain and aching. Close your eyes and imagine the area of the body you want to direct the breath to. Let’s assume you are working on your left arm, bring all of your awareness to this one area, feeling it and picturing it in your mind. Every time you breathe in, imagine the breath being directed to this one area and as you breathe out, allow the area to totally relax. You may find this one particularly useful when trying to fall asleep.
Yoga nidra is known as a semi conscious state of mind and is often used by people who have problems relating to sleep. There are many guided meditations that can be used to practice yoga nidra, but it is important to remember that this practice should be done just before going to sleep. You will likely fall asleep in the middle of the practice, so if you use a CPAP machine, ensure that this is in place before you begin.
- Yoga nidra will clear the mind and allow you to drift off to sleep naturally and easily.
- Lying in corpse pose, also known as svasana, is a relaxing asana associated with restfulness.
- Yoga nidra also helps with mental health issues such as anxiety and depression.
- Many yoga nidra meditations are made up from various pranayamas which, as we have learned are excellent for sleep apnea patients.
Is There Anything That Yoga Cannot Do For Sleep Apnea?
It is vital to remember that yoga is not a cure for sleep apnea, it can however relieve symptoms and make your sleep much more comfortable.
For those who suffer from sleep apnea as a result of a physical obstruction in the airways, yoga will not be able to relieve this. But it will be able to provide stress relief and a calming sensation before sleep.
Types Of Yoga
There are various types of yoga, but not all of these are going to be beneficial for patients with sleep apnea. One such type is the more aggressive vinyasa flow yoga which is fast paced and aerobic. Whilst this is perfect for cardio health and weight loss, it is unlikely to be very useful in the relief of sleep apnea symptoms.
For your reference, the main types of yoga are:
- Vinyasa flow
- Hot yoga, also known as bikram yoga
How Easy Will It Be To Incorporate Yoga Into My Life?
One of the best advantages of yoga is that it can be practiced for as little as five minutes a day so it is hugely easy to incorporate into your day to day routine. That being said, yoga can be a much more intensive practice and should you wish, you can practice for hours each day.
Any amount of daily yoga will have an effect on your sleep apnea symptoms, but the more you do, the more benefits you are likely to notice.
There is an enormous variety of yoga apps which can be downloaded onto your smart phone or tablet. One of the best apps is Downdog yoga which allows users to target specific needs and features a wide range of types of yoga. Most of this app is available for free and each practice brings a fresh new set of asanas and pranayamas, making yoga versatile and fun.
Many people are concerned that yoga is a spiritual practice and are put off, however as we mentioned earlier, yoga doesn’t need to be like this. There is the option to incorporate yoga as a strictly physical activity and many people in the west use yoga this way.
Yoga should never be seen as a cure for patients who suffer with sleep apnea, however it can bring some serious symptomatic relief.
Through the introduction of asanas, pranayamas and meditation, many sleep apnea patients have noticed a visible reduction in their symptoms as well as a feeling of being much more rested each morning.
Yoga is something that can be incorporated easily into your life no matter how much time you may have to dedicate to it and with the wide range of asanas and pranayamas, it can bring relief to both breathing and physical aches and pains. Both of which are frequently suffered by people with sleep apnea.