Even if you've wound down with a hot bath, shut off all your electronic devices at a reasonable hour, and doused your pillow in lavender essence, getting some quality shut-eye really comes down to those crucial moments after your head first hits the pillow. And for many of us—no matter how sleep-friendly those aforementioned rituals are—this seems to be the time when our brains kick into high gear. Did you remember to reply to that email? Ugh, you need to hit the grocery store tomorrow. Oh, good—the montage of your life's most mortifying moments is right on schedule.
Why is it that we can feel so exhausted but still end up staring at the ceiling? Breathwork specialist Ashley Neese believes it has something to do with the way we're breathing. Research shows that breath has the potential to curb stress, reduce cortisol levels and evoke our bodies' natural relaxation response—but it's much more difficult to reap these benefits when we're not doing it correctly.
And training yourself to breathe more efficiently every night has the added benefit of shifting your brain's focus from your to-do list to your breath, which helps put you in a meditative state. "I'm a big advocate for deeper, slower breathing at night, as it is a fast way to reduce anxiety and tension," says Neese. "This type of breathing sets you up for a better night's rest."
It's worth experimenting with your own deep breathing exercises to see what does the trick, but if you're unsure of where to begin, Neese offers easy techniques to try. Try these 9 breathing exercises for sleep.
Meet the Expert
Ashley Neese is a breathwork teacher and author. She has studied with some of the world’s leading masters in yoga, meditation, medical intuition, and somatic therapy.
Most breathing exercises start with deep, diaphragmatic breathing. Practice this breathing technique before moving on to others. Diaphragmatic breathing, also known as belly breathing, can help you relax and relieves stress.
- Find a comfortable position, either sitting or lying down.
- Place one hand on your belly and the other on your chest.
- Breathe in deeply through your nose into your belly, letting your belly push your hand out while your chest stays still.
- Purse your lips and breathe out as if you are whistling. Your hand should go in as your belly draws in. Use your hand to push the remaining air out of your belly gently.
- Try this breathing technique for 3 to 10 cycles, taking your time.
- Take note of how this exercise makes you feel.
This next step will slow your breathing, even more, lowering your heart rate, relaxing you for sleep. "Many people are unaware that they are breathing through their mouth the majority of the day instead of their nose," says Neese. "For most people, breathing through the nose is going to be the most effective way to breathe."
- Place one hand on your belly.
- Breathe in and out through your nose.
- On the inhale, become aware of the natural rise and fall of the abdomen.
- After a few minutes, begin to lengthen your exhale, making it one to two counts longer than your inhale.
- Repeat until you are ready to sleep.
Count Your Breaths
Counting your breath is meditative and grounding.
- Begin with a few rounds of breathing in and out through the nose.
- Establish a slow pattern of breathing for a minute or two.
- Begin counting every exhale from one to five. When you get to five, count back down to one.
- Repeat counting on each exhale. Don't go past five, and if you get lost, start back at one.
- Continue until you are dozing off.
4-7-8 Breathing Technique
The 4-7-8 breathing technique uses belly breathing to help you relax away stress and anxiety. The breathing method is rhythmic and calming, acting as a sort of meditation. "It has been shown to increase circulation, reduce anxiety, improve lung health, boost brain function, and raise emotional intelligence," says Neese.
- Start by breathing out all of your air, placing one hand on your chest, and one on your belly.
- With your mouth closed, inhale softly through your nose to a count of four.
- Hold your breath for a count of seven.
- Exhale, making a whooshing sound expelling all the air through your mouth, for a count of eight.
- Inhale, repeating the breathing cycle three more times.
Bhramari Pranayama Breathing
This breathing technique can lower your heart rate and blood pressure, readying your body for deep sleep. If anxiety and irritability keep you awake, Bhramari Pranayama may help you relieve that tension so you can drift off.
- Sit in a comfortable seated position, with your eyes closed or gazing downward.
