Author: Fatima Mechtab
It’s general knowledge that having a nightly routine will help you get a better night’s sleep. But if you are someone who struggles with insomnia or general anxiety, you might find it more difficult to get proper rest.
Becoming mindful of your breath can help you achieve a greater sense of calm. If you would like to improve the quality of your rest, we invite you to explore four science-backed breathing exercises for sleep.
There is a strong correlation between breathing and sleep, as 80% of your sleep involves slow, regular breaths. Also, nose breathing- how many of us breathe at night when we are sleeping- influences the parasympathetic nervous system, which ultimately calms the body, helping you relax.
Your breath not only affects how long it takes you to fall asleep but can also determine the overall quality of your rest. For example, when you breathe through your mouth, as opposed to through your nose, it decreases the level of oxygen delivered to the blood and can lead to disruptions in your sleep, causing you to wake throughout the night.
In addition, certain breathing disorders, such as obstructive sleep apnea, can affect the quality of your sleep. When your breathing is interrupted or becomes shallow, your body does not get enough oxygen and that can lead to a myriad of health problems, in addition to a restless night.
However, it’s not only physical breathing disorders that can interfere with your rest. If your physical body feels tired, but your brain is buzzing with stressful thoughts or anxiety, chances are you are not breathing in a way that is helping to calm your mind.
Mouth breathing and quick, shallow breaths (hyperventilating) activate the sympathetic nervous system, whereas breathwork for sleep calms the nervous system. By incorporating breathwork techniques for relaxation into your evening routine, you will be able to achieve harmony between the mind and the body.
There are many types of breathwork techniques available. Some practices are designed to energize the body by increasing blood flow and oxygen. On the other hand, breathwork for sleep has the opposite effect; these techniques lead to a greater sense of calm and relaxation, which is required for a good night’s rest. Breathwork for relaxation utilizes some standard principles, and these aspects remain consistent, regardless of the particular style. It’s important to understand the difference between breathing that can excite the body versus techniques that aim to provide your body and mind with a balanced sense of calm.
First, breathwork techniques for relaxation involve diaphragmatic breathing instead of shallow chest breathing (which is how many of us subconsciously breathe during the day). This style of deep breathing strengthens your diaphragmatic muscle and forces stale air out of your lungs, increasing oxygen intake.
Second, breathwork for relaxation requires long exhalations. Typically, shallow forms of chest breathing don’t allow the body to release carbon dioxide fully. A complete respiratory exchange is vital for calming the body and contributes to strengthening the immune system and lowering blood pressure. Breathing styles that are aimed at relaxing the mind and body require full use of the respiratory system to its fullest capacity.
Third, all deep breathing exercises involve mindfulness, which is a form of meditation. Since most of us don’t pay much attention to how we breathe from day to day, we aren’t always aware if we are taking deep diaphragmatic breaths or even when we are holding our breath.
Subconscious breath-holding happens when we are stressed or feeling anxious; sometimes, we may take quick, shallow breaths in this state. However, in the absence of mindfulness, holding your breath actually intensifies the body’s natural ‘fight or flight’ response, which only increases anxiety and restlessness. If you are someone who regularly suffers from anxiety, check out our article on breathwork for anxiety. When you make a conscious effort to focus your attention on your breathing, you enter into a mindful, meditative state. Through your awareness, breathwork becomes a tool that you can use to calm yourself and lull yourself to sleep.
As we explore breathing techniques for sleep, consider these three principles. To gain the most from relaxing breathwork exercises, you should utilize diaphragmatic breathing, lengthen your exhales and increase your overall awareness when it comes to how you breathe.
If your anxiety and restlessness make it difficult to fall asleep at night, we suggest exploring breathwork exercises that are specifically designed to calm the mind and body. Below is a list of four breathing techniques for sleep, including their techniques, scientific case studies, and related benefits.
The 4-7-8 breathing technique is also referred to as ‘relaxing breath.’ This is an exercise that is great for calming anxiety and regulating emotional responses and can be used before bedtime to help you fall asleep.
How to do it:
4-7-8 breathwork was developed by Dr. Andrew Weil, who is also the founder of the University of Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine. Dr. Weil, the author of ‘Breathing: The Master Key to Self-Healing’ describes this breathwork exercise as a ‘natural tranquilizer.’
Making slight variations to the Pranayama yoga breath, Dr. Weil was able to create a breathwork technique that helps to replenish oxygen to the body. Since the 4-7-8 breathing style uses diaphragmatic breathing, which increases oxygen levels, there is a full respiratory exchange that ultimately relaxes the body and mind.
The United States Navy Pre-Flight School developed the military breathing technique for sleep as a way to train the pilots to fall asleep in two minutes, even while sitting up! If you are someone who takes a while to fall asleep, you may want to explore this exercise in order to fall asleep faster.
How to do it
With this technique, it’s important to note that rest will come faster if you are already familiar with basic breathwork and muscle relaxation exercises. As you practice military breathwork for sleep, consider supplementing this technique with other relaxation methods.
Because Navy SEALs and military personnel are often put in conditions that are not conducive to rest (loud noises, flashing lights, inclement weather, etc.), training units developed unique tactics to help soldiers fall asleep. Especially for those fighting in battle, poor sleep becomes a matter of life or death.
Military breathing for sleep uses a combination of visualization and tactical breathwork to calm the nervous system and to reduce stress.
Visualization helps the body relax by creating a soothing environment within your mind. The body scan helps increase awareness of your body as you relax the muscles in your lower body.
As we mentioned above, one of the key principles of breathing exercises for sleep is mindfulness. With breathing meditation for sleep, this technique allows you to focus solely on your breath as you steer your mind away from intrusive or anxious thoughts.
How to do it
Combining meditation and conscious breathwork is an effective tool in helping with insomnia. When you focus your attention on different areas and sensations in your body, you are diverting your attention from anxious thoughts while at the same time using deep inhalations and exhalations to activate your parasympathetic nervous system.
Yoga breathing or Pranayama breathing is the foundation of all yoga practices. And while Pranayama breathing can be done while your body is active, there are also distinct yoga breathing exercises for sleep that are perfect to use before bed.
How to do it
Below are three different yoga breathing exercises that you can incorporate into your nightly routine.
Left Nostril Breath:
Brahmari or Humming Bee Breath
There are physiological transformations that occur in the body due to yoga breathwork practices, and changes are a direct result of how conscious breathing impacts the central nervous system. Yoga or Pranayama breathing activates and balances out both our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, which regulates aspects such as blood flow, digestion, sexual arousal, mental clarity, and relaxation.
When undertaking a new practice, such as breathwork, it is sometimes easier to see the exercises performed on video. Check out the best videos that will illustrate different breathing exercises to try before bed.
In just seven minutes, instructor Nicole will guide you through alternate nostril breathing as a way to calm the nervous system and increase mental clarity. By activating both hemispheres in the brain, you can achieve balance and tranquility to achieve the maximum benefits from this practice.
This five-minute video illustrates the 4-7-8 breathwork for sleep exercise. The use of soothing music, engaging graphics, and a calming voice to cue the breath counts add to the practice, creating an experience that evokes all of the senses.
This eight-minute video bases this breathing exercise on the fundamentals of yoga breathwork for sleep. Set in the beautiful outdoors, the instructor will guide you through the breath counts with calming affirmations that will guide you through soothing visuals, offering complete mind and body relaxation.
If anxiety creeps in whenever it’s time to go to bed, you can now rely on these four science-backed breathing exercises for sleep. By practicing and making these exercises a part of your nightly routine, you can access the peace of mind required for a good night’s sleep.