The Top Eight Time-tested Breathing Exercises for Good Sleep

What if I told you there is a natural medicine for stress, anxiety and sleep that is absolutely free, contains no side effects, and is constantly available? Indeed, sometimes the solution for a good night’s sleep is literally right under your nose. Actually, it includes your nose.

Breath is unique in that it is both a voluntary and involuntary process. We can consciously use our breath to control our physiology and shift the body towards a parasympathetic response, letting us relax and fall asleep more quickly. 

When we are in a parasympathetic state, our heart rate and blood pressure decrease, which is a necessary step towards initiating sleep. Additionally, a parasympathetic state reduces the symptoms of various mood disorders, all-too-common conditions that interfere with good-quality sleep. 

By the way, scientifically speaking, conscious breathing is one of the most effective ways to improve cognitive function, including wide-ranging effects such as increased focus, decreased mind wandering, reduced emotional reactivity, improved arousal, and increased positive emotions.[1][2] 

Many of the breathing exercises listed in this article are derived from ancient eastern practices that have been used for thousands of years. Enlightenment aside, these practices help to induce profound relaxation and make falling asleep much easier. They may even help improve stress-induced systemic health issues that can negatively affect digestion, mood, and the cardiovascular system. 

4-7-8 Breathing Technique

This technique was developed by Dr. Andrew Weil, a Harvard-trained physician. He claims this technique can help anyone achieve sleep in as little as 60 seconds. 

This technique activates the parasympathetic nervous system and promotes a state of calmness. It can help first thing in the morning, during times of stress, during a nightly bedtime routine, or while lying down in bed before sleep. 

By directing awareness to your breath during this technique, it can help quiet an overactive mind that can interfere with sleep.


How to perform this technique

  • Place the tongue in the yogic position by touching the tip of the tongue to the ridge of tissue just behind your upper front teeth. 
  • Breath in quietly through your nose to a count of 4, hold for a count of 7, then blow air audibly out of your mouth for a count of 8.
  • Repeat for 4 breath cycles.

Meditative breathing

Meditative breathing is a foundational part of mindfulness, or vipassana, meditation, originating from the Theravada lineage of Buddhism. 


Substantial evidence supports the health benefits of this technique, including reducing stress, anxiety, depression, and enhancing sleep quality and quantity. A consistent mindful breathing practice for as short as 15-20 minutes before bed can engage a relaxation response and clear our mind of the day’s events.

How to perform this technique:

  • Sit in a chair or meditation cushion with your back straight and head slightly forward. 
  • Bring your attention to the raw sensations of breathing. You may find it most strongly at the tips of the nostrils or in the rising and falling of your abdomen.
  • Let the breath come and go naturally. Instead of intensely targeting the breath with your attention, just receive it. 
  • Try counting your breaths as they come and go. You may count from one to 10 on each exhale, then back from 10 to one. 
  • If thoughts arise, simply acknowledge them and return your awareness back to the sensations of breathing.

Diaphragmatic breathing

Diaphragmatic breathing, or belly breathing, utilizes the dome-shaped muscle at the base of the lungs to aid in a full, deep inhale and exhale. Diaphragmatic breathing is a helpful technique to calm the mind, reduce anxiety and stress, and prepare for sleep. It has even been shown to be effective for managing the symptoms of respiratory conditions such as asthma and COPD.[3]

How to perform this technique:

  • Lie down or sit in a comfortable chair with a straight posture. 
  • Close your eyes and place one hand flat on your chest and the other hand on your stomach. 
  • Take slow, full, deep breaths through your nose into your abdomen. Keep the hand on your chest still as the hand on your stomach rises and falls with the breath. 
  • Make sure your chest is moving only a little throughout the process.
  • Relax deeper on each exhale to try to lengthen the time of inhales and exhales.

Brahmari pranayama breathing

Pranayama breathing is an integral part of yogic practice. “Yama” is translated as lengthening, extension, expansion, or even control of “prana”, which is the breath, energy, or life force. 

Brahmari pranayama is sometimes referred to as the bumblebee breath or humming breath. Brahmari comes from the Hindi word “brahmar”, meaning black bee, since in this technique you make a humming sound like a bumblebee when you hum on the exhale.

This technique is great for working with stress, anxiety, and reducing the symptoms of insomnia. One study from 2010 at Nepal Medical College found five minutes of this technique significantly reduced the heart rate and blood pressure of the subjects.[4] 

How to perform this technique:

  • Sit upright with your spine erect and eyes closed
  • Begin by inhaling fully and gently through your nose. 
  • Exhale through your mouth while making a medium-to-high pitched humming sound in the throat for the full exhale. 
  • Attune to the vibration produced by the humming in the neck and skull.
  • Repeat for six full breath cycles. 

To make the effect stronger, you can press the index finger in the cartilage of the ear, blocking the ear canal. The humming sound will be amplified, acting as an effective focal point that can draw your mind away from any emotional disturbances such as anger, agitation, or anxiety. 

Alternate nostril breathing (nadi shodhana pranayama)

Alternate nostril breathing, known as Nadi shodhana pranayama, is another pranayama breathing technique that involves breathing in one nostril at a time in an alternating fashion. Nadi is Sanskrit for "channel" or "flow" and shodhana means "purification". This technique is used to balance the energy within ourselves and access deeper levels of relaxation. 