- Take notice of the feeling of the ground beneath you and ground down through your sit bones while lengthening your spine.
- Breath in and out of your nose with lips closed gently, teeth separated, keep your face and jaw relaxed.
- Bring your hands to your face, gently pressing your thumbs on the cartilage of your ears to block out sound; your index fingers are placed over your closed eyelids, your middle fingers on the sides of your nose. Do not block your nose or hold your breath.
- Take a deep breath in through your nose and exhale through your nose, making a humming sound as you exhale.
- Repeat for 6 or more cycles of breath.
The three-part breath is perfect for beginners. Also called Dirga Pranayama, it is thought to be a very calming and grounding breathing technique. Focusing on your breath this way causes you to be more in touch with how your body feels, allowing you to clear your mind and prepare for sleep. This breathing technique can help relieve stress and prevent panic attacks.
- Lie down in the comfortable position on your back with your eyes closed, keeping your face, jaw, and body relaxed. You could also sit cross-legged if you prefer.
- Focus on your natural breathing pattern of inhaling and exhaling. Start to inhale and exhale more deeply through your nose.
- Each time you inhale, breathe into your belly, expanding it with your breath.
- When you exhale, breathe out all the air from your belly through your nose, pulling your stomach back in and pushing the air out completely.
- Repeat this technique for five cycles to complete part one.
- Inhale again and feel the belly up with air, then breath in a little more air to expand your rib cage, widening the ribs.
- When you exhale, first let the air out of your rib cage and then from your belly, drawing your stomach back in towards your spine and expelling the air.
- Repeat this technique for five breaths to complete part two.
- On your next inhale, fill your belly and rib cage up with air and then breathe in a little more air filling up your chest to your collarbone and around your heart center.
- As you exhale, let the breath go from your upper chest and heart center, then from your rib cage, and then from your belly, pulling your stomach in towards your spine to expel all of the air.
- Continue this for another 10 breaths at your own pace.
Box breathing can lower your blood pressure, help you relax, and combats stress and anxiety effectively.The meditative-like state of box breathing can reduce feelings of stress and increase happiness. Use this technique as another sleep-inducing tool to have in your back pocket for those nights when your mind won't shut off.
- Let out all of the air in your lungs to the count of four.
- Keep your lungs empty for a count of four.
- Inhale for a count of four.
- Keep your lungs full for a count of four
Alternate Nostril Breathing
Alternate nostril breathing is a yogic based breathing practice, also known as Nadi Shodhana Pranayama. It is a meditative breath that can reduce stress and promote mindfulness, helping calm your mind for sleep.
- Sit comfortably with your legs crossed.
- Place your left hand on your belly or in your lap.
- Exhale all of your breath, and then close your right nostril with your right thumb.
- Inhale through your left nostril, and then use your fingers to close your left nostril.
- Release your right nostril and exhale through it.
- Inhale through your right nostril and then close it again.
- Release your left nostril and exhale through it.
- You've completed one cycle. Continue these cycles for up to 5 minutes.
- Always finish by exhaling on the left side.
Breathing imagery brings guided mediation and breath work together, focusing your mind and relaxing your body.
- Sit or lie comfortably with your eyes closed and practice deep breathing, imagery, and a focus word or phrase that relaxes you.
- Picture the air you're breathing in is washing calmness into your body. While breathing out, imagine the breath leaving your body washing away tension and anxiety.
- When you inhale repeat to yourself in your mind: "I breath in calmness." During your exhale, think: "I breathe out tension"
- As a beginner, start with 10 minutes of this practice. Add time gradually, building up to 20 minutes or more.
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Ma X, Yue ZQ, Gong ZQ, Zhang H, Duan NY, Shi YT, Wei GX, Li YF. The Effect of Diaphragmatic Breathing on Attention, Negative Affect and Stress in Healthy Adults. Front Psychol. 2017 Jun 6;8:874. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00874.