4 Effective Breathing Exercises For Sleep & How They Work

Last Updated:

We’ve all experienced the frustration of a restless night, where we lie in bed, struggling to calm our racing thoughts and soothe our restless bodies.

As someone who has personally struggled with bouts of insomnia over recent years, nights like these made me feel a little helpless, powerless, and able to do nothing but simply wait it out – until I found the remarkable remedy of mindful breathing.

So, if like me, you ever find yourself tossing and turning, longing for a good night’s sleep – then you’ve come to the right place.

In this article guide, we’ll explore a few of my favorite sleepy breathing exercises and what research says about how they can transform your sleep patterns into ones that are the way they should be: rejuvenating and restorative.

In this article, we’ll be looking at:

  • The benefits of using breathing exercises for sleep
  • The research behind breathing exercises for sleep
  • 4 yogic breathing exercises for sleep to try at home
a man lying down doing a breathing exercise for sleep

The benefits of using breathing exercises for sleep

Breathing exercises and techniques have been the subject of research for some time regarding their potential to promote healthy sleep. In recent years, focus on this area has intensified, with a notable surge in the number of studies conducted.

Collectively, these studies provide compelling evidence of the remarkable impact that breathing exercises can have on sleep quality.

A theme amongst this research shows that a key reason behind breathing exercises’ ability to improve sleep is down to the calming effect on our minds and bodies, with the correlation between anxiety or depression being closely linked to insomnia and sleep issues, studies show.

This has been shown in many studies, including a small but well-conducted study in Boston University which measured the effect of daily Iyengar yoga and mindful breathing on people with diagnoses of major depressive disorder.

After 12 weeks, the subjects’ depressive symptoms significantly decreased while their levels of gamma-aminobutyric acid, a brain chemical with calming and anti-anxiety effects, rose considerably, revealing the mood-balancing effects of mindful breathing. 

Another interesting study from 2019 examined the impact of self-regulated slow breathing on insomniacs’ sleep. The results found it to be an effective technique for insomnia, put down to the correlated activity between the autonomic nervous system and sleep physiology.

Research also shows that breathing exercises can aid sleep by lowering our blood pressure. For example, a peer-reviewed study published in 2022 found that regular breathwork led to a significant reduction in blood pressure related to heart health in participants.

An additional comprehensive study published in the Journal of Psychophysiology looking specifically at the effectiveness of breathing exercises for sleep found that practicing deep breathing before bedtime led to enhanced vagal activity and improved sleep quality among participants experiencing insomnia.

an elderly lady lying down in front of her bed meditating

4 yogic breathing exercises for sleep to try at home

#1: Buteyko breathing

The Buteyko Breathing Technique has long been associated with enhancing the quality of sleep and bringing relief to individuals struggling with sleep disorders like sleep apnea and insomnia.

A simple technique, there are two primary exercises involved in Buteyko breathing – The Control Pause and the Maximum Pause. The instructions for both are outlined below.

How to: The Buteyko Control Pause Technique

  1. In a comfortable seated or standing position, begin on an out-breath, gently exhaling fully.
  2. Then, use your index finger and thumb to close your nostrils to hold your breath.
  3. Maintain the breath hold until you feel the natural urge to breathe, and then inhale.
  4. After inhaling, proceed to breathe normally for a minimum of 10 seconds, making sure to inhale and exhale through your nose.
  5. Repeat this sequence several times, noticing any changes in sensation across your lungs, mind, and body.

How to: The Buteyko Maximum Pause Technique

  1. In a comfortable seated or standing position, begin on an out-breath, start by exhaling gently but fully.
  2. Then, use your index finger and thumb to close your nostrils to hold your breath.
  3. Aim to hold your breath for the longest duration possible, ideally twice the length of the Control Pause above.
  4. Once you reach a point of moderate discomfort, inhale.
  5. After inhaling, continue to breathe normally for at least 10 seconds, ensuring that you inhale and exhale through your nose.
  6. Repeat this sequence several times, again, noticing any changes in sensation across your lungs, mind, and body.
someone sitting cross legged on the sofa with a hand on their chest

#2: Box belly breathing

A simple three part breathing technique recommended by countless sleep guides and experts, box breathing is well recognized for its ability to calm our emotions, focus our minds and improve our sleep.

Also known as “four square breathing”, the term box breathing refers to the four sides of a box, represented in the three parts of the practice as you breath in, retain, and breath out for four seconds each.

