Breathwork for Sleep: 4 Science-Backed Breathing Exercises for Better Sleep

breathwork sleep May 15, 2021

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. 

 

Sleep and Breathing: How are they connected?

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.

 

How does breathing affect sleep?

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.

 

How breathwork can help you relax and sleep better

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.

 

4 Breathing Techniques For Sleep And Relaxation

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.

 

1. 4-7-8 breathing  

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:

  • First, lay on your back, allowing your body to relax. If you are familiar with yoga, Shavasana (corpse pose) works well.
  • Part your lips slightly and exhale all of the air from your lungs, making a sigh at the end. 
  • Close your lips and inhale through your nose for a count of 4 seconds.
  • Hold your breath for 7 seconds.
  • Open your mouth and exhale for a count of 8 seconds, ending with a sigh. 
  • Repeat these actions four times to start, eventually increasing your practice to 8 repetitions. 

The Science

 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. 

 Benefits

  • This exercise can help reduce anxiety.
  • The 4-7-8 breathing style is a great technique to use before bed.
  • It’s been noted in helping to reduce cravings
  • You can use the 4-7-8 technique to help manage strong emotional responses, such as anger.
  • This exercise can be used to calm the nervous system, freeing your body from the ‘fight or flight response.

 

2. Military breathing technique

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

  • Begin in a comfortable position, preferably laying down. 
  • Soften the muscles around your face while slacking your jaw.
  • Drop your shoulders away from your neck and lay your arms beside your body.
  • With your lips parted slightly, exhale all of the air from your lungs.
  • Continue breathing in for 4 seconds, and out for 6 seconds.
  • Starting from your lower body, bring awareness to your legs, calves, and thighs, relaxing all muscles.
  • Meditate on a relaxing scene in your mind.

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.

The Science

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.

Benefits

  • Military breathwork for sleep offers fast and effective relaxation for any environment.
  • This exercise can quickly remove stressors from the nervous system.
  • The muscle relaxation techniques increase your body’s overall sense of calm.
  • Tactical military breathing has been noted to lower blood pressure, lowers heart rate and has even been reported to reduce obesity.

 

3.  Breathing meditation

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

  • Settle into a comfortable position and rest your hand over your belly button.
  • Begin with a normal inhale through the nose, holding it as you count to five, and then exhale slowly.
  • Then take another deep inhale and hold it for another count of five while at the same time tensing and relaxing your facial muscles.
  • Continue to tense and relax your shoulders and move down towards the rest of your body, including your extremities.
  • Finally, exhale, becoming mindful of your hand that is resting on your stomach. Allow your hand to ride out the motion of your exhale.
  • Now take your third inhale and hold it for a count of four. Then, exhale slowly. Continue this breath cycle of inhaling, holding four counts, followed by a slow exhale several times. Be mindful of your hand on your belly as it rises and falls with your breath.
  • With each breath, your body and mind will travel further into a deeper state of relaxation. 
  • Make a fist with your right hand, noting how your hand and arm muscles become tense. As you let go, feel the muscles release and relax.
  • Repeat this action with your left hand, paying attention to how heavy and comfortable your arms become as you relax your arm muscles.
  • Move down towards your bum and thighs, first squeezing the muscles, then relaxing. Continue to travel downwards, moving towards your calves and feet. Savor the sensations in your lower body as you start with tensing the muscles, then releasing them.
  • Continue to inhale and exhale while you scan your body in this meditative state. Notice how heavy your body becomes as it succumbs to gravity.

The Science

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.

Benefits

  • Breathing meditation for sleep will help increase your sense of mindfulness, harnessing you to the present moment.
  • Meditation can enhance the production of melatonin, the hormone that regulates your circadian rhythm and encourages sleep (especially when this exercise is done in a dark room or with your eyes closed).
  • As you tense and relax each muscle, you will become more aware of your body and the grounding effect of gravity, sinking you into a deeper state of tranquility.

 

4. Yoga breathing exercise

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:

  • Lay on your back or in a comfortable, seated position.
  • Close off your right nostril with your thumb.
  • Inhale and exhale using only your left nostril.
  • Repeat this practice over the course of 5-8 minutes, breathing slowly with your eyes closed.

Brahmari or Humming Bee Breath

  • Lay on your back or seated comfortably.
  • Close your eyes and begin with a few normal breaths, in and out of the nose.
  • Then, take a deep inhale through the nose and on the exhale, plug your ears and hum along as you release the breath. 
  • Repeat this exercise for a duration of approximately 5-8 minutes. 

7-2-11 Breathing

  • Relax into a comfortable position; either laying down or in a comfortable seat.
  • Start by inhaling through the nose for 7 counts. 
  • At the top of the inhale, hold your breath for 2 counts.
  • Then, release the breath, exhaling fully for 11 counts. Complete the exhalation with a deep sigh, letting go of all of the air in your lungs.
  • Repeat this exercise for a duration of approximately 5-8 minutes. 

The Science

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.

Benefits:

  • Yoga breathwork can relax and soothe the entire body.
  • In particular, the humming associated with the Brahmari technique is excellent for calming the nervous system.
  • Yoga breathing allows for more intake of oxygen, which aids in overall relaxation.
  • Left nostril breathing activates the right hemisphere of the brain, which regulates creativity and emotional responses. 

 

Best Videos on Breathing Exercises for Sleep

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.

Alternate Nostril-Guided Breathwork (7 minutes)

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.

4-7-8 Stress Relief Breathing (9 Minutes)

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.

8 min Breathing Exercises for Sleep

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. 

 

Ready to try guided breathwork to improve your sleep? Try our free, 3-day breathwork mini-series sent straight to your inbox. 

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