It can be a challenge to get the right amount of sleep, especially during a busy school or work week, or in times of stressful life changes. If you want to improve the quality and length of your sleep, you may want to consider an evening pranayama breathing practice. Taking a few minutes to practice a calming and soothing breathing exercise can be a simple yet powerful way to help calm your mind, soothe your anxiety, and relax your body to improve your sleep. Yoga offers several different breathing methods that can help you slip into a deep and restful state of relaxation to prepare the body and mind for sleep.
How breathing affects sleep
The breath is one of the most fundamental ways we regulate our bodies and emotions, and is a key ingredient in our health and well-being. It’s so important that our bodies even have a self-regulating mechanism for it—the respiratory system automatically adjusts the rate and depth of the breath in response to external stimuli, such as sleepiness, stress, exercise, and even emotional states.
Breathing is a critical component of yoga and has been used to change the flow of energy in the body for hundreds of years. Pranayama harnesses the connection between the breath and our autonomic nervous system to alter our mental, emotional, and energetic states.
Mouth vs. nose breathing
Mouth breathing and nasal breathing have very different energetic and emotional effects. Exhaling through the mouth helps release pent-up emotions and stress and has a cooling effect on the body. Breathing through the nose is most commonly used in yoga as it is calming and focusing. Mouth breathing is generally avoided as it can increase your heart rate and blood pressure and trigger a stress response.
Abdominal breathing is the foundation for all of the practices of pranayama. Breathing into the belly engage is the diaphragm and activates the parasympathetic nervous system and the natural relaxation response. Chest breathing requires more physical effort and is associated with the “fight or flight” stress response.
Likewise shallow breathing agitates the mind and fuels anxiety. Slow deep breaths are calming, soothing and nourishing. Slow diaphragmatic breathing calms your mind, lowers your heart rate, and relaxes the body which helps you to destress and fall asleep faster. Yoga breathing exercises can also help you improve your sleep by resetting your default breathing pattern so that you use abdominal breathing throughout the night.
Counting with breathing
Rhythmic breathing exercises are a common part of many yoga practices. Many people claim that counting their breath cycles with specific timed rations improves their sleep because it makes your mind focus on the counting process. The main explanation of this is that having an extended exhale, or the exhalation longer than the inhalation, is calming and stress reducing. The most popular of these techniques is the 4-7-8 breath ratio, which we explain below. You can also see a chart of all the different breathing ratios on our main pranayama page.
Breathing exercises for sleep
The following seven breathing exercises can all be done easily on your own to help encourage your body and mind to relax and make sleep easier. These pranayamas can be practiced at any time, but they will be most effective when used right before sleep. The best time to practice is about 30 minutes to one hour before you go to sleep.
The below exercises are most effective for acute insomnia and temporary disruptions to sleep. While yoga breathing can be helpful for chronic insomnia, anxiety attacks, and other sleep disorders, it is not a substitute for professional medical care or help from a qualified sleep specialist.
The diaphragmatic breath is the fundamental relaxed breathing exercise for beginners to learn and practice. Also known as belly breathing, as the belly will rise and fall while the chest remains mostly still when taking deep breaths in this method. This meditative breath reduces stress, promotes relaxation and increases lung capacity and efficiency.
Perfect for beginners, the three-part breathing method is traditionally known as Dirga Pranayama and builds on the diaphragmatic breath. It’s considered one of the most calming breathing techniques as it allows you to clear your mind by focusing all of your attention on how your breath moves through the abdomen and chest. Many people believe is possible to relieve chronic stress and prevent panic attacks with the regular practice of this breathing technique.
4-7-8 Breathing Technique
The 4-7-8 breathing exercise, popularized by Andrew Weil, uses a counting ratio with diaphragmatic breathing and breath retention. There are many people who believe this 4-7-8 breathing exercise is a natural tranquilizer and the best way to relax and quickly fall asleep. To practice, use the belly breath or three-part breathing technique and inhale for a count of 4, hold the breath in for a count of 7, and exhale for 8 counts. Repeat for four cycles and slowly build up to a longer practice.
Box Breathing or square breathing
Another a counting ratio method with diaphragmatic breathing and breath retention is Sama Vritti Pranayama. It is known as Box, square or equal breathing as it uses a 4-4-4-4 ratio. This pranayama practice equalizes, harmonizes and balances the prana flowing through the body’s nadis or energy channels. This four-part breathing technique is primarily practiced for calming and balancing the mind and body to reduce mental stress and worry. Sama Vritti can also help slow down the heart rate, increase oxygen to the brain, and reduce anxiety.
Alternate Nostril Breathing
Nadi Sodhana Pranayama or alternate nostril breathing uses your fingers to close one nostril and breath out the other. Alternate nostril breathing is calming and balancing and brings your body to a much more relaxed state in preparation for sleep. It will be difficult to practice this technique if you’re sick or if you have a cold.
Bhramari Pranayama which means “bee breath,” uses a humming sound on the exhale. This type of slow deep breathing can reduce external distractions and help lower the heart rate and blood pressure, readying the body for sleep.
Mantra or affirmation
A mantra is a sacred Sanskrit sound used in japa, or mantra meditation. An affirmation is a short positive phrase that is used to reduce negative thought patterns, similar to a repetitive prayer. Both of these can be used with the diaphragmatic or three-part breath to create a deeper sense of calm and inner peace. If you go to bed and find your mind racing with thoughts, practice repeating a mantra or affirmation using deep breaths for a few minutes.
Yoga Nidra is a mindful body scan where you visualize different parts of your body relaxing with each inhale and exhale. This progressive relaxation technique is a great way to release deeply held levels of anxiety, stress and tension and prepare the body to fall asleep. You can find free Yoga Nidra videos on YouTube ranging from 10 to 30 minutes long.
How long does it take to get results?
It depends on a couple of factors, and it can be very different for different people. You should notice some results after a few days, but it could take you weeks, months, or even years before you see progress. The most important thing is to keep practicing. Like most things, the more you do it, the more quickly you’ll see results.
How to choose the right breathing technique for you
There are so many types of breathing techniques that are available, making it difficult to know which are the best. When it comes to breathing, there is no one right technique that will work for everyone. Various breathing techniques have different benefits and can help you achieve different things. Starting with the breathing technique that feels the most natural for you. Note how each exercise makes you feel mentally, physically, and emotionally. Use a journal or other means to track which techniques have the strongest effect on your sleep.
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