How to:

  1. Begin your box breathing practice in a calm and quiet setting, where you can fully immerse yourself. While this technique can be performed anywhere, it’s useful to minimize distractions for a more focused experience.
  2. Then, start by taking a few natural breaths before you start the 4-4-4 rhythm. Gently place one hand on your chest and the other on your lower stomach to connect with your breath.
  3. Once you’re ready, begin to breathe deeply for four counts, while becoming aware of the sensation of air entering your body.
  4. Direct your attention towards the subtle expansion in your stomach as you inhale. Notice the natural movement without exerting any force on the muscles, allowing them to gently expand and contract.
  5. After the in-breath, calmly hold your breath for another slow count of four. If this feels uncomfortable or puts strain on your lungs/chest, then try holding for just 2 seconds, and work your way up slowly to the full 4 over time.
  6. After the retention, begin your exhale, again spreading the out-breath over 4 calm counts. Be conscious of the feeling of the air leaving your lungs – notice things like heat, tingling, and other sensations if you can.
  7. Throughout the practice, prioritize a state of relaxation by consciously releasing tension in your muscles. Instead of actively engaging them, focus on letting go and allowing a sense of ease to permeate your body.
a woman looking up to the sky with her eyes closed

#3: Coherent breathing

Coherent breathing is a type of ‘mindful breathing’ where the exhale and inhale are equal in length and occur at a particular rate, recommended rate being five breaths per minute, much slower than the usual 12-18 breaths per minute.

According to Michael Shea, founder of the Coherent Breathing Institute, this technique represents the fundamental rhythm of the body, synchronizing the heart, lungs, and brain, inducing a state of calm and relaxation – perfect to practice before bedtime.

How to:

  1. Before you begin, have a stopwatch or timer ready to assist with timing your breaths. Prepare it before starting the practice.
  2. Find a quiet and comfortable place to sit or lie down, close your eyes and take a few deep breaths at your natural pace. Become aware of the natural rhythm of your breathing without attempting to alter it.
  3. When you feel ready to start, place one hand on your stomach. Inhale deeply for four seconds, allowing your lungs to fill with air.
  4. Exhale slowly for four seconds, completely emptying your lungs. Repeat this inhalation and exhalation pattern for approximately one minute.
  5. If you feel comfortable, proceed to the next step. Inhale deeply for five seconds, expanding your lungs to their full capacity.
  6. Exhale slowly for five seconds, releasing all the air from your lungs. Repeat this extended inhalation and exhalation for approximately one minute.
  7. If you still feel comfortable and ready for a further challenge, move on to the next step. Inhale deeply for six seconds, allowing your breath to fill your lungs completely.
  8. Exhale slowly for six seconds, emptying your lungs entirely. Continue this lengthened inhalation and exhalation pattern for approximately one minute.
  9. After a few repetitions, conclude the practice by gradually letting go of the specific breathing technique and returning to the natural rhythm of your breath. Allow yourself to breathe effortlessly for at least a minute or two before resuming your daily activities.
a woman sitting cross legged with a hand on her belly and another on her chest doing breathing exercises

#4: Couples synchronized breathing

Inspired by couples circular breathing exercises in kundalini tantra, this is one of my favorite breathing exercises for sleep and one I have personally found to be amongst the most effective.

And even better – as well as promoting relaxation and aiding sleep, synchronizing your breathing as a couple before bed fosters connection and gratitude for the other.

How to:

  1. Begin by getting comfortable together, either lying down together on a soft surface like a bed or sofa (anywhere you can fall asleep, basically!)
  2. Take a moment to relax each of your bodies and minds, perhaps using some gentle stretches, music, or other relaxation techniques.
  3. First, at your own individual paces take a few moments to breathe in deeply and exhale slowly to help you relax.
  4. Then, decide on a breathing pattern that feels comfortable for both of you, like inhaling for a count of four, holding for four, and exhaling for four.
  5. Placing one hand on the belly and chest of your partner, start breathing together, matching your breath with your partner’s breath. Inhale and exhale at the same pace.
  6. Keep your focus on the rhythm and the connection between your breaths.
  7. Gradually increase the duration of each breath cycle, if you’re comfortable, by inhaling, holding, and exhaling for longer counts.
  8. Be patient and practice regularly – the more you can make a routine of this couples’ breathing exercise, the better results you’ll likely see.
  9. As an extra option, you can also visualize calm imagery or use positive affirmations during the practice.

Further reading:

If you’ve enjoyed this article on breathing exercises for sleeping, check out our similar articles below:

Photo of author
Tish Qvortrup is a Brighton-born Yogi, with a passion for living intentionally. A Yoga Alliance registered 500hr teacher, she found her calling in Yin and Yang yoga. In her spare time, she loves exploring the outdoors and cooking plant-based goodies.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.