Fall asleep — and stay asleep.
Sleep is crucial for overall health, but copping adequate Zs can be a massive challenge. An estimated 30 to 60 percent of adults live with chronic insomnia (the inability to fall or stay asleep), according to the National Sleep Foundation.
If you’re tossing and turning at night, focusing on your breath can help. According to research, regulated breathing exercises can not only give your mind a rest from late-night worries, but also shift your body more deeply into a state of relaxation — and even battle insomnia.
“Focusing on breath helps you to notice your breath,” explains Valerie Oula, Director of Vibrational Energy Healing at THE WELL. “As you focus on your breath, it naturally begins to slow down, engaging your parasympathetic nervous system, which is the system in charge of rest and relaxation.”
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New to breathing exercises? Left-nostril breathing is for you — Oula says it’s her go-to for beginners. Use your pointer finger to hold the right nostril closed and slowly inhale and exhale through your left nostril. “In yoga, left-nostril breathing is associated with moon energy and our calm, receptive nature,” explains Oula. “Left-nostril breathing decreases sympathetic activation, increases parasympathetic activation and improves vagal tone and heart rate variability.”
This technique slows down your natural fight-or-flight response (otherwise known as your sympathetic system) and instead increases your rest-and-digest response, which is called the parasympathetic system. This shift causes a feeling of sleepiness because it affects your vagal tone. Vagal tone refers to the state of the vagus nerve, a key component of the parasympathetic nervous system. “The vagus nerve is one of the longest nerves in the body, and when it is healthy, you have better mental health, digestive function and resilience,” says Oula.
If you often find yourself laying in bed with a racing heartbeat, Juan Gamboa, Mindful Movement Instructor at THE WELL, recommends Langhana. The yogic breathing technique effectively slows down your heart rate, allowing you to peacefully drift off to sleep. To perform the exercise, exhale for four seconds then inhale for two. If you’d like more space between breaths, try exhaling for six seconds and inhaling for two. Focus on staying consistent with the breath for at least three minutes.
Real talk: Slowing down your breath when you’re feeling stressed or tired can be difficult. Practice patience and give yourself grace — especially if you’re new to breathing exercises. “Allow yourself as many do-overs as you need, and remove the performance anxiety of feeling like you’re being graded,” says Gamboa.
Forget counting sheep, and count the sides of a square instead. Oula says box or square breathing (which is both breathwork and visualization) is an extremely effective way to soothe your nervous system. Inhale for four counts, hold for four counts, exhale for four counts then hold your breath out for four counts. “As you break the breath into four equal parts, visualize drawing a side of a square with each part of the breath,” says Oula. “The combination of breath, focus and visualization is excellent for stress reduction.”
Remember, there’s no perfect way to perform breathwork. It’s all about what works best for you. Take your time and go at your own pace. “If the count of four is too much, just slow the breath down to a count that’s comfortable, breaking up the breath into four equal parts,” says Oula. “Commit to at least three minutes, but the longer the better — you will absolutely feel more relaxed the longer you practice.”
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Bonus: Practicing breathwork regularly can help you establish better sleep hygiene, too. “Breathwork builds routine and stabilizes the nervous system,” says Gamboa. “The sheer act of making time for these sleep rituals gets us off of our phones and into a better state for sleep success.”
Plus, the beneficial effects are cumulative. “The more you practice, the more you can anchor the practice into your physiology,” says Oula. “Your body will remember before bed — and you might fall asleep faster.”