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Breathe your way to better sleep

By Kelly Small

Pillow talk with breathwork expert Kelly Small.

Breathwork has risen in popularity recently as a wellness ‘trend’. It might seem like yet another fad and sure, everyone breathes all day long without much thought. However, how we breathe and the quality of breath can make a real difference to our overall well being. We chatted with Kelly, founder of Eleven Breathwork on how breathwork can help us optimize our sleep.


What’s the link between breathwork and sleep? How can it help us?


For restorative and restful sleep, we want to ensure that our nervous system and heart rate is as relaxed as possible and the quickest way we can down-regulate our nervous system is via the breath. By practising a calming breathwork practice for at least 10 minutes before falling asleep can really help bring the mind and body into calm. 


How often should we be practising ‘breathwork’ to feel the effects?


Little and often is ideal, even if you start with just 5 minutes a day you will still feel a difference in your state of being. I’d then recommend having regular “check-ins” throughout the day, noticing how you feel, how your breathing feels throughout the day and then taking a few minutes to just slow down your breathing. The great thing is you can practice anywhere, in bed, on the tube or at your desk. 


How can we tell if we’re not breathing correctly?


Breath awareness is fundamental to breathwork so that we can become aware of how our emotions and how we are feeling changes our breathing. If we are upset or angry we might unconsciously hold our breath repressing what we want to say, or if we are stressed our breathing will become rapid, shallow and up high into the chest. For our everyday breathing, we want to breathe through the nose, slowly and with the diaphragm. A good practice is placing one hand on the chest and one hand on the belly and noticing with hand moves first. If it’s the hand on the chest that rises first then you are breathing up high into the chest, so try and slow the breath down sending it as low down into the belly as possible and see how you feel. 


Kelly’s top 3 breathing techniques for sleep


Slow nasal breathing. When we experience stress (hello) we over breathe and the breath becomes rapid and shallow. Which in turn, makes us more stressed. One way to counteract this is breathing through the nose to control the amount of air and slowing the breath down which promotes relaxation.


Try the technique 

Inhale through the nose for a slow count of 6

Exhale through the nose for a slow count of 6

Repeat for a minimum 2 minutes and 5 for maximum results 


Extended Exhalation. One way to activate the parasympathetic nervous system to promote restful sleep is to double the length of the exhale to the inhale. If we’ve had a stressful experience during the day our body will stay in flight or fight so by practising this before bed will ensure that your body is downregulated before sleep.


Try the technique

Inhale through the nose for a count of 4

Exhale through the nose for a count of 8 

Ideally, this is repeated for 10 minutes as needed 


Diaphragmatic breathing. Also known as belly breathing. When we breathe into our belly we activate our diaphragm which is our primary breathing muscle. This activates our vagus nerve – this is the longest nerve in the body – it runs from the brain to the intestines and is the main component of the parasympathetic nervous system. 


Try the technique

Hand on your belly button breath as low down into the pelvic area as you can 

Breath in and out as slowly as you can 

This practice can be used as the foundation of the top two techniques


Sleep Hack – Mouth Taping

If you wake up with a dry mouth, feeling dehydrated, with a foggy brain and questioning if you even slept at all, chances are you were sleeping with your mouth open all night and over-breathing. By using a really small 5p size piece of breathable tape such as microporous surgical tape to just gently hold your lips closed ensures you stick to nasal breathing during sleep. Nasal breathing warms and filters the air that we are breathing whilst sleeping, and considering we sleep for 1/3 of our lives we want it to be as optimal as possible. Please don’t mouth tape if you’ve been drinking alcohol or you’re sick, just a small piece is more than enough, you don’t need to tape the whole mouth shut! You should be able to still talk and push the tape off with your tongue if needed.