The Art Of Breathing: How Focusing On Your Breath Can Improve Sleep

You might be searching for the perfect mattress, and if so, it could be for a number of reasons. Comfort and support are important features in any mattress when reading reviews, but many consumers are often trying to find a mattress that will help them fall asleep more effectively, and keep them in a deep sleep, where the most restorative and energizing benefits can be found. 

Did you know that breathing, and knowing how to breathe properly, as well as training yourself to utilize your lungs more effectively can completely alter the quality of your sleep? You might not be aware that breathing through you nose actually causes your brain to signal the release of beneficial hormones that calm, relax, and prepare your body and mind for sleep.

Insomnia is one of the top reasons many consumers abandon their existing mattress in search of one that delivers relief. It’s one of the most common sleep disorders, and it affects at least of third of the American population, with another 10% having difficulty with sleep induction (falling asleep)  and staying asleep. 

We’re experiencing one of the most difficult times of our lives, perhaps in the history of our country, and adding to that the fast paced society we live in, financial difficulties, raising children, and pure stress, it’s now wonder that many of us are struggling to get the restorative rebooting our brains and bodies need, every single day. In fact, chronic sleep disorders can shorten lifespan, cause sudden death, and destroy our brains, from the inside out.

When you’re having a tough time sleeping, paying more attention to your breathing and training your body to breathe properly and maximizing the optimal potential of your lungs, can improve your overall wellness and health-dramatically. 

Our lungs are the engines that deliver the fuel we need to power our bodies and minds. The lost art of breathing has been resurrected and is now being explored by cutting edge research and plenty of media attention, even though breathing exercises and meditation have been around fort thousands of years.

Elite athletes typically have plenty of training and knowledge about therapeutic breathing exercises, but the masses have in fact, criminally ignored this essential set of tools to keep their bodies, their instrument, at peak performance levels. 

Performance athletes are always searching for peripheral advantages, those small elements of enhancement that give them the edge. And breathing is one of them. In fact, it delivers many advantages besides increased performance bursts. It enhances sleep and allows them to get the deep REM sleep they need to product Olympian results.

While not all of us our tone deaf mouth breathers with this issue, the vast majority of Americans likely regard breathing exercises as an obscure method of exercise like Yoga, or Reiki therapy, and pay no mind to them, never understanding the powerful results they can get when they improve their sleep using them,

What most of us don’t see is that breathing isn’t just the mechanical action of inhaling and exhaling. It’s much more than that.

The Mechanics of Breathing

Before you can harness the power you’ll receive when you improve your breathing, you need to understand how respiration really works. There are several components to the breathing process, and during inhalation, your diaphragm actually does most of the heavy lifting.

The diaphragm is a thin skeletal muscle that sits at the base of the chest and compartmentalizes the abdominal organs beneath it from the lungs. It attaches in a dome shape to both your rib cage and abdominal wall. When you inhale, the diaphragm flattens, expanding your rib cage and forcing your abdominal wall outwards due to pressure of your organs dropping and  compressing. 

This creates a vacuum effect, which suctions air into the lungs. The diaphragm relaxes when you exhale, pushing the air out of your lungs. Incidentally, when you don’t inhale and exhale completely, a small volume of stale air remains in your lungs.

It also has some functions that are not related to respiration as well. The diaphragm increases abdominal pressure to help the body expel vomit, urine, and feces. Bearing down and straining activates the powerful compressive force of the diaphragm, a critical system when delivering birth. It also places pressure on the esophagus to keep stomach acid from rising up into the esophagus. The phrenic nerve, which runs from the neck to the diaphragm, controls the movement of the diaphragm.

Understanding respiration is key to being able to master breathing exercises which can improve the quality of your sleep. Resting exhalation is pretty much an involuntary process, but the portion we need to master to get the most benefit is referred to as “forced” exhalation, which is the kind of breathing you should implement during sport and exercise. 

This is accomplished by taking command of the rectus and transverse abdominal muscles as well as the obliques, which combine forces to push air out of your lungs, and it’s important to exhale deeply moving as much air out out of the lungs as possible. This way, when you inhale again, you have emptied the stale air that is depleted of oxygen and loaded up with carbon dioxide, and you are taking advantage of the full volume of the lungs.

