If you find it hard to drift off to sleep at night, you’re not alone.
According to a report commissioned by the Sleep Health Foundation, more than half of adult Australians are suffering from at least one chronic sleep symptom that is affecting their ability to live a healthy, happy life.
When it’s hard to sleep, learning how to focus on your breath can be life changing.
Breathwork techniques such as Paced Breathing and 4-7-8 Breathing, and breathwork training courses like the 21 Day Master Your Breath Program, can teach you how to regulate your breathing to become calmer and more embodied. The benefits of a regular breathwork practice include greater resilience to stress, and the ability to slow down, switch off and decompress from the stresses of daily life when you choose to.
When it comes to changing the way you sleep, breathwork training has been shown to positively impact your ability to get the restorative rest that you need, providing a much needed solution to insomnia.
So, if you are struggling with falling asleep, staying asleep, or getting enough quality sleep then try incorporating this simple 3-step breathwork practice into your evening routine. It’s designed to progressively promote deeper and deeper levels of relaxation, and to reduce the stress and anxiety you may be feeling around any present sleeplessness, as well as letting go of any muscular tension you may be holding in your body.
Each technique can be used as a stand-alone, however, you’ll find them all together more powerful when combined sequentially and used as a regular evening breathwork practice.
Anxiety and Sleeplessness
Anxiety, sleeplessness and insomnia have been shown to have a bi-directional relationship, so learning how to break the anxiety-sleeplessness cycle with breathwork could be one of the most important things you do for your health and wellbeing as sleep deprivation can instigate or worsen anxiety disorders.
Researchers have found that people who are prone to anxiety are especially sensitive to the effects of insufficient sleep, which can provoke symptoms of anxiety. Inadequate sleep is also directly linked but not limited to depression and a host of other mental disorders, weight gain and obesity, heart issues including hypertension and stroke, and premature ageing and death. So make getting on top of it a priority.
Increase Relaxation with Yoga & Breathwork
When combined with a relatively easy and accessible restorative yoga pose called Supta Baddha Konasana, this breathwork practice will help to soothe your mind and draw your body into an even deeper state of relaxation prior to bedtime, making sleep easier. Supta Baddha Konasana is known as the ‘queen of restorative poses’.
I suggest making this breathwork practice for sleep a part of a bedtime relaxation ritual. It will have many beneficial, cumulative effects including helping you relax from the day faster; delineating that your day is coming to a close; and training your brain to be ready to sleep.
Breath, Mindfulness & Resilience
Studies have found that mindfulness practices that focus on breathing and awareness of the present moment are highly effective in fighting insomnia and improving sleep; and breathwork techniques that specifically increase your tolerance to the gas carbon dioxide can increase your resilience to stress, making sleep easier.
When a hyper-aroused state (overactive sympathetic nervous system) is the culprit of sleepless nights, learning techniques to ground yourself, decompress from activity, relax and be present can positively impact your ability to fall asleep and to sleep well.
A Note on Nose Breathing Vs. Mouth Breathing
Multiple studies show that nose breathing during sleep can be life changing. Not only can nose breathing while sleeping eradicate snoring and help prevent and treat sleep apnea, nose breathing is sleep inducing because it increases alpha brain wave activity, which is associated with meditative and relaxed states. Nose breathing also helps with body chemistry – it’s more likely you won’t be waking up to pee during the night or waking up due to the thirst and dry mouth that occurs with mouth breathing.
Good sleep hygiene practices including a consistent ‘bedtime’ are vital when it comes to creating the right environment and circumstances for a healthy and restorative sleep. Sleep Hygiene starts during your day, because what you do or don’t do throughout your day will impact your ability to sleep.
For a comprehensive rundown on what sleep hygiene is and what steps you can take to improve your sleep, check out this article.
Preparing for Breathwork Practice
Get ready for bed
Dim the lights
Turn off screens & devices 1 hour prior
Find a comfortable position
Let’s begin. You can either sit comfortably or lie down for this practice.
3 Step 15-Minute Breathwork Sequence for Sleep
- Step 1 Golden Thread Breath
- Step 2 Paced Breathing & Progressive muscle relaxation
- Step 3 4-7-8 Breathing
Step 1 Golden Thread Breath
We will start here. This technique is very potent and soothing, especially when facing feelings of overwhelm, which is why as a prenatal yoga teacher it’s one of the main calming breathing techniques that I teach to pregnant women to use during labour.
With this breathing practice you will consciously lengthen your exhalation. This calms the nervous system, and as such, calms the entire body/mind/spirit. It tells your body it’s safe to relax, and dampens any mental stress, anxiety, and fear of not sleeping that you may be experiencing due to sleep difficulties in the past.
You will be breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth, through slightly pursed lips. Open your mouth a tiny bit, just enough so a sliver of paper could fit between your lips and relax the inside of your mouth, and your jaw completely.
Inhale, taking a deep breath in through your nose – allowing the air you are inhaling to fill up all the way down in the lower abdomen if possible – pause for a moment, and then exhale out through your slightly parted and slightly pursed lips.
Let the exhale breath come out in a long, slow, steady, even stream. Your exhalation will be longer than your inhalation due to the shape of your mouth and lips. This is intentional as it engages the rest and digest/relaxation response through the parasympathetic nervous system.
As the breath leaves the lips visualise a fine golden thread of energy emerging on the breath, and away out in front of you, for as long as the breath will comfortably carry it. Focus your awareness on this golden thread and on the sensations of your breath. Intentionally and softly breathe all the way out, all the way to empty, so that you can feel your abdomen, or belly, ever so gently hugging in towards your spine right at the end of your exhalation.
