9 Best Breathing Exercises for Sleep

Sometimes our racing minds or tense bodies prevent our ability to fall asleep. Mindful breathing or another breathing exercise can help you fall asleep fast.

A woman lies on yoga mats and does breathing exercises
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We all know how important good sleep is for your mental and physical well-being. But sometimes falling asleep is more of a dream than a reality.

One highly recommended technique for preparing yourself for sleep is breathwork — focused breathing that can help relax your mind and body.

There are many different types of breathing exercises that can help you relax and get to sleep quickly. Some focus on mindfulness, some on where you breathe from in your body, and some focus on timed counting. While it may take some trial and error before you find the one that works best for you, adding one of these breathing exercises to your bedtime routine can help you relax and fall asleep faster.

Mindful Breathing

If you’re having trouble sleeping, mindful breathing can be a great place to start. “All you have to do is breathe normally, but pay attention to how it feels,” says Dr. Jade Wu, Ph.D., a sleep psychologist and author of the forthcoming book “Hello Sleep: The Science and Art of Overcoming Insomnia Without Medications.” Start by feeling the way the air feels entering and leaving your lungs. This alone might help you feel more relaxed.

“Your body might be trying to tell you something, and sometimes we shouldn’t just tamp it down,” Wu says. Use this time to try to identify anything else your body needs. Is it too hot or cold? Are you tensing your muscles? Focused on a daunting work task? By using this time to let yourself work out the mental and physical kinks, you may be able to address problems you usually don’t get time to think about.

Diaphragmatic Breathing or Belly Breathing

Diaphragmatic breathing might be familiar to anyone who spent time in a music room. But breathing into your diaphragm can be very helpful for relaxation as well. “This just means breathing into your belly,” Wu says, “not shallow chest breathing but rather breathing deeper so that you’re using more of your lung capacity.”

Start by putting one hand on your chest and one on your belly and breathing normally. Notice which hand moves more. If the hand on your chest moves more, you’re shallow breathing. If the hand on your belly is moving more, you’re breathing into your diaphragm for diaphragmatic breathing or belly breathing.

“The lungs are bigger at the bottom, so if you can move your diaphragm to really open the lungs at the bottom, you’re drawing in a lot more air,” explains Wu.

Breathing into your diaphragm has lots of benefits. It activates the parasympathetic nervous system (which helps your body rest) and can even lower your blood pressure and cortisol levels, two things that can contribute to your feelings of stress.

Alternate Nostril Breathing

This breathing exercise is common in yoga practices. Studies have shown that alternate nostril breathing works best to alleviate anxiety. Because it involves using a finger, it’s also a dual-focused breathing method, which can help distract from other thoughts causing stress. Here’s how it works:

  • Exhale through both nostrils.
  • Close your right nostril, then inhale through your left nostril.
  • After you’ve filled your lungs with air, open your right nostril and close your left nostril.
  • Inhale through your right nostril.
  • Close your right nostril and open your left nostril.
  • Exhale through your left nostril.
  • Repeat for several minutes.

Body Scan

While a body scan may sound like a medical procedure, the kind of body scan we’re talking about is a practice in which you pay attention to a single part of your body, starting at your toes and working up to your head.

“I like to attach a breathing component to it,” says Wu. She suggests paying attention to your toes, then imagining sending a breath to your toes and breathing into them. Do this all the way up your body, ending at your head.

Wu explains that this is a way to give yourself a mental progression activity and also to release and relax parts of your body that hold tension or pain. “If there’s an ache in your hip … notice it, don’t judge it as good or bad, just notice it,” she says, “and then breathe into that sensation.”

Counting breaths

If you need a mental distraction to help you fall asleep, you may benefit from exercises that have you count while you’re breathing. Most of these exercises have the same goal of getting you to slow your breath, but they also give you something to focus on, Wu says.

“After all, there’s a reason people say count sheep if you can’t sleep,” she says. “Sometimes the simple act of having some sort of mantra or simple mental thing that you’re doing whether it’s subtracting by 7’s backward from 100 or counting your breaths, you can do any of those things to sort of help get your mind off of the other stuff.”

Here are some examples of those counting-breath exercises:

Box or 4-4-4 breathing

Box breathing is a type of yoga breathing. It has this name because the exercise has you count to four a total of four times, for a four-part exercise that some think of as making a box of breath. You may even find it helpful to visualize building a box while you’re doing the exercise.

Here’s how to do it:

  • Empty the air from your lungs over a count of four.
  • Inhale for four counts.
  • Hold the breath as you count to four.
  • Exhale for four counts.
  • Repeat two more times.

Triangle breathing

Similar to box breathing, this exercise is named after a triangle because you breathe for three counts and a triangle has three sides. Unlike the box breathwork, you do not pause between exhalation and inhalation — the only pause is to hold the inhaled breath for three seconds. You can also try visualizing a triangle while doing this exercise.

  • Empty your lungs.
  • Inhale while counting to three.
  • Hold your breath and count to three.
  • Exhale while counting to three.

4-7-8 breathing

This is another pranayama, or yoga, breathing exercise, popularized by Dr. Andrew Weil.

Here’s how to do it:

  • Empty your lungs
  • Inhale through your nose while you count to four.
  • Hold your breath while you count to seven.
  • Exhale, emptying your lungs through your mouth while you count to eight.
  • Repeat three more times.

4-4-8 breathing

As the name might suggest, this is a modification of the 4-7-8 breathing method, which simply shortens the amount of time spent holding your breath between inhalation and exhalation.

  • Inhale through your nose while counting to four.
  • Hold your breath while counting to four.
  • Exhale out of your mouth while counting to eight. Make a “whooshing” sound.
  • Repeat several times.

Adding breathing exercises to your daily routine

While many people find breathing exercises helpful for relaxing and falling asleep, they can also be helpful during your day when you feel stressed. Wu recommends finding small moments during your day to check in with your breath, whether it’s right before a meeting or when you take a break from work.