There is a long list of psychological and biological benefits when you implement deep breathing into your life. First, deep breathing helps you to de-stress and boosts your cardiovascular endurance, too. 

When you are stressed or anxious, your brain releases cortisol, often called the “stress hormone.” Deep, controlled breathing slows your heart rate  and allows more oxygen to enter your blood stream telling your brain to relax. Deep breathing also dramatically increases the output of endorphins, that “feel good” chemical that our brain bathes us with during times of euphoria laughter, after sex, hearing a joke, even hugging our loved ones.

Proper, deep breathing stimulates your Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS), the part of the autonomic nervous system which controls elements of rest and digestion. Shallow breathing activates your sympathetic nervous system (SNS), which is the system responsible for your “flight or fight” response. 

Stimulation of the PNS promotes recovery and energy conservation, while stimulation of the SNS promotes additional stress and, as we know, stress is counterproductive to your health and wellness. Avoiding shallow breathing takes work and concentration, but once you’ve mastered it, you will have a strong sense of awareness about it. When you don’t feel well, or suddenly feel a lack of energy, thirty second of deep breathing can easily restore that feeling of renewed energy and clarity, priming you for the next event.

Proper breathing is very important during any kind of aerobic exercise and particularly important if you use weight training to keep fit. While lifting weights, deep breathing while engaging your core stimulates the Valsalva Maneuver, a forceful exhalation while you close your airway. Imagine clenching your stomach as if you were about to gut punched, and you’ll get the idea. 

The Valsalva Maneuver is extremely beneficial while pushing weights, as it increases pressure and stability around your abdominal organs and your spine, and is well understood around coaching circles. 

The lesser-known benefit of deep breathing comes into play while stretching. Proper breathing while stretching effectively increases your venous return, the blood flow delivering oxygenated blood back to the heart via the pulmonary vein.  An increased venous return has many benefits but most notably to performance it aids dumping metabolic waste that arises from exercise.

Even if you don’t hit the gym often, using breathing exercises will help you destress and relax your body. Every notice how much you feel better after a walk, or doing stretches, even getting up out of your chair at the office or at home? If you implement breathing exercises as part of any physical activity, or simply perform breathing exercises on their own, especially at bed time or right before, you ramp up the odds of falling sleep quicker and experiencing deeper restorative rest.

Breathing Exercise You Can Start Right Now

Let’s examine some breathing exercises which will help calm your mind and bodying help you fall asleep. Although there are a number of breathing exercises you can try to relax and fall asleep, there are some common principles that apply to all of them.

During deep breathing exercises, it’s generally a good idea to close your eyes, shutting out distractions. Find a quiet and dimly lit space if you can, and carefully listen to your breathing and focus on the healing power of your breath, and what controlled breathing can offer you. 

Each of these nine different exercises has slightly different benefits. Try them and see which one is the best match for you.

 4-7-8 breathing technique

  1. Allow your lips to gently part.

  2. Exhale completely, making a breathy whoosh sound as you do.

  3. Press your lips together as you silently inhale through the nose for a count of 4 seconds.

  4. Hold your breath for a count of 7.

  5. Exhale again for a full 8 seconds, making a whooshing sound throughout.

  6. Repeat 4 times when you first start. Eventually work up to 8 repetitions.

Our good friend, Dr. Andrew Weil, invented this technique as an extrapolation of pranayama, a yoga technique that helps people relax by delivering oxygen to the body.

Bhramari pranayama breathing exercise

Bhramari pranayama has been shown to quickly reduce breathing and heart rate. This tends to be very calming and can prepare your body for sleep.

  1. Close your eyes and breathe deeply in and out.

  2. Cover your ears with your hands.

  3. Place your index fingers one each above your eyebrows and the rest of your fingers over your eyes.

  4. Next, put gentle pressure to the sides of your nose and focus on your brow area.

  5. Keep your mouth closed and breathe out slowly through your nose, making the humming “Om” sound.

  6. Repeat the process 5 times.

Three-part breathing exercise

Some people like this exercise, because it is easier to implement on the fly.To practice the three-part breathing exercise, follow these three steps:

  1. Take a long, deep inhale.

  2. Exhale fully while focusing intently on your body and how it feels.

  3. After doing this a few times, slow down your exhale so that it’s twice as long as your inhale.

 Diaphragmatic breathing exercise

This technique slows your breathing and decreases your oxygen needs as it strengthens your diaphragm.

