If you’re searching for ways to remedy your sleep problems, chances are you have come across longer-term or more elaborate measures such as upgrading your bedtime routine or cutting out caffeine. But there are other more straightforward (and not nearly as restrictive!) measures you can adopt right away. One such measure is simple sleep breathing techniques.
A great deal of research has been conducted on the relationship between breathing and better sleep, demonstrating that a combination of good sleep hygiene and deep breathing may be highly effective in helping people sleep well.
Below, discover five simple yet effective breathing techniques you can start practicing for improved sleep tonight!
Note: Oura members can access dozens of guided breathing exercises in the Explore tab. After each session, members receive a Wellness Session Biofeedback report detailing how their body responded to the session. Those who tagged breathwork so an 8% decrease in awake time during their sleep period!
Members can also track the effects of the exercises below by utilizing the unguided session feature in the Oura App.
The 4-7-8 Breathing Technique
Perhaps the most well-known breathing technique for falling asleep is the 4-7-8. Also known as “relaxing breath,” 4-7-8 was popularized in 2015 by Dr. Andrew Weil, a world leader in integrative medicine.
This technique can reduce anxiety and allow you to be at peace, helping you to sleep. It’s particularly helpful for falling asleep fast to get maximum rest out of limited time. The best part is that it doesn’t require a specific setting and you can practice it in any position.
That said, Dr. Weil recommends sitting with your back straight when learning the exercise. He also suggests pressing the tip of your tongue against the tissue just behind your upper front teeth and keeping it there throughout the exercise.
To perform the 4-7-8 breathing technique:
- Breathe out completely through your mouth.
- Close your mouth, then breathe in through your nose while counting to four.
- Hold your breath for seven counts.
- Breathe out completely through your mouth while counting to eight.
These four steps mark one breath cycle. Repeat the cycle three more times for a total of four cycles.
To get the most out of this breathing technique for sleep, it’s important to maintain the 4-7-8 ratio. You can count faster if you can’t breathe or hold your breath long enough, but you should try and maintain the speed of each count.
You can also try the similar ‘box breathing method’ along with the 4-7-8 technique. The two methods are similar, with the exception that with the box breathing technique, you inhale, hold, and exhale for the same amount of time (for example, four-four-four counts).
Even though we’ve all been breathing since we were born, a lot of people actually breathe incorrectly — about 80% of the population, according to Emma Ferris, a breathing coach and physiotherapist.
When we breathe, we often focus on the rise and fall of our chests, paying no attention to the abdomen. This leads to shallow breaths that don’t do much for relaxing and getting a good night’s sleep.
A growing number of studies have shown that diaphragmatic breathing (i.e., deep breathing that inflates the abdomen while keeping the chest flat), may trigger body relaxation responses that increase the likelihood of getting good sleep.
Here’s how you can start incorporating diaphragmatic breathing into your routine:
- Sit on a chair with a straight back or lie on your back on a flat surface with your knees bent. If on your back, consider using a pillow under your head and knees for more comfort.
- Place one hand flat against your chest and the other on your stomach, just below the rib cage.
- Take a slow, deep breath through your nose for about four seconds. The hand on your chest should remain still while the one on your abdomen rises with your breath.
- Tighten your abdominal muscles and hold your breath for about two seconds. seconds.
- Exhale slowly through pursed lips for about six seconds. The hand on your stomach should return to its original position.
- Repeat the cycle for up to 15 minutes.
Alternate Nostril Breathing (Nadi Shodhana Pranayama)
The alternate nostril breathing technique is a popular pranayama (an ancient yogic breathing method that involves controlling and regulating the breath flow). In addition to helping you relax so you can enjoy better quality sleep, this technique may also strengthen your respiratory system over time.
In one study, alternate nostril breathing decreased the participants’ fatigue levels and improved their sleeping patterns.
To practice this breathing technique for better sleep:
- Sit comfortably in a quiet space and relax your left hand in your lap.
- Raise your right hand to your face, letting your index and middle fingers rest between your eyebrows — you will only be using your thumb and ring finger during this exercise.
- Place your thumb on the right nostril to close it.
- Take a slow, deep breath through your left nostril.
- Place your ring finger on your left nostril, and with both nostrils closed, hold your breath briefly for about two seconds.
- Release your thumb to open your right nostril, then take a slow, deep exhale.
- Once you’ve breathed out completely, and while keeping your left nostril closed, breathe deeply through your right nostril.
- Place your thumb back on your right nostril and hold your breath there for about two seconds.
- Release your ring finger to open your left nostril. Breathe out slowly.
- Repeat the cycle at least two more times and up to 10 times.
The Bee Humming Technique (Bhramari Pranayama)
The bee humming breathing technique gets its name from a type of black Indian bee called Bhramari. Wondering how the technique links with bees? The exhalation from this breath practice resembles the humming sound of a bee.
Bhramari breath is known to relieve stress and calm the mind and body for better sleep. Although you can practice this breathing technique anywhere, at any time, you will likely reap the most benefits if you do it in the morning and at night, when your surroundings are much quieter.
To practice the bee humming breathing method:
- Sit up straight in a quiet space and close your eyes, paying attention to the different sensations in your body.
- Keeping your eyes closed, put your index fingers on your ears, on the cartilage between your ear and cheek.
- Breathe in deeply, then, as you breathe out and while pressing the cartilage, make a humming sound like a bee. You can keep pressing the cartilage in or press it in and out with your fingers as you make the humming sound.
- Breathe in again and repeat the pattern three to four times, and up to nine times.
Do keep in mind that while you can make a low-pitched sound as you exhale, it’s even better to make a high-pitched sound.
The ‘Skull Shining’ Technique (Kapalbhati Pranayama)
The Kapalbhati breath is an ancient yogic method that clears the head, hence the name ‘skull shining.’ As you would expect from some good head clearing, two of the key benefits of this breathing technique are a relaxed mind and body.
Kapalbhati breathing involves a series of alternating inhaling and exhaling exercises. The inhales are long and passive and the exhales short and explosive. To perform it:
- Sit in a comfortable position with your back straight. You can sit on a chair or cross-legged on the floor. Either way, you may want to have some tissue nearby — the technique also clears your sinuses, so things can get a bit messy.
- Put your hands on your knees, palms facing upwards.
- Take a deep breath in, then start exhaling. As you exhale, contract your belly to push a burst of air out of your lungs, then release the contraction quickly to suck some air into your lungs.
- Take 20 such breaths to complete one round of ‘skull shining.’
- After the first round, close your eyes and take some time to relax and pay attention to the sensations in your body.
- Do two more rounds to complete your practice.
While Kapalbhati has some great benefits that can lead to a good night’s sleep, it is one of the more advanced breathing techniques. It’s a good idea to master other techniques, such as the bee humming method, before attempting this one.
Using Breathwork for Better Sleep
Breathing techniques come with many short- and long-term benefits. The more you practice them, the more you will be able to improve and optimize the quality of your sleep.