Yoga For Sleep To Help Wind Down Before Bed
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At first glance, yoga may seem like nothing more than a series of pretzel-like positions. However, the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) says it’s a form of “meditative movement,” which research suggests may have a positive impact on several aspects of wellness. According to the NCCIH, These aspects include “stress management, mental/emotional health, promoting healthy eating/activity habits, sleep, and balance.” (1)
Even if you’re not interested in adopting a regular practice, Dr. Raj Dasgupta, FACP, FCCP, FAASM, (2) chief medical advisor at Sleepopolis, says consistent stretching and yoga for sleep can help you reduce stress and anxiety, improve flexibility and range of motion, and relax the body. “Studies have shown that yoga can improve sleep quality, including increasing sleep duration and reducing the number of nighttime awakenings,” he adds. (3)
Regardless of age, mobility, or fitness level, there are certain yoga poses to try that are accessible, calming, and prepare you for better rest. Here’s why they might help you.
Note: The content on Sleepopolis is meant to be informative in nature, but it shouldn’t be taken as medical advice, and it shouldn’t take the place of medical advice and supervision from a trained professional. If you feel you may be suffering from any sleep disorder or medical condition, please see your healthcare provider immediately.
Does Yoga Help You Sleep?
Possibly. One primary reason, according to Dasgupta, is that “yoga’s calming effects can have a positive impact on mental well-being and help reduce stress or anxiety without the use of medication.”
Michelle Wilson, (4) a certified yoga instructor and health coach tells Sleepopolis that the true magic in using yoga for sleep lies in how gentle stretching and measured breathing may help regulate the nervous system. (5)
“Shifting the body from a sympathetic mode (“fight, flight, and freeze”) (6) into a parasympathetic mode (“rest and digest”) (7) is key to sleeping well,” Wilson says. “If our nervous system is still in that activated state from the day’s stressors and activities, we’re unable to easily make the shift.” She adds that increased cortisol levels due to an overactivated stress response can often lead to a “tired but wired” state when the body is exhausted but the nervous system is still activated. (8)
How Yoga Can Improve Your Sleep
Keep in mind that there are many contributing factors as to why you can’t sleep, including valid health disorders that require proper intervention from a medical provider. But if you’ve tried other methods to reduce occasional sleeplessness or transient acute insomnia, or simply want to improve your sleep hygiene habits, a peaceful yoga approach might be a welcome solution.
“All day long, we may have been going 100 miles per hour, and then at bedtime expect the body and mind to slow down enough for deep, restful sleep,” Wilson says. “Since it takes some time to downregulate the nervous system, the reflective nature of a mindful yoga practice provides the space for this shift to take place.”
Additionally, Wilson recommends developing a foundational mindset from which to include gentle yoga into your daily routine: movement practices, particularly when practiced in a mindful way, prepare the body’s respiratory structures for optimal breathing. This breathing prepares the mind for a more quiet, meditative state. (15)
Who Could Benefit from Yoga for Sleep?
According to the NCCIH, “yoga has been shown to be helpful for sleep in multiple studies of cancer patients, women with sleep problems, and older adults.” (1) There are also studies that demonstrate how certain population groups — such as individuals who identify as low income, people suffering with back pain, and women with menopause symptoms that reported improved sleep from yoga. Let’s take a closer look.
People with Insomnia
Individuals With Anxiety
Struggling with anxiety can compromise your ability to enjoy proper rest — and a lack of adequate shuteye might worsen symptoms. Yoga for sleep can “encourage slower breathing over time to engage the parasympathetic nervous system, calming anxiety,” Wilson says. (16) However, for some folks with anxiety, focusing on the breath can be counterproductive. “If that’s the case, a movement-based practice in the beginning, sprinkled with mindful moments afterward, can feel more approachable,” she adds. (17), (18)
Wilson says the intensity of many athletes’ workout regimens can be balanced with a mindful practice of yoga that includes postures, breathing, and mindfulness or meditation. “For athletes, yoga can also help to reduce muscle tension, alleviate stress, and aid in the recovery process, which may lead to improved sleep quality,” Dasgupta adds. (19), (20), (21)
People with Back Pain
Without question, dealing with back pain can negatively influence our sleep. However, Wilson notes one study with strong evidence that yoga is an effective intervention for minimizing the long-term effects of back pain. “A yoga practice that combines gentle movements to release the back without exacerbating any injuries, layered with the stress-reduction benefits of mindful breathing and awareness to regulate the nervous system is a recipe for not only less pain but also a calmer mind,” she adds. (22)
Of course, it’s important to know your body and limitations. When in doubt, always contact your medical provider before adding any new workout regimens to your routine.
