Meditation is a well-known relaxation technique that centers around clearing the mind. People may practice meditation for a variety of reasons, such as a way to manage stress, improve concentration, or deal with emotions. One of the additional benefits of meditation, though, is that it could positively impact your sleep.
In this guide, we’ll discuss the connection between meditation and sleep, along with the many other benefits of this popular practice. We’ll also show you how to meditate for sleep so that you can utilize it to enhance your quality of rest.
The Connection Between Meditation & Sleep
Meditation is a centuries-old practice, with the earliest records of it involving Vedantism1, a Hindu tradition originating in India, from around 1,500 BCE. However, the health benefits of meditation have only been studied since the 1960s2, eventually gaining more mainstream popularity through none other than the Beatles, who got into Transcendental Meditation (TM).
The term “meditation”3 refers to a variety of practices that focus on the mind/body connection and are used to calm the mind, stay present in the moment, and enhance overall well-being. One form of meditation is focusing your attention on a particular physical sensation like the breath. Another form, mantra meditation, is when you repeat a word or phrase over and over, and mindfulness meditation involves keeping your attention or awareness on the present moment without making judgments or trying to change it.
No matter the type of meditation, they all have a similar theme of staying in the present moment and being aware. They also have a myriad of physical and mental health benefits. One benefit that has been closely studied in recent years is meditation’s impact on sleep.
A 2015 study4 taught one group of adults meditation techniques – ways to focus their attention on “moment-by-moment experiences, thoughts, and emotions”– and had the other group of adults complete a sleep education class that would teach them ways to improve their sleep habits. By the end of the six-week study, it was found that the group who meditated had less insomnia, fatigue, and depression than the other group. Additional research5 suggests the same thing: “mindfulness meditation interventions significantly improve sleep quality.”
How exactly does this work?
Experts at Harvard6 say focusing on the present helps break your regular thought patterns about the past and future, invoking your body’s relaxation response, which can help manage depression, pain, high blood, and difficulty sleeping.
Meditations for Sleep
If you are new to meditation, it might feel overwhelming. There are countless videos, apps, and articles describing all sorts of different meditation techniques and practices. Luckily, the basics of meditation are simple and consistent: focus on the present, and when your mind drifts, bring it back to the present.
Meditation may be uncomfortable and difficult at first, but it can get easier with practice. To make it simpler, we’ve gathered specific meditation techniques for sleep and relaxation.
“Yoga nidra”7 combines deep relaxation, self-inquiry, and meditation. Unlike many seated meditation practices, yoga nidra is practiced lying down, and the intention is to move into a deep state of conscious awareness sleep.
One study8 found that yoga nidra, almost referred to as iRest, improved sleep, reduced stress, decreased worry and depression, and increased mindful awareness in college students.
Here’s how to do yoga nidra according to Cleveland Clinic7.
- Connect to your biggest goals. Focus on a lifelong goal. Then visualize reaching this goal and the happiness of accomplishing it.
- Set an intention. Think about why you’re meditating and keep this intention at the forefront.
- Find your internal safe space. Tap into a safe space within your body so you feel secure and at ease.
- Scan your body. Scan your entire body, focusing on the sensations of your body. The goal is to reduce tension and relax.
- Become aware of your breath. Pay attention to how you’re breathing. There’s no need to change or control your breath, but you should notice it.
- Embrace your feelings. Embrace any feelings you have at that moment. You don’t need to ignore them or push them to the side; just let them happen.
- Observe your thoughts. Observe your thoughts impartially. If negative thoughts come up, just observe them without judgment.
- Experience joy. If you start to feel joy in your body, embrace this and let yourself sink further into this feeling.
- Observe your “self.” Be aware of your personality or your sense of “I-ness.” Consider yourself an observing witness. This will help you feel less critical of your thoughts and feelings.
- Reflect on your practice. When you finish, think about how you feel and what you were able to tap into during your session.
This meditation involves the most steps, so to help, you might start by listening to a guided yoga nidra meditation.
According to Harvard Medical School9, giving thanks can make you happier and healthier. In one study10, a group wrote down the things they were grateful for over the course of 10 weeks while another group wrote out minor irritants or things that displeased them. At the end of the 10 weeks, the “grateful group” were more optimistic, felt better about their lives, exercised more, and went to the doctor less.
Since many sleep disorders are directly attributed to stress, a happier baseline could foster better rest. In fact, one study11 of over 400 adults, 40 percent of whom had sleep disorders, found that their quality of sleep was greatly improved by practicing gratitude before bed.
Here’s how to do a gratitude meditation:
- Sit down or lie down in a comfortable position.
- Take slow deep breaths, in and out, until you notice your body relax and your mind slow down.
- Think back on your day or week. Remember the people, places, activities, experiences, and emotions you are grateful for. You can choose to pick just one person or thing to focus on or a slew of different things.
- You can also focus your gratitude on the present moment. In this way, you’ll stay present and not get bogged down in the past. Focus, instead, on your surroundings, your next breath, your beating heart, your health, etc.
- Feel the gratitude in your heart as you think about these things. If you’re going through a difficult time, try to narrow in on smaller, more simple things that bring you gratitude.
