Yoga to Ease Insomnia and Improve Sleep

Insomnia, difficulty sleeping, and sleep deprivation are common problems. Our lives are extremely fast-paced and our senses are subject to constant stimulus. Trouble sleeping is something I hear on a weekly basis from friends, students, and family. Many of us struggle with anxiety, racing thoughts before bed, and general restlessness that makes sleeping difficult.

The Center for Disease Control have called sleep deprivation in America a public health crisis, with 80% of Americans reporting some sort of sleep problem at least once a week. Yikes!

Here are a few tips from your pal Amanda:

The breathing techniques we practice in yoga can be helpful in slowing down the mind and calming the nervous system, as can be an evening yoga practice. While you may not always have time to get to a yoga studio after work, we can all make time for a simple 10 minute practice to calm the body before we prepare for rest. 

A more activating practice (or exercise in general) is better done in the morning or several hours before bed, and of course, may help improve sleep in and of itself! The postures outlined below focus on soothing and relaxing postures that are well-suited for anytime just before bed. 

**Without going into detail, a few other tips for a good night of rest include keeping a consistent schedule, keeping the temperature of your room cool, and avoiding screens in the bedroom (buy an alarm clock!). Going outside when you wake up is also a healthy way to tap into your circadian rhythm. Small investments like a sleep mask, a noise machine, quality sheets, and enhancements like a quality fan to keep your room cool at night can all have a meaningful impact. Make your bedroom an enjoyable and inviting place to sleep.

Lastly, setting an intention for sleep can be powerful. For the past year and a half I think to myself, “I sleep in a way that is nourishing” when I go to bed. That simple intention seems to have a meaningful impact on my body and bedtime routines.

Longer Exhales than Inhales

When we slow down our breathing, and extend our exhales longer than our inhales, we activate the parasympathetic nervous system, or rest-and-digest response. Our breath signals to our brain that it is okay to slow down and rest. Practicing this technique throughout the day, such as in the car, before meetings, and before lunch can help you build muscle memory around a breathing practice. The goal being- when moments of stress do come up (fight-or-flight), you will be able to tap into your breathing practice to calm down. A simple way to practice is to count on your inhale (say up to 4), and then double the count on the exhale (in this example 8).  Try using this breathing technique throughout the postures below. After a while you will fall into rhythm with your breath and the counting will no longer be necessary.

When we slow down our breathing, and extend our exhales longer than our inhales, we activate the parasympathetic nervous system, or rest-and-digest response. Our breath signals to our brain that it is okay to slow down and rest. Practicing this technique throughout the day, such as in the car, before meetings, and before lunch can help you build muscle memory around a breathing practice. The goal being- when moments of stress do come up (fight-or-flight), you will be able to tap into your breathing practice to calm down. A simple way to practice is to count on your inhale (say up to 4), and then double the count on the exhale (in this example 8).

Try using this breathing technique throughout the postures below. After a while you will fall into rhythm with your breath and the counting will no longer be necessary.


Seated Forward Fold

Sit up straight with your feet hip-width apart. Gently fold forward from your hips while keeping your spine elongated from tailbone to crown of head. Avoid dumping your chin into your chest. Focus on keeping your spine straight and knees slightly bent. Breathe deeply and hold for 1–3 minutes.  If it feels good, spread your legs into a “V” shape and inhale to lengthen your spine, then exhale as you fold over the right leg and the left leg. Move slowly and luxuriously. This is a restful practice!  Benefits: This posture stretches you from head to heels- the entire backside of the body. This posture releases tension in the upper back, lower back, and neck. This posture helps soothe the nervous system by tapping into the parasympathetic response (rest & digest).

Sit up straight with your feet hip-width apart. Gently fold forward from your hips while keeping your spine elongated from tailbone to crown of head. Avoid dumping your chin into your chest. Focus on keeping your spine straight and knees slightly bent. Breathe deeply and hold for 1–3 minutes.

If it feels good, spread your legs into a “V” shape and inhale to lengthen your spine, then exhale as you fold over the right leg and the left leg. Move slowly and luxuriously. This is a restful practice!

Benefits: This posture stretches you from head to heels- the entire backside of the body. This posture releases tension in the upper back, lower back, and neck. This posture helps soothe the nervous system by tapping into the parasympathetic response (rest & digest).


Modified Fire Log (also known as Seated Figure-4)

Cross your right ankle over your left knee and flex the foot. Softly bend forward. You could also take this same posture while lying on your back (even while lying in bed!) and cross your ankle over your knee, then grab onto your hamstring and pull towards you. Be very gentle with this posture. You are looking for a light stretch. No need to force it!  Benefits: Stretches the outer-hip (pariformis) which is the primary source of sciatic pain. Great for stress relief and insomnia.