Individuals in High-Stress Jobs
Anyone with a challenging profession — such as military personnel, police officers, health care workers, and others — may find relief through yoga by learning how to de-stress from the demands of their work. In fact, Yoga for First Responders is one of many targeted, evidence-based programs designed to address sleep- and health-related issues such as shift work and excessive stress. (23)
Wilson also references a study involving mental health professionals who experienced improved stress adaptation following a 12-week yoga program. “The multi-faceted aspect of yoga — postures, breathwork, and meditation — offers workers an array of tools to navigate stress more skillfully throughout the workday, as well as after work.” (24)
Women in Menopausal Stages
It’s well-known that most women lose sound sleep during menopausal phases. Though more research is needed, there are indications that yoga may help to reduce menopausal symptoms, resulting in improved sleep quality. (25)
“What all of [the above] groups have in common is using yoga for sleep to benefit the dysregulation of the body’s stress response, the HPA or hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis; and the upregulation of the body’s healing response, the parasympathetic nervous system,” Wilson says. (26)
Yoga Poses for Sleep
We recommend these helpful yoga poses — also known as postures or asanas — for the multiple relaxing benefits they might provide. Follow them in order for a simple 10–20 minute sequence, or pick and choose your favorites and stay in them as long as you like. Maintain a slow, steady breath pattern, matching the length of an inhale to an exhale. Most people complete 5–10 breath cycles (a full inhale and exhale) in about 30 seconds, so use this as your guide.
As for when to fit them into your schedule, “it’s best to do these poses at least 30 minutes before bedtime,” says Dasgupta. “You can start with simple poses and gradually increase the difficulty as you become more comfortable.” Remember, everyone has different levels of mobility, so if certain poses don’t feel good to you — even with modifications or props — focus on the ones that do.
Joint Rotation Series (Pawanmuktasana Series I)
Ease into the movement and release tension by rotating, flexing, and extending various joints and their supporting muscles. (27) “Circling the wrists, ankles, hips, and shoulders several times in each direction while breathing smoothly can be helpful in soothing the nervous system,” Wilson says. Choose to follow the 30-second breath pattern noted above between sides or create an equal rhythm of your own.
- Stand with a straight spine. Rotate your wrists in one direction and wiggle your fingers. After a few moments, repeat in the other direction.
- Lift your right foot slightly off the floor. Circle your ankle and point and curl your toes. After 30 seconds, change direction. Then, settle the right foot back to the floor and repeat the sequence with the left foot.
- Next, lift your right leg and bend your knee. Extend your right foot forward and straighten your leg, bend your knee again, then place your foot back on the floor. Do this 10 times on both sides, with a hand on a wall or chair for support if necessary.
- Place your hands on your hips. Shift your pelvis slightly front, to one side, slightly back, and to the other side. These rotations can be small or large movements, depending on your comfort level. Change direction after 30 seconds. Alternative: Lift one foot slightly off the floor and make small leg circles in both directions before switching sides.
- Stand with a straight spine. Move your arms in various ways: up and down, forward and back, and wide open to the side lifting to shoulder height and lowering to your hips. Also, extend your arms straight out to either side and make small or large circles. Choose a breath rhythm and pace that feels comfortable for you. Add wrist rotations here if you like, or practice moving one arm at a time.
Modifications: Instead of standing to complete this series, sit in a chair for support or recline in bed.
Standing Forward Fold (Uttanasana)
This inversion — a posture that places the head below the heart — may help alleviate stress by lowering your heart rate and improving circulation. (28)
- Stand with a straight back, feet hip distance apart. Spread your toes and feel all parts of your feet connect with the floor.
- Exhale and bend forward from your hips. Lengthen your spine by moving your head toward the floor, gradually resting your belly on your thighs. This helps release lower back and hamstring tension. Settle into a comfortable breath pace.
- On each exhale, continue to extend downward. Place your palms on your shins, tops of the feet, or flat on the floor.
- When you’re ready to release, bend your knees. Lift your arms overhead in front of you or out to the side, rising with a straight back to a standing position.
Modifications: If you can’t easily release your palms downward to lengthen your spine, bend your knees slightly, and consider putting your hands on a yoga block or a stack of pillows. Additionally, “for individuals for whom a standing forward bend is contraindicated (such as those with osteoporosis or disc issues), consider Knees-to-Chest Pose (Apanasana) as another option,” Wilson says. “Lie on your back and hug the knees toward the chest, repeating this movement 3–4 times.”
Wide-Knee Child’s Pose (Balasana)
Wilson says the lowered head position in this posture can be calming, as it eliminates visual outer distractions and encourages a settling of the mind for more effective stress management. (14) It might also alleviate muscle restriction commonly held in your shoulders and lower back.
- Move to your hands and knees on the floor. Then, extend your knees out to each side wider than your hips.
- Slowly release your tailbone backward toward your feet. You can use one of the modifications below or rest on your heels.
- If it’s comfortable, straighten your arms forward. Lengthen your spine, lower your forehead and torso to the floor, and either close your eyes or soften your gaze. Hold for 5–10 breath cycles.
Modifications: You may feel more relaxed in this posture with a rolled-up blanket or towel underneath your knees, behind your knees resting on your calves, or under your tailbone. Wilson also suggests supporting your head and/or torso with pillows to accentuate the restfulness of this posture.
Extended Puppy Dog Pose (Uttana Shishosana)
If you practice mat yoga regularly, you might already be familiar with how this asana provides an even deeper release of upper back tension. So add it to your nighttime routine and curl up into chiropractor-recommended sleeping positions such as “soldier” or “dreamer” to get better rest.
