Medically reviewed by Elaine K. Luo, MD — Written by Jennifer Leavitt, MS
If you find it difficult to fall asleep, you’re not alone. According to the American Sleep Association, insomnia is the most common sleep disorder, with 30 percent of American adults reporting short-term problems, and 10 percent experiencing chronic trouble falling or staying asleep.
Our busy and fast-paced society, filled with homework, long work days, financial strains, parenting burnout, or other emotionally exhausting situations, can make it really difficult to unwind, calm down, and get some ZZZs.
When it’s hard to sleep, focusing on your breath may help. Let’s take a look at some breathing exercises to calm your mind and body so that you can fall asleep.
Although there are a number of breathing exercises you can try to relax and fall asleep, a few basic principles apply to all of them.
It’s always a good idea to close your eyes, which may help you shut out distractions. Focus on your breathing and think about the healing power of your breath.
These nine different exercises each have slightly different benefits. Take a look to see which one is the best match for you, and soon you’ll be sleeping like a baby.
Here is how to practice the 4-7-8 breathing technique:
- Allow your lips to gently part.
- Exhale completely, making a breathy whoosh sound as you do.
- Press your lips together as you silently inhale through the nose for a count of 4 seconds.
- Hold your breath for a count of 7.
- Exhale again for a full 8 seconds, making a whooshing sound throughout.
- Repeat 4 times when you first start. Eventually work up to 8 repetitions.
This technique was developed by Dr. Andrew Weil as a variation of pranayama, an ancient yogic technique that helps people relax as it replenishes oxygen in the body.
These steps will help you perform the original Bhramari pranayama breathing exercise:
- Close your eyes and breathe deeply in and out.
- Cover your ears with your hands.
- Place your index fingers one each above your eyebrows and the rest of your fingers over your eyes.
- Next, put gentle pressure to the sides of your nose and focus on your brow area.
- Keep your mouth closed and breathe out slowly through your nose, making the humming “Om” sound.
- Repeat the process 5 times.
Bhramari pranayama has been shown in clinical studies to quickly reduce breathing and heart rate. This tends to be very calming and can prepare your body for sleep.
To practice the three-part breathing exercise, follow these three steps:
- Take a long, deep inhale.
- Exhale fully while focusing intently on your body and how it feels.
- After doing this a few times, slow down your exhale so that it’s twice as long as your inhale.
Some people prefer this technique over others because of its sheer simplicity.
To do diaphragmatic breathing exercises:
- Lie on your back and either bend your knees over a pillow or sit in a chair.
- Place one hand flat against your chest and the other on your stomach.
- Take slow, deep breaths through your nose, keeping the hand on your chest still as the hand on your stomach rises and falls with your breaths.
- Next, breath slowly through pursed lips.
- Eventually, you want to be able to breath in and out without your chest moving.
This technique slows your breathing and decreases your oxygen needs as it strengthens your diaphragm.
Here are the steps for the alternate nasal or alternate nostril breathing exercise, also called nadi shodhana pranayama:
- Sit with your legs crossed.
- Place your left hand on your knee and your right thumb against your nose.
- Exhale fully and then close the right nostril.
- Inhale through your left nostril.
- Open your right nostril and exhale through it, while closing the left.
- Continue this rotation for 5 minutes, finishing by exhaling through your left nostril.
A 2013 study reported that people who tried nasal breathing exercises felt less stressed afterwards.
To practice buteyko breathing for sleep:
- Sit in bed with your mouth gently closed (not pursed) and breathe through your nose at a natural pace, for about 30 seconds.
- Breathe a bit more intentionally in and out through your nose, once.
- Gently pinch your nose closed with your thumb and forefinger, keeping your mouth closed as well, until you feel that you need to take a breath again.
- With your mouth still closed, take a deep breath in and out through your nose again.
Many people don’t realize that they are hyperventilating. This exercise helps you to reset a normal rhythm of breathing.
In the Papworth method you focus on your diaphragm to breathe more naturally:
- Sit up straight, perhaps in bed if using this to fall asleep.
- Take deep, methodical breaths in and out, counting to 4 with each inhale — through your mouth or nose — and each exhale, which should be through your nose.
- Focus on your abdomen rising and falling, and listen for your breath sounds to come from your stomach.
This relaxing method is helpful for reducing habits of yawning and sighing.
Also known as pursed lip breathing, kapalbhati breathing involves four steps:
- Breathe in deeply through your nose, as though smelling something pleasant.
- Pucker your lips as if you’re going to blow on a pinwheel.
- Through your pursed lips, exhale 3 times more slowly than you inhaled.
- Repeat until you feel calm and sleepy.
Kapalbhati breathing relieves shortness of breath and improves ventilation by getting rid of excess carbon dioxide.
During box breathing, you want to focus intently on the oxygen you’re bringing in and pushing out:
- Sit with your back straight, breathe in, and then try to push all the air out of your lungs as you exhale.
- Inhale slowly through your nose and count to 4 in your head, filling your lungs with more air with each number.
- Hold your breath and count to 4 in your head.
- Slowly exhale through your mouth, focusing on getting all the oxygen out of your lungs.
Box breathing is a common technique during meditation, a very popular method of finding mental focus and relaxing. Meditation has a variety of known benefits for your overall health.
No matter which type of breathing exercise you prefer, the evidence is clear that breathing exercises can help you relax, sleep, and breathe more naturally and effectively. With so many varieties to choose from, you may just find yourself fast asleep before you know it.
+ 7 Sources
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- Holloway EA, et al. (2007). Integrated breathing and relaxation training (the Papworth method) for adults with asthma in primary care: A randomised controlled trial. DOI:
- Pramanik T, et al. (2010). Immediate effect of a slow pace breathing exercise Bhramari pranayama on blood pressure and heart rate.
- Relaxation exercises for falling asleep. (2018).
- Sharma VK, et al. (2013). Effect of fast and slow pranayama on perceived stress and cardiovascular parameters in young health-care students.
- Sleep and sleep disorder statistics. (n.d.).
Originally published on Healthline.
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