Relaxing Breath Meditation
There are many different breath meditations, the simplest of which is just to close your eyes and put your attention on your breath. Notice it, don’t try to change it, and focus on the sensations of breathing.
If you want something a little more structured, you can try alternate nostril breathing.
Sit comfortably. With your right hand, rest the tip of your index finger and middle finger between your eyebrows, or you can allow these fingers to float or hang in front of your forehead.
- Close off your right nostril with your thumb. Inhale slowly through your left nostril only until your inhale is complete. Then use your ring finger and/or pinky finger to close off your left nostril.
- Release your thumb and slowly exhale through your right nostril, until you’re completely done exhaling.
- Then, inhale through your right nostril until you are completely finished inhaling.
- Now, place your thumb back over your right nostril and release your ring and pinky fingers to exhale through your left nostril.
- You’ll repeat this pattern for a few rounds. The practice should be an effortless, continuous flow of breath without controlled pauses.
According to Cleveland Health12, this breathing technique reduces stress, improves your overall breathing, and sharpens focus. However, if you have a stuffy nose, this one probably won’t work for you.
Candle Gazing Meditation
Different colors of light affect sleep in a variety of ways. As a general rule, at bedtime, it is best to wind down with low, red or orange-hued lights and turn off devices that emit blue lights, like smartphones, computers, and tablets.
This is why gazing at a candle before bed, which emits a natural orange light, can be very relaxing. The candle also allows you to focus your eyes on one unmoving point, which can help focus the mind and slow your thinking.
Here’s how you do it:
- Light a candle. Make sure it doesn’t have a distracting smell and is in a safe area.
- Dim the lights so that the candle is the primary light source in the room.
- Sit comfortably in front of the candle. If you can, try to sit at eye level with the candle so you won’t need to strain your eyes or neck to focus on it.
- Look at the candle for as long as you can without blinking. When you do need to blink, just let it happen. If you start to feel like you want to close your eyes entirely, that’s okay, too.
- If you decide you want to close your eyes entirely, that’s okay, too. Just visualize the candle in your mind’s eye.
- Be sure to blow out the candle before you go to sleep. This can be a very relaxing meditation, so be sure you don’t fall asleep with the candle still burning. If it helps, you can set a timer.
Relaxing Body Scan
This meditation technique involves scanning the entire body and relaxing each part individually. This is similar to the body scanning part of Yoga Nidra, though more simple.
Here’s how you’ll do it:
- Lie down. This meditation often puts people right to sleep, so lie down in bed and turn the lights down or completely off.
- Start with the tips of your toes. You’ll focus your attention on the tips of your toes.
- Consciously relax your toes. You can even say in your head (or out loud if you like), “My toes are completely relaxed.”
- Move your attention up to your feet. Again, in your head say, “my feet are completely relaxed.” Feel your feet relax, and when you do, move your attention up to your ankles, Continue to move up your body, consciously relaxing each part, until you reach the top of your head.
This type of “interoceptive training” teaches you to redirect your attention to your body, and research shows13 that this can help manage stress and regulate emotion, which will positively impact sleep.
When to Meditate
Meditating right before bedtime can be helpful, but meditation also has a sort of cumulative effect, meaning, if you meditate during the day, you’ll still sleep better at night3.
Here are some of the most recommended times of day to meditate:
- In the morning
According to Headspace14, a science-backed meditation app, the morning is an excellent time to meditate for most people. This is because it is typically the time of the day with the least distractions. If you commit to meditating each morning, you’re more likely to ensure that it happens, rather than putting it off until later in the day.
Plus, morning meditation can be a motivating, productive, and calming way to start the day. You’re setting yourself up to be more aware, awake, and calm throughout the day.
- When you feel stressed
Research15 shows that mindfulness practices like meditation dampen activity in our amygdala and increase the connections between the amygdala and prefrontal cortex. Both these parts of the brain help us to be less reactive to stressors and recover better from stress when we experience it.
- In the evening
Meditating in the evening can help you wind down from the day and move into a more relaxed, calm, and restful state before going to bed3. If you’re going to meditate in the evening, make sure it is a relaxing rather than invigorating type of meditation, such as candle gazing meditation.
- Whenever you can
If trying to figure out when to meditate is causing you stress, permit yourself to meditate whenever it fits into your schedule. Meditating for any period of time, at any point during the day or evening, is better than not meditating at all. In fact, a 2022 study16 compared the impact of morning vs. evening meditation and found that meditating at either time decreased anxiety, increased mindfulness, improved sleep, and improved overall mental well-being.
Other Benefits of Meditation
Meditation doesn’t just have a positive impact on sleep. This practice is linked to a variety of physical and mental health benefits as reported by the National Institutes of Health3,
- Improves stress, anxiety, and depression. In a 2018 analysis of 142 groups of participants with diagnosed psychiatric disorders, researchers compared the effects of mindfulness and meditation with no treatment or with established evidence-based therapies or medications. They found that mindfulness-based approaches were better than no treatment at all and worked just as well as evidence-based therapies and medications3.
