Using Yoga To Help With Sleep Apnea

Getting quality sleep on a nightly basis is essential to our physical and mental health. However, sleep disorders are quite prevalent in adults all over the world. 

If you or someone you know have been diagnosed with this sleep disorder, you will be interested in finding out all the possible ways that can help you manage the symptoms. In this article, we discuss the role of yoga in helping you deal better with sleep apnea.

What is obstructive sleep apnea?

First of all, we need to look at what obstructive sleep apnea is to understand how yoga can help. 

People who suffer from this condition experience interruptions in their breathing when they are asleep. This happens because the muscles in the airways collapse and block the normal flow of air. Breathing interruptions are picked up by the brain, which sends a signal to the muscles to open up again, often by snorting or gasping. 

These episodes happen multiple times each night, and in some cases people experience more than 30 breathing interruptions per hour.

How can yoga help?

Since obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) episodes happen because the airways become blocked, anything that helps keep them open during the night can be very helpful. In some cases, the airways collapse easily because of poor muscle tone in key parts of the respiratory system, such as the diaphragm and the throat. There are different ways in which yoga can help with this:

  1. Learn deep breathing techniques

First, the exercises are designed to teach people deep breathing techniques. This corrects the very common habit of shallow breathing, which only involves the chest. With regular practice, this can train and strengthen the diaphragm. In fact, diaphragmatic breathing is strongly recommended to people with respiratory problems. 

  1. Relief for stiff muscles

The repeated stretching involved in yoga exercises can be very effective releasing built up tension in the neck, upper back and shoulders. This is extremely important for sleep apnea patients, who normally have excessive stiffness in these areas. 

For example, a study found a link between nerve pain in the neck and OSA, and others have found evidence of connection between this sleep disorder and back pain (4, 5). 

Recommended exercises

Yoga practice is quite extensive, as there are different schools, each with their preferred techniques and exercises. However, getting started doesn’t have to be difficult. Here’s a list of exercises you can try to naturally stabilize your breathing and strengthen the muscles and organs that support the airways.

  • Ujjayi breathing: With your mouth closed, try to mimic a yawn and at the same time inhale. Then, exhale with your mouth wide open, as you would do when trying to fog up a window. 
  • Alternate nostril breathing, where you push a finger against a nostril to close it, while taking a deep breath through the other nostril. You would then repeat on the other side.
  • The cat pose: While on all fours, take a deep breath and simultaneously arch your back, pushing your abdomen towards the floor. Then exhale and arch your back upwards. 
  • Seated twists: Seat on the floor with your legs crossed. Take a deep breath and straighten your back as much as possible, then exhale and twist your upper body to the right. Repeat on the other side. 

In summary

Obstructive sleep apnea is a serious health condition that must be treated and monitored by specialists. Although practicing yoga doesn’t offer a magical cure or replaces treatment, it can certainly be a great complement to any treatment your doctor has prescribed.