Can Military Meditation Techniques Help You Fall Asleep Fast?

Army sniper
U.S. Army sniper Spc. James Wanser keeps watch in the early morning hours in the mountains of Afghanistan near the Pakistan border while his battle buddy catches a few precious minutes of sleep. U.S. Army photo by Spc. Ken Scar

Getting good sleep is important for everyone. It's essential for optimal cognitive performance, physiological processes, emotional regulation and quality of life, according to the National Sleep Foundation (NSF). But in its 2018 annual sleep index study, the NSF found that just 10 percent of American adults prioritize sleep over other things in their daily lives such as fitness/nutrition, work, social life and hobbies/personal interests.

Most adults should get between seven and nine hours of sleep per night, and the effects of sleep deprivation when you don't get enough sleep can be serious. In fact, in the NFS study, just 35 percent described their sleep quality as "good," while 22 percent said it was "fair" and 12 percent rated their sleep quality as "poor."


So what's one to do when they either can't fall asleep, or simply don't get good quality of sleep when they do? Maybe the military has the answer? Members of the armed forces have to sleep in dangerous and stressful environments all the time, and the consequences of poor sleep for soldiers on missions can be catastrophic. Soldiers on deployment often have unpredictable schedules that conflict with their natural circadian rhythms, and they have small sleep quarters that double as personal and leisure space.

That's why soldiers reportedly use a meditation technique that helps them (or anyone) fall into restful sleep in two minutes. According to a November 2015, report from the U.S. Army, a metric called the Performance Triad is used to assess and improve soldiers' readiness in the areas of physical activity, nutrition and sleep.

The report revealed:

  • Almost one-third of soldiers get less than five hours of sleep per night
  • One out of every 20 active duty soldiers takes prescription sleep medication
  • Sleep deprivation can increase the risk of soldiers developing post-traumatic stress disorder

The report includes the Performance Triad course offered to soldiers that provides "tactical sleep techniques" to help them get as much rest as possible while on deployment. It also suggests soldiers aim to get eight hours of sleep in a 24-hour period, avoid caffeine six hours before bedtime and how to use caffeine/energy drinks to improve performance while minimizing their impact on sleep. Although this report demonstrates the army's understanding of the importance of sleep, it includes no mention of meditation as a sleep tool. So where did this oft-cited technique come from?

The buzz-worthy meditation technique was developed in the U.S. Navy Pre-Flight School. It appears to have entered popular culture by way of a 1981 self-help book that's now out of print called "Relax and Win: Championship Performance." The author, Lloyd Bud Winter, was by then a well-known track and field coach.

The book is actually based on research that Winter conducted as a naval ensign after World War II, years before the book's publication. Winter's technique was tested on two groups in Winter's navy pre-flight academy to teach the naval aviators how to properly relax, and fall asleep faster. The test group outperformed the control group in numerous tests and drills, and, after six weeks, 96 percent of the group could fall asleep practically on command.

So while the technique has seen a resurgence lately thanks to some mentions in the press, it's definitely not new. But it is courtesy of the military.

Winter described the process in his book to physically relax quickly. In short, his technique leads you through full body relaxation and then helps you clear your mind:

Start by slowly relaxing the muscles in your face, including your tongue and lips. Then move down to your shoulders, arms and torso — let each muscle go limp and breathe slowly as you concentrate on relaxing. Focus on your chest while you take in a deep breaths and exhale, releasing your tension with your breaths. Once your upper body muscles feel relaxed, move down to your thighs, calves and feet. Consider them "dead weight." Finally, take three deep breaths and when you let them out, blow out all of your remaining tension.

This process should take about a minute and a half. It takes practice to relax your body on command, so the trick is to first tense up each area, and then relax it. Clear your mind by concentrating on a calming mental image. In theory, you should fall asleep pretty quickly.

Based on current and recent military publications, it's unclear if this technique is still taught or widely used. But if you have insomnia, or just aren't getting a good night's rest, there certainly is no harm in trying it.