  1. Lie on your back and either bend your knees over a pillow or sit in a chair.

  2. Place one hand flat against your chest and the other on your stomach.

  3. Take slow, deep breaths through your nose, keeping the hand on your chest still as the hand on your stomach rises and falls with your breaths.

  4. Next, breath slowly through pursed lips.

  5. Eventually, you want to be able to breath in and out without your chest moving.


Alternate nasal breathing exercise

Here are the steps for the alternate nasal or alternate nostril breathing exercise, also called the “nadi shodhana pranayama”.A 2013 study reported that people who tried nasal breathing exercises felt less stressed afterward.

  1. Sit with your legs crossed.

  2. Place your left hand on your knee and your right thumb against your nose.

  3. Exhale fully and then close the right nostril.

  4. Inhale through your left nostril.

  5. Open your right nostril and exhale through it, while closing the left.

  6. Continue this rotation for 5 minutes, finishing by exhaling through your left nostril.

Buteyko breathing

To practice buteyko breathing for sleep:

  1. Sit in bed with your mouth gently closed (not pursed) and breathe through your nose at a natural pace for about 30 seconds.

  2. Breathe a bit more intentionally in and out through your nose once.

  3. Gently pinch your nose closed with your thumb and forefinger, keeping your mouth closed as well, until you feel that you need to take a breath again.

  4. With your mouth still closed, take a deep breath in and out through your nose again.

Many people don’t realize that they are hyperventilating. This exercise helps you reset to a normal breathing rhythm.

The Papworth method

In the Papworth method, you focus on your diaphragm to breathe more naturally:

  1. Sit up straight, perhaps in bed if using this to fall asleep.

  2. Take deep, methodical breaths in and out, counting to 4 with each inhale — through your mouth or nose — and each exhale, which should be through your nose.

  3. Focus on your abdomen rising and falling, and listen for your breath sounds to come from your stomach.

This relaxing method is helpful for reducing habits of yawning and sighing.

Kapalbhati breathing exercise

Kapalbhati breathing involves a series and inhaling and exhaling exercises, involving these steps, as outlined by the Art of Living:

  1. Sit in a comfortable position with your spine straight. Place your hands on your knees, palms facing the sky. You may choose to sit cross-legged on the floor, on a chair with feet flat on the floor, or in Virasana Pose (sitting on your heals with knees bent and shins tucked beneath the thighs).

  2. Take a deep breath in.

  3. As you exhale, contract your belly, forcing the breath out in a short burst. You may keep a hand on your stomach to feel your abdominal muscles contract.

  4. As you quickly release your abdomen, your breath should flow into your lungs automatically.

  5. Take 20 such breaths to complete one round of Kapalbhati pranayama.

  6. After completing one round, relax with your eyes closed and observe the sensations in your body.

  7. Do two more rounds to complete your practice.

Kapalbhati breathing has been reported as helping open the sinuses and improving concentration. It’s considered an advanced breathing technique. It’s advisable to master other techniques, such as Bhramari pranayama, before attempting this one.

Box breathing

During box breathing, you want to focus intently on the oxygen you’re bringing in and pushing out:

  1. Sit with your back straight, breathe in, and then try to push all the air out of your lungs as you exhale.

  2. Inhale slowly through your nose and count to 4 in your head, filling your lungs with more air with each number.

  3. Hold your breath and count to 4 in your head.

  4. Slowly exhale through your mouth, focusing on getting all the oxygen out of your lungs.

Box breathing is a common technique during meditation, a very popular method of finding mental focus and relaxing. Meditation has a variety of known benefits for your overall health.

Don’t Make It Complicated

There’s no need to overcomplicate the topic of breathing and breathing exercises. You can master the basics of breathing by including daily mindfulness work each day. Given time, the basics will develop into a skill you can utilize at any moment. Mindfulness is the key. You don’t need to learn to hold your breath for 10 minutes to become an efficient breather, nor will these techniques make you into an ultra-marathoner in a matter of months. However, it will make that little difference just before bedtime and help you get a great night’s sleep. Admittedly, though, having the right mattress is also a critical step towards maximizing your sleep benefit.