- Reduces high blood pressure. A 2020 review of 14 studies found that regularly practicing mindfulness meditation was associated with a significant reduction in blood pressure in people with conditions like hypertension, diabetes, or cancer3.
- Can reduce acute and chronic pain. A 2020 analysis of five studies of adults using opioids for acute or chronic pain found that meditation practices were strongly associated with pain reduction3.
- Can help with substance abuse disorders. Mindfulness practices are being used to help people increase their awareness of the thoughts and feelings that trigger cravings and learn ways to manage their reactions. A 2018 review of 27 studies found that mindfulness-based practices were slightly better than other therapies at promoting abstinence3.
- Can help with PTSD. A 2018 study funded by the United States Department of Defense compared the effectiveness of meditation, health education, and prolonged exposure therapy in a group of over 200 veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The results showed that meditation was as effective as prolonged exposure therapy at reducing PTSD symptoms and depression and was more effective than PTSD health education. The veterans who meditated also showed improvement in mood and overall quality of life3.
- Helps mental health in people with cancer. A 2019 analysis found that mindfulness-based practices among cancer patients significantly reduced psychological distress, fatigue, sleep disturbance, physical pain, and symptoms of anxiety and depression3.
- Can help with weight control and eating behaviors. 2018 research found that mindfulness programs helped people lose weight and manage eating-relating behaviors, including binge, emotional, and restrained eating3.
Last Word of Advice
Meditation has been around for centuries and based on modern research, it has a place in today’s world, too. Meditation comes with multiple physical and mental health benefits, one of which is a positive impact on sleep.
If you’re starting out on your meditation journey, try not to get bogged down in all the resources and information available. Rather, try out a practice that works for you, and don’t worry about being perfect. The most simple thing you can do is slow down, breathe, and try to remain present.
While we gather our information from trusted sources, we want to remind you that are are not medical professionals ourselves. If you have additional questions on health topics related to meditation, we encourage you to consult with your doctor or a mental healthcare professional,
- Chow PhD, Susan. “Meditation History”. News-Medical. https://www.news-medical.net/health/Meditation-History.aspx. Last updated March 18, 2021.
- “How Meditation Went Mainstream”. Time Magazine. https://time.com/4246928/meditation-history-buddhism/. 2016.
- “Meditation and Mindfulness: What You Need To Know”. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/meditation-and-mindfulness-what-you-need-to-know. Last updated June 2022.
- Black PhD, David S., O’Reilly, Gillian A., Olmstead PhD, Richard., et al. “Mindfulness Meditation and Improvement in Sleep Quality and Daytime Impairment Among Older Adults With Sleep Disturbances”. JAMA Network.https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamainternalmedicine/fullarticle/2110998. 2015.
- Rusch, Heather L, Rosario, Michael., Levison, Lisa M., et al. “The effect of mindfulness meditation on sleep quality: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials”. National Library of Medicine. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6557693/. 2020.
- Corliss, Julie. “Mindfulness meditation helps fight insomnia, improves sleep”. Harvard Health Publishing. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/mindfulness-meditation-helps-fight-insomnia-improves-sleep-201502187726. 2020.
- “What is Yoga Nidra?” Cleveland Clinic. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/what-is-yoga-nidra/. 2020.
- Eastman-Mueller, Heather., Wilson, Terr., Jung, AAe-Kyung., et al. “iRest yoga-nidra on the college campus: changes in stress, depression, worry, and mindfulness”. National Library of Medicine. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24165520/. 2013.
- “Giving thanks can make you happier”. Harvard Health Publishing. https://www.health.harvard.edu/healthbeat/giving-thanks-can-make-you-happier. 2021.
- Emmons, Robert., McCollough, Michael E. “Counting blessings versus burdens: an experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life”. National Library of Medicine. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12585811/. 2003.
- Wood, Alex M. Joseph, Stephen., Lloyd, Joanna., Atkins, Samuel. “Gratitude influences sleep through the mechanism of pre-sleep cognitions”. National Library of Medicine. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19073292/. 2009.
- “How and Why To Try Alternate Nostril Breathing”. Cleveland Clinic. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/alternate-nostril-breathing/. 2022.
- Gibson, Jonathan. “Mindfulness, Interoception, and the Body: A Contemporary Perspective”. National Library of Medicine. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6753170/. 2019.
- “How to find the best time to meditate”. Headspace. https://www.headspace.com/meditation/best-time-to-meditate. Webpage accessed January 5, 2024.
- Taren, Adrienne A., Gianaros, Peter J., Greco, Carol M., et al. “Mindfulness meditation training alters stress-related amygdala resting state functional connectivity: a randomized controlled trial”. National Library of Medicine. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4666115/. 2015.
- Basala, Thomas., Morin, Brigitte., Durocher, John. “The Effects of Morning vs. Evening Mindfulness Meditation on Sleep, Anxiety, and Decentering: A Pilot Analysis”. The FASEB Journal. https://faseb.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1096/fasebj.2022.36.S1.L7631. 2022.
Natalie is a content writer for Sleep Advisor with a deep passion for all things health and a fascination with the mysterious activity that is sleep. Outside of writing about sleep, she is a bestselling author, improviser, and creative writing teacher based out of Austin.