As much as we’d all love to be the type of person who can successfully meditate their way to better sleep, the reality is that meditation can be hard. Even with apps, like Calm and Headspace, meditation isn’t always a user-friendly experience — especially for those who are chronically stressed or living with pain.
Plus, even if you recognize all the benefits of practicing meditation, let’s face it: It is tough turning off your thoughts for any amount of time. And it’s even tougher to have the patience and self-control to work on meditation every day — especially if you don’t feel immediately rewarded by it.
We initially assumed we’d get some expert insight into which stretches and exercises to focus on before hitting the hay (don’t worry, we still did), but we ended up learning a ton about the ways our bodies physically react to breathwork.
But instead of putting a focus on your thoughts, you’re completely focused on your body. And if you’re having a hard time with meditation, focusing on your body can feel a lot more approachable than trying to control your racing mind.
Fraboni says that, during breathwork, your attention is set on the length of your inhales and exhales, the way your rib cage moves, and how your body feels. When done correctly, this activates your parasympathetic system, which helps restore balance to your nervous system.
“Essentially, what we want to do is turn off our ‘on system,’” Fraboni says. “Our on system is that sympathetic system, the state that’s always going, and we can’t really get out of it. It’s kind of a constant, especially in this world.” So, basically, breathwork helps get you out of “flight or fight” and into “rest and digest” mode.
The best part is that this kind of breathing can also be a form of meditation. “It starts to become this internal practice without meaning to,” Fraboni says. “[It] helps to take away that pressure of meditating and allows the body to feel something.”
Here are some tips for getting started with breathwork.
Pay attention to where your breath is coming from
You’ve probably heard that you’re supposed to breathe from your belly rather than your chest. But Fraboni says there’s more to it.
“Most people think of diaphragmatic breathing as just the belly,” she says. “But if we really are trying to maximize diaphragm movement and get that respiratory system moving, we need the low rib cage to move to the sides, front, and back.”
It helps to think of your entire rib cage expanding with each inhale. You can start with your belly, but, as you take in more air, think about breathing into your sides and back, too.
Pro tip: Practice in the mirror
How can you be sure you’re breathing into your entire rib cage? Head to a mirror.
“Take a couple of minutes before you go to bed and do this in front of a mirror. You can wrap a sweater, towel, or blanket around your low rib cage. Then take a really slow breath in, and try to push into that towel, blanket, or sweater… Try to see if you can open and expand into that,” Fraboni says.
Fraboni suggests paying attention to what’s happening in your body as you do this. Check to see if your neck muscles are activating (they shouldn’t be at rest) or if your shoulders tense up. Do your best to turn them off, and make your breath come from your diaphragm.
Perfect your exhale
After you nail down your perfect inhale, you’ll need to start counting the length of your inhales and exhales to make sure your exhale is longer. This is key to activating the parasympathetic system.
Here’s what Fraboni recommends:
- 2 to 4-second inhale
- 2-second hold
- 6, 8, or 10-second exhale (whatever feels comfortable, you don’t need to force it)
During your exhale, she says to pretend that you’re blowing through a straw or breathe through pursed lips. This will help you train yourself to extend your exhale.
Progressing to nasal breathing
Fraboni says that, while it helps to breathe through pursed lips at first, she recommends progressing to nasal breathing as soon as you’re comfortable. She says this prevents you from expelling too much carbon dioxide by breathing through your mouth.
“[Nasal breathing] helps to oxygenate our body, because we need carbon dioxide in our body to interact with hemoglobin to release the oxygen throughout our system,” she says. “So if someone went to sleep, and they have their mouth open all night long, they’ll wake up needing coffee and feeling more groggy, because they just expelled so much carbon dioxide all night long.”
While nasal breathing is definitely important for getting the most out of breathwork, regularly practicing it during breathwork can also help make you more mindful of it throughout the day — even when you’re sleeping.
Pro tip: Become a nighttime nasal breathing pro
Experiencing nasal congestion or sinus issues? Try placing a piece of tape across your nose (like a Breatheright strip) and between your eyebrows to help open everything up and make it easier to breathe through your nose.
Make it a nightly ritual
It doesn’t take a lot to incorporate breathwork into your nighttime routine.
“Give [yourself] at least 5 minutes before bed of doing this intentional breathing, and you’ll see a difference in how you feel. You’ll be tired, you’ll be relaxed… and then you can go to sleep in whatever position your body likes to be in,” Fraboni explains.
Apply breathwork techniques to everyday life
If you practice these breathing techniques often enough, you should start to see improvements in your everyday breathing too.
Fraboni says it helps to check in with yourself throughout the day to make sure you’re breathing from the right place. She recommends taking breaks during work or even while sitting at a stoplight to bring your hands to your rib cage and check where you’re breathing from.
It’s also key to become more aware of whether you’re breathing through your mouth or your nose. The more you catch yourself breathing through your mouth while going for a walk, doing chores, or relaxing, the easier it’ll be to train your brain to breathe through your nose instead.
Pair it with mobility exercises
Because Fraboni is the mobility queen, we also wanted to know which mobility exercises to focus on before bed.
“If you’re going to incorporate mobility before bed, the main purpose it has is down regulation… If you can get in 2 to 5 minutes of doing this passive, slow stretching and connecting the breath with it, you automatically help tap into that parasympathetic system, which is then going to help you rest and get some adequate sleep,” she explains.
So, what does that look like? Well, it doesn’t look like super intense stretching, lacrosse balls, and loud massage guns. Avoid anything that might cause your body to tense up or disrupt down regulation.
Here are Fraboni’s three favorite stretches for before bed:
1. Cat cow
To start, Fraboni recommends a good old cat cow, because it can help sync your breath.
“The first thing you do is cat cow so that [you’re] doing the inhale with the extension, the exhale with the flexion, and you’re getting the breath coordinated,” she says.
2. Open book stretch
After syncing your breath and getting your spine moving, you can move into open book stretch.
Lie on your side with your knees stacked on top of each other and your arms stacked straight out in front of you. As you inhale, reach straight forward with your top arm. As you exhale, raise your arm up and over (like you’re opening up a book).
“The opening stretch with the breath out can be as long as you want. You can hold it for a little [and] make that exhale really, really long,” Fraboni says.
She recommends doing between five and 10 of these per side.
3. Chest opener and breathing with pillow
“One thing that I love is rolling up a pillow and putting that along the head and the spine and just allowing the arms to drape open,” Fraboni explains. She also recommends putting a pillow or rolled up blanket horizontally under your mid back below your shoulder blades.
This is a great place to add breathwork into your routine. As you open up your chest, you can practice your deep belly breaths, focusing on your rib cage expanding and compressing as you inhale and exhale.
Pro tip: Check your breath with a resistance band
Not sure if you’re breathing correctly while you’re doing mobility exercises? Try putting a resistance band around your rib cage (Fraboni recommends the RockFloss from RockTape).
The resistance band becomes a hands-free way to check where you’re breathing from while doing the different movements. The added compression helps remind your brain and body to breathe correctly.
If you’ve tried and failed using meditation as a tool for sleep, breathwork (aka deep or diaphragmatic breathing) might be the perfect solve for reducing stress, controlling pain, and getting better sleep.
Try incorporating the tips above into your nightly (and daily) routines – and remember: practice makes perfect. In time, you’ll be sleeping like a baby.
Ruby Thompson is an editor on the Greatist team. She recently graduated from Northwestern University’s Medill School with her master’s degree in journalism, specializing in media innovation and content strategy. Outside of work, she spends most of her time snuggling her cocker spaniel pup, taking barre classes, and wishing she knew how to cook.