Cross your right ankle over your left knee and flex the foot. Softly bend forward. You could also take this same posture while lying on your back (even while lying in bed!) and cross your ankle over your knee, then grab onto your hamstring and pull towards you. Be very gentle with this posture. You are looking for a light stretch. No need to force it!

Benefits: Stretches the outer-hip (pariformis) which is the primary source of sciatic pain. Great for stress relief and insomnia.


Spinal Twist (Human Wash Cloth)

Lie on your back and draw your knees into your chest. Extend your arms straight out to the sides. Before twisting, place your feet wide on the mat. Maintain mat-width distance with the feet and allow the knees to gently fall to the right, with the neck turning to the left. Engage low-belly as you inhale legs to center and exhale to opposite side.

Lie on your back and draw your knees into your chest. Extend your arms straight out to the sides. Before twisting, place your feet wide on the mat. Maintain mat-width distance with the feet and allow the knees to gently fall to the right, with the neck turning to the left. Engage low-belly as you inhale legs to center and exhale to opposite side.


Legs Up The Wall

Getting into legs up the wall can be a bit awkward. While squiggling and wriggling into place is an option, I like to do it this way:  Place a block, rolled up blanket, or a bolster 8-10 inches from the wall (or as far from the wall as comfortable). Place your back to the wall and then rotate so your back is on your mat and legs are up the wall.  Take your arms straight out to the sides with palms facing the earth, or allow one hand to rest on the heart and one on the belly. If your hand is on your belly, focus on the rise and fall of your belly as you inhale and exhale. Stay in this pose for 5–15 minutes. As you breathe it might be helpful to focus on each part of the body, starting with the feet and moving to the head, and slowly relaxing each muscle group.

Getting into legs up the wall can be a bit awkward. While squiggling and wriggling into place is an option, I like to do it this way:

Place a block, rolled up blanket, or a bolster 8-10 inches from the wall (or as far from the wall as comfortable). Place your back to the wall and then rotate so your back is on your mat and legs are up the wall.

Take your arms straight out to the sides with palms facing the earth, or allow one hand to rest on the heart and one on the belly. If your hand is on your belly, focus on the rise and fall of your belly as you inhale and exhale. Stay in this pose for 5–15 minutes. As you breathe it might be helpful to focus on each part of the body, starting with the feet and moving to the head, and slowly relaxing each muscle group.

Legs up the Wall  Y’all- I cannot say enough about this restful pose. If I could only do one yoga pose for the rest of my life, I think this would be it.  This pose is passive/restful and allows you to focus solely on relaxation as you prepare your mind for sleep. This can be another great opportunity to practice longer exhales than inhales. With legs elevated above the heart, blood drains from the legs and refreshes the circulatory system. This is also a great restorative pose for athletes, runners, and anyone dealing with inflammation in the legs, ankles, or feet.  Benefits: This posture eases stress, calms our nerves, eases varicose veins, relieves headaches, and improves digestion. Of course, this posture also helps improve sleep.

Legs up the Wall

Y’all- I cannot say enough about this restful pose. If I could only do one yoga pose for the rest of my life, I think this would be it.

This pose is passive/restful and allows you to focus solely on relaxation as you prepare your mind for sleep. This can be another great opportunity to practice longer exhales than inhales. With legs elevated above the heart, blood drains from the legs and refreshes the circulatory system. This is also a great restorative pose for athletes, runners, and anyone dealing with inflammation in the legs, ankles, or feet.

Benefits: This posture eases stress, calms our nerves, eases varicose veins, relieves headaches, and improves digestion. Of course, this posture also helps improve sleep.

Placing a comfy pillow under your sacrum can make this pose more comfortable. You may also use a meditation cushion, bolster, yoga blanket, or block. I enjoy placing an eye pillow on my eyes. Some folks enjoy using a strap around their legs. I personally don’t enjoy the strap, but pictured here in case it floats your boat!  Not pictured here- adding a blanket to your core can also be a nice way to calm down and de-stress.

Placing a comfy pillow under your sacrum can make this pose more comfortable. You may also use a meditation cushion, bolster, yoga blanket, or block. I enjoy placing an eye pillow on my eyes. Some folks enjoy using a strap around their legs. I personally don’t enjoy the strap, but pictured here in case it floats your boat!

Not pictured here- adding a blanket to your core can also be a nice way to calm down and de-stress.

Sleep Tight!

References

Martin Kirk, Brooke Boon, and Daniel DiTuro. 2006. Hatha Yoga Illustrated.

photos by

Jack Pine & Thyme

Comfort & Cashmere Images

Amanda ThoeComment