Completely soften and relax your belly as you breathe in again through your nose. Breathing right down to the very bottom space of your lungs if possible, letting your belly gently expand 360 degrees, then pursing your lips slightly begin the process of exhaling softly, slowly, evenly and visualising the golden thread once more, with all your attention focused on the golden thread and your breath.
Slowly cycle through 10 more breaths.
When you’re done, take a moment to be in stillness and notice how you feel.
Increase the Relaxation Effect
Golden Thread Breath is a great breathing technique to combine with a restorative yoga pose called Supta Baddha Konasana, which is relatively accessible to most people. When you combine Golden Thread Breath with Supta Baddha, you’ll be will favouring your parasympathetic nervous system and encouraging relaxation through multiple avenues:
* Extending your exhalation
* Breathing diaphragmatically, consciously, and slowly
Supta Baddha Konasana is the queen of restorative yoga poses, it creates an instant state of relaxation for the mind, body and spirit. By opening the front of your body, the breath begins to slow down and deepen, helping to further activate the parasympathetic nervous system.
As you rest and breathe, you’ll be down regulating your stress response by bringing balance to your adrenal glands. This shape of the body in this pose opens the hips, heart, front of the body and energy channels in the legs, and as such flows life force energy (Chi, Prana or Ki) through the Kidney, Liver and Spleen Channels which are called ‘meridians’ in Traditional Chinese Medicine, all of which have a calming, relaxing and grounding effect, as well as boosting detoxification and immune function.
If you are going to try out this yoga pose, you may find that placing a pillow under each knee for comfort works nicely for you, and perhaps comfortably reclining back on a bolster or pillows so your back is on around a 30 or 45-degree angle and with your head and neck supported so that you’re not throwing your head back, your head in line with the rest of your spine.
When you have completed the breathing cycle of 10 breaths, slide your hands under your knees and slowly guide your knees back together so they meet in the middle, then bring a few pillows under your knees and extend your legs out in front of you. Alternatively, just place your feet on the floor and have your knees bent. Take a rest. You can continue with the next 2 steps in this breathwork practice here lying down if you’re feeling comfortable – or roll to one side when you’re ready and then slowly come up if you’d rather sit.
Step 2 – Paced Breathing & Progressive muscle relaxation
Let’s move now into our next breathing technique for sleep.
We are going to combine paced breathing with progressive muscle relaxation to maximise the relaxation effect. This involves tensing and releasing all the major muscle groups in your body, one area and one breath at a time. A 2019 study shows that this combination created a 71.7% higher increase in parasympathetic stimulation over paced breathing alone.
When you carry a lot of stress and anxiety, you may be tensing your muscles without even realising it. Progressive muscle relaxation can help you relearn what tension and relaxation feel like in your body and is a great way to prepare the body for sleep.
It’s very simple; as you breathe in you will tense a muscle group/body part, such as your hand, and then as you breathe out you will just let it go and completely relax it, then move on to the next body part/muscle group on the next breath, so on and so forth.
During paced breathing you will be inhaling through your nose for a count of 4 seconds, then exhaling for a count of 8 seconds through your mouth. As you exhale lightly purse your lips and let the breath come out slowly like we did in Step 1 with the Golden Thread Breath.
As you inhale you will tense and as you exhale you will release. Start by making a fist, the tightest fist you can, as you inhale for a count of 4 seconds. Then relax your hand as you exhale for 8 seconds. Note the difference in how it feels. You may feel blood flowing in your fingers, or your palm might feel warmer than before. Follow this routine for every muscle group. For example, flex your calves as you inhale for 4 seconds, then release. Tense your thigh muscles for 4 seconds, then release.
Progress through each part of your body, noting how each part feels when you relax. As you complete all body parts and muscle groups, you may like to tense your whole body and then let is relax completely as you exhale
When you have completed your entire body, relax into stillness, and notice how you feel.
Step 3 4-7-8 Breathing
This is the final step in our breathwork sequence for sleep. For an easy ‘How To’ video click here.
This breathing technique will place your body into an even deeper state of relaxation. It also improves Heart Rate Variability and blood pressure. Whilst you are using it here to relax and prepare for sleep, it will also increase your resilience to stress when used regularly, by increasing your Carbon Dioxide tolerance – longer term, being less stressed will help you to sleep better.
INFOGRAPHIC HERE – Triangle Breathing
Start by finding a comfortable position either sitting or lying down. Bring your attention to your breathing. Take a gentle yet generous breath in, and then exhale through your mouth with a whoosh sound.
Close your mouth and inhale quietly through your nose for a count of 4 seconds. Hold your breath for a count of 7. Exhale completely through your mouth, with a whoosh sound, for a count of 8 seconds
Repeat this breathing cycle at least 4 or more times.
The Wrap Up
Preparation for a good night’s sleep starts during the day, not just in the evening. What you do and don’t do during the day will have a big impact on your ability to drift off and how well you sleep. Good sleep hygiene is vital in setting the stage and removing obstacles to sleep. Learn more about it here What is Sleep Hygiene and How to Practise.
Making breathwork practices a part of your solution to sleeplessness is not only a good idea, but when you practice consistently, make breathwork a key part of your bedtime ritual, and change any sleep-stealing behaviours that may be standing in the way of a good night’s sleep, you are building resilience and training your brain into a more relaxed and embodied state, which means a restorative night’s sleep will come easier for you.