4 Simple Exercises to Help Loosen Insomnia’s Grip

Image by Gerhard G. from Pixabay

How I started sleeping like a baby every night

Tossing and turning in bed, and stressing, with every passing minute, that you won’t be able to wake up on time the next day, is one of the worst feelings. Worse yet, if this happens the night before an exam or a crucial, early meeting at work.

At one point tricks like counting numbers stop working and you start getting “disturbed” by noises that otherwise go unnoticed — ticking of the clock, noise from the fan, and the loudest of all — the voice in your head.

Thankfully, I’ve never had extreme experiences with insomnia — for most of my life I’ve slept fine. But the times when I didn’t, makes me empathize with people who do have chronic sleep problems.

I was introduced to Garyvee when I was 16 which marked my ingress into the hustle culture (or should I say cult). With the aim of maximizing every minute of every day, the obvious question was — “How can I sleep less and still function the same way?”

I progressively reduced my sleep time to almost 6 hours. In hindsight, it seems stupid, but it appears I spent a whole year (from 16th to 17th birthday), sleeping way less than I needed to. These bad habits were hard to leave even when I grasped the importance of proper sleep.

And just when I thought all of them have left me, they came back a few weeks ago.

This time, however, after tossing on my bed for an hour, I decided to do something different — to breathe and meditate. And it worked wonders! Some days sleep was so far away that I had to meditate/breathe for 45 minutes to an hour, but it was much better than staring at the fan till 2 am.

With their efficacy proven, I now do them every night as a preventive tool, unless I’m too tired to do them at all. So here are the specific exercises I did to help insomnia loosen its grip on me.

Steal Michael Phelps’ Sleeping Routine

Michael Fred Phelps, if you don’t know, is an American former competitive swimmer and the most successful and most decorated Olympian of all time, with a total of 28 medals. Since Olympians optimize their diet, exercise, and sleep more than anyone else, it makes sense to see how he sleeps.

When Phelps was still a boy, he started swimming to cool off steam that would otherwise drive his mom and teachers crazy. Even though he was better than most kids his age, he had a problem — his emotions. His parents were divorcing and he had trouble coping with stress.

To help Phelps cope up, his coach Bowman bought a book on relaxation which contained simple exercises like — “Tighten your right hand into a fist and release it. Imagine the tension melting away.”

It might seem trivial or ineffective until you try it. I too dismissed it for a long time.

Most people carry unnoticed tension in their body, especially in the joints like knees, shoulders, neck, and so on. Unless you relax completely, you don’t know how relaxation feels like.

To apply this, lie on your back and tense and relax all body parts.— ankle, calves, thighs, buttocks, lower back, middle back, upper back, stomach, forearms, upper arm, chest, side neck, front neck, and back neck. Spend around 10 seconds with each part, tensing and relaxing each around 3 times.

Doing this also gives an anchor to your mind and takes it off of the muddy thoughts that don’t let you sleep.

You can also do a ‘Body Scan’ after you’re done with one round. This entails checking your body for signs of tension and relaxing the tensed muscle particularly. It will help get rid of any lingering stress in the body.

The Bumblebee Breath

Sometimes called the “bumblebee breath” or the “humming” breath, Bhramari is a great technique to deal with anxiety, stress, and insomnia. It’s also quite calming in any situation, really.

The technique is simple. You inhale for (say) 6 counts and exhale for 6 as well. But on the exhalation, you make a humming sound while keeping your mouth closed. When you hum, feel your brain vibrating with that sound — as if the sound is massaging your brain from the inside.

To increase the effect, close the flaps (tragus) of the ear while you exhale. Closing off the ears interiorizes the mind more and relaxes you even further.

After you’ve done a few rounds of Bhramari, try to lengthen the exhalation to twice as long as the inhalation. This is the usual breathing cycle when you’re asleep. Thus, this technique also helps you to attune to that state and fall asleep faster.

Important Note: In all breathing exercises, make sure you’re belly expands on the inhalation and contracts on the exhalation. Expanding and contracting the belly gives proper space to the lungs to breathe more air.

Alternate Nostril Breathing

Nadi Shodhana as it’s called in Sanskrit is an even better way to calm the nervous system and balance both hemispheres of the brain. It helps you lower your heart rate and improve respiratory endurance.

Here’s how it goes:

  • Close your eyes and exhale completely
  • Close your right nostril with your right thumb
  • Breathe in through the left nostril
  • Close the left nostril as well with your fingers and hold the breath
  • Release the right nostril and exhale
  • Immediately inhale with your right nostril
  • Close the right nostril as well and hold
  • Release the left nostril and exhale

This is what one round looks like. You can do this as many times as you like. Even three to five rounds are great to experience the benefits. Inhale, exhale, and hold for the same count, as per your breathing capacity.

You can practice this technique before you sleep and even if you awaken during the night.


This technique is best practiced after you’ve relaxed the whole body. It’s a great way to expel any negative energy that’s preventing you from sleeping.

  1. Visualize all the worries and stresses of mind/body as a colored gas. Exhale completely and see all those colored gases leaving your body as if someone took a vacuum cleaner and sucked it out of your system.
  2. Now, imagine a white light entering your body through your feet. Moving towards your calves, knees, buttock, stomach, arms, chest, neck, and brain.
  3. Again, with the next exhalation “suck out” the negative emotions and allow the light of peace, calmness, and relaxation to enter. As the light enters your body feel it relax every muscle it touches.
  4. Repeat this cycle and focus on each part as long as you like, leaving it completely relaxed.
  5. As you continue doing this, visualize yourself one with that light — as if your body is now only a being of light. Notice the drastic change in your state of relaxation making you ready to fall asleep.

Final Thoughts

These exercises are simple enough to do every night, in a few minutes. Even if you don’t have sleep problems, they’ll help you sleep better.

Pick one or all of them and practice regularly. You’re bound to see some improvement in your sleep quality and/or cycle.

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Written on May 26, 2021