How to Breathe Yourself to Sleep
Nicole LaMotte for Parachute
We’ve discussed herbs and tinctures that can help you fall asleep, and we’ve gone over how decluttering your bedroom can lead to a better night’s rest. But next time you’re tossing and turning, remember that you have an amazing tool to help lull you to sleep right there in bed with you: Your breath.
The breath-mind connection is incredibly powerful. Scientists have identified links between your respiratory patterns and emotions, meaning you can use your breath to regulate your state of mind. Think about it: When your heart’s racing or you’re feeling anxious, what’s the first thing you do? Breathe deep. When you’re nervous before a big interview, what’s the most common piece of advice you’re given? “Take a deep breath.” This is because breathing helps slow your heart rate, which can lower anxiety, bring peace of mind and help you find those zzzs. (You can also use your breath for energy, but we’ll save that for another time.) Here are a few breathing exercises to try next time sleep eludes you.
The 4-7-8 Method
This simple breathing pattern, likely born from ancient Indian philosophy, helps calm the nervous system and ease you to sleep. Here’s how it works:
- Exhale fully through your mouth.
- Inhale through your nose for four counts. The pace at which you count is up to you, but don’t rush it.
- Hold in your breath for a count of seven. (Again, try not to speed up, but don’t overextend yourself.)
- Now, take eight full counts to breathe out through your mouth. Go ahead and exhale with some force, feeling the air move past your lips.
Repeat this until you fall asleep – it shouldn’t be too long.
This trick is useful out of bed, too. Dr. Andrew Weil, a holistic health expert and founder/director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona, says that this is “the most powerful anti-anxiety measure I’ve found“ and describes it as an exercise that “cannot be recommended too highly.” Practice on a regular basis (four cycles at least twice a day) for maximum benefits. Check out his video for more information.
Most yogis are familiar with ujjayi, or “deep throat,” breathing, a form of Pranayama breath often used with asana-based yoga practices that involves constricting the back of your throat while breathing out. This same technique can help you get to sleep.
Here’s how: Lie on your back in bed with your legs hip-distance apart. Take at least three (or possibly five – do what feels good) full, deep breaths in through your nose, completely emptying your lungs each time. When you’re ready to begin the exercise, breathe in for a count of four, then hold it in for a count of four. As you exhale, also for a count of four, constrict the back of your throat, almost like you’re breathing through a straw. It should make a sort of low-level growl sound, like the sound of the ocean. Give it a try – it’s a lot less complicated than it seems.
Now, repeat the same exercise, this time holding each part of the breath for six counts instead of four; The next round, try eight. Continue growing the duration by two until you can’t hold it any longer. Then, go back down the scale until you return to four. Repeat until slumber (though hopefully, you won’t have to).
Breathe Out the Tension
If you’ve done any sort of breath work in the past, you might be familiar with the idea of “sending your breath” into certain parts of your body. This relaxation exercise recommended by the National Sleep Foundation for sufferers of insomnia uses the same concept. Here’s what you do.
Get comfortable in bed and notice your body – feel the surface you’re lying on, take notice of your limbs, maybe feel your breath on your upper lip as your exhale through your nose. Take deep, full breaths into your abdomen – not your chest – as you focus your full attention on the air going in and out. Don’t worry if your mind wanders. Just let the thought go and bring your attention back to your breath. (When this happens, some find it helpful to imagine their thoughts exiting the frame of their mind like a character on a TV show leaving the shot.) Watch your stomach rise up as you inhale and shrink back as you exhale.
As you do this, mentally scan your body from head to toes. When you notice an area of tension, imagine sending your breath to that spot, and then envision the tension exiting with your exhale. If you make it all the way through your body, return to the abdominal deep breathing until you fall asleep.