One 2005 study found that 20 minutes of this practice was able to significantly decrease heart rate, systolic blood pressure, and improve problem-solving in ten participants compared to controls who sat quietly and breathed normally.[5]

How to perform this technique:

  • Sit in a cross-legged position with your back comfortably straight and your eyes closed. 
  • Place your left hand in the middle of the lap. 
  • Using your right thumb, close the right nostril. Inhale fully and gently with the left nostril.
  • Close the left nostril with the pinky and ring finger (using them together) and open the right nostril, exhaling slowly and gently.
  • Inhale slowly and gently through the right nostril with the left nostril closed.
  • Exhale through the left nostril and close the right nostril with the thumb.
  • Repeat the cycle for five minutes.

Five-second inhales and exhales are a common starting point for this practice, but if you are comfortable, try lengthening the exhale to ten seconds for even deeper relaxation.

Equal breathing (sama vritti pranayama)

Equal breathing, known as sama-vritti pranayama, is a breathing exercise that equalizes the lengths of the inhale and exhale. This technique is powerful for getting more present, reducing stress, and calming the mind in preparation for sleep.

How to perform this technique: 

  • Start by sitting comfortably and upright in a chair or, alternatively, lying down in bed. 
  • Close your eyes and observe the natural flow of your breathing for a few breaths.
  • Inhale slowly through your nose for a count of four. 
  • Begin slowly exhaling through the nose for a count of four
  • Continue for 10 full breath cycles.

As you get deeper with this exercise, you can lengthen the time of the inhale and exhale to be six, eight, or 10 seconds each. Longer breath times will induce even more relaxation and presence.

Buteyko breathing

The Buteyko method is a breathing technique developed in 1952 by Ukranian physiologist Dr. Konstantin Pavlovich Buteyko. This method is designed to optimize breathing volume by regulating the balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the body. In this technique, you lower the depth and frequency of your breathing. 

This exercise trains you to withstand more carbon dioxide in the body, which counterintuitively helps oxygen absorption in the body. Research into the effectiveness of the Buteyko method is limited, but studies have shown that it can help those with asthma.[6] Numerous variations of this method have been developed, but this is a simple method that can help with psychological and respiratory disorders.

How to perform this technique:

  • Lay comfortably in bed with your mouth gently closed. 
  • Begin by breathing through your nose slowly and shallowly for 5 breaths. 
  • Gently close your nose by pinching it with your thumb and forefinger. 
  • With your mouth and nose still closed, hold the breath for a slow count of 5.
  • With your mouth still closed, take a deep, gentle breath in and out through the nose again for one minute.
  • On an empty lung, hold for a count of 5, and repeat in this manner a minute later for a total of six holds.

The crucial point in this exercise is to breathe through the nose. Nasal breathing helps increase oxygen supply to cells, boosts carbon dioxide and nitric oxide levels, and reduces heart rate and blood pressure. Since stress, anxiety, and panic commonly involve hyperventilation, this method can be an effective way to rebalance carbon dioxide levels and reduce the symptoms associated with these conditions. 

Papworth method

The Papworth method is a diaphragmatic breathing technique developed in the 1960s. This method helps control over-breathing which can commonly result from stress and anxiety. The Papworth method has been shown to alleviate respiratory symptoms, dysfunctional breathing, and adverse mood compared to placebo.[7]

How to perform this technique:

  • Sit comfortably in a chair with spine erect or lie down in bed.
  • Take deep, rhythmic breaths through the nose for three full breaths.
  • Begin counting each slow and gentle inhale and exhale through the nose, to a count of 4.
  • Focus your attention on the abdomen rising and falling. You may also place your hand or book on the abdomen to make sure your breathing is diaphragmatic. 

Final Thoughts

If you want to sleep better, try incorporating these breathing techniques into your nightly bedtime routine. They can make an enormous difference in drifting off to sleep and/or reducing psychological distress that can commonly interfere with sleep. 

If you’re still suffering from sleep problems despite ample time and opportunity, consider consulting with a medical professional in sleep medicine to rule out any underlying sleep disorder that may be causing your sleep problems.

References

  1. Zelano C et al. Nasal respiration entrains human limbic oscillations and modulates cognitive function. J. Neurosci. 36, 12448–12467 (2016)
  1. Melnychuk, M.C., et al. (2018). Coupling of Respiration and Attention via the Locus Coeruleus: Effects of Meditation and Pranayama. Psychophysiology, 55, e13091.
  1. Vitacca M, Clini E, Bianchi L, Ambrosino N. Acute effects of deep diaphragmatic breathing in COPD patients with chronic respiratory insufficiency. Eur Respir J 1998;11:408–415.
  1. Pramanik T. Pudasaini B. Prajapati R. Immediate effect of a slow pace breathing exercise Bhramari pranayama on blood pressure and heart rate. Nepal Med Coll J. 2010;12:154–157. 
  1. Subbalakshmi NK, Saxena SK, Urmimala, Urban JAD. Immediate effect of nadishodhana pranayama on some selected parameters of cardiovascular, pulmonary and higher functions of brain. Thai J Physiol Sci. 2005;18:10–6.
  1. Cooper S, Oborne J, Newton S, et al. Effect of two breathing exercises (Buteyko and pranayama) in asthma: a randomised controlled trial. Thorax. 2003;58:674–9.
  1. Holloway EA, West RJ. Integrated breathing and relaxation training (the Papworth method) for adults with asthma in primary care: a randomised controlled trial. Thorax. 2007;62:1039–1042.