- Start on all fours. Stack your knees under your hips and hands beneath your shoulders.
- Gradually move your hands forward while lowering your chest to the floor. Keep your hips high in the air above your knees.
- Rest your forehead and arms on the floor. Stay here for 5 breath cycles.
Modifications: Try resting your head and forearms on a yoga block or stack of pillows.
Supine Hamstring Pose (Supta Padangusthasana)
Because many of us sit more often than not, we might be dealing with hamstring restriction, which Wilson says is a contributing factor to lower back pain. This posture, also referred to as Reclining Big Toe Pose, “releases the hamstrings while also creating a relaxing chain reaction in the muscles of the lower back, which are connected through the fascia,” she adds. (29) A lot of people find reclined grounding poses like this help promote a more calm state. (30)
- Lie on your back and extend both legs straight on the floor. On an exhale, hug your right knee to your chest.
- Then, straighten your right leg up to the ceiling as far as it feels comfortable. Hold onto your thigh without lifting your torso off the floor.
- Expand the stretch on every exhale, holding for up to 10 breath cycles. Add ankle rotations here if you like.
- Bend the right knee toward your chest before lowering to the floor. Repeat the sequence on the left side.
Modifications: Let go of any effort in this pose by slipping a long yoga strap or towel under your foot and holding it as a way to guide your raised leg into more release.
Supported Reclined Spinal Twist (Supta Matsyendrasana)
Wilson says this and other restorative poses are ideal for practicing “non-doing: where the outward effort lies in the setting up of the props, rather than while staying in the shape. The time spent resting is ideal for mindful awareness of body, breath, and thoughts.” (31) Use bolsters, folded blankets, or pillows to create optimal ease.
- Lie on your back with arms outstretched in a “T” position at shoulder height. Straighten your legs.
- Bend your right knee toward your chest. With your left hand, guide the knee across the midline of the body to the left.
- Make sure to keep your shoulders flat on the floor. This helps concentrate a release in the lower body.
- Complete 10 breath cycles before straightening your right leg at center and repeating the posture with the left leg.
Modifications: Some people prefer to bend both knees, with a supportive prop between, to one side, then switching to the other side after a few breaths.
Reclined Bound Angle Pose (Supta Baddha Konasana)
As another freeing yoga pose for sleep, Wilson notes the support of props invites an opening in key areas that often contract when under stress, such as the chest, back, abdomen, and hips. (32) The props mentioned above are perfect for this posture.
- Lie on your back. Place the soles of your feet together at body center and widen your knees to the side.
- Place props under your knees. You want to feel a gentle release in your inner thighs and hips but not strain.
- Rest your arms at your sides, palms up. Find an easy breath rhythm, and stay here as long as you like, eyes closed or with a soft gaze.
Modifications: Many people feel more secure and comforted with a light covering across their hips, abdomen, and feet. You can also support your back on a bolster or folded blankets to elevate your chest.
Legs Up the Wall (Vipariti Karani)
“Inversions like this can lower blood pressure via the baroreflex, (33) a mechanism in which the baroreceptors in the arteries signal the system to adjust the blood pressure based on the body’s position in space,” Wilson says. “This pose can also increase circulation to the lower extremities, a reprieve for those who have been on their feet a lot during the day.” (34)
- Sit down near an open wall. Scoot one hip as close to the wall as possible.
- Pivot to lower your back to the floor. Then, adjust your lower body to rest your tailbone and raised legs against the wall.
- Your upper body on the floor should be perpendicular to your raised legs against the wall.
- Adjust as necessary to find comfort in this posture. Alternative: Use props such as pillows or a folded blanket under your head and hips.
- Relax in this pose for up to five minutes. When you’re ready to release, slowly lower your legs from the wall and roll to one side. Wait a few moments before sitting up.
Modifications: Accessible variations of Legs Up the Wall include placing your legs on a chair, ottoman, or couch cushion. You can also lie in bed with your legs up the headboard, or simply recline with a few pillows underneath your legs.
Corpse Pose (Savasana)
The ultimate peaceful pose, it helps signal the body that it’s time to calm down. Additionally, if you suffer from restless leg syndrome, you might be able to combine light movement and Corpse Pose to promote a better relaxation response and reduce symptoms.
- Lie on the floor with straight legs. Let your arms soften at your sides or place your hands on your stomach.
- Direct attention to your breath. Move through 5–10 breath cycles.
- Finally, return to a natural breath pace. Enjoy this pose for up to five minutes.
Modifications: Wilson says draping the knees over a bolster, pillows, or rolled-up blankets can increase relaxation and reduce any potential lower back discomfort. Some people also like widening their feet beyond their hips, bending their knees, and then bringing them together at body center. Additionally, try resting on your side, using pillows to support your head and top arm.
What Is Yoga Nidra?
If yoga poses for sleep really aren’t something you’re interested in, maybe try yoga nidra. Commonly referred to as “yogic sleep,” this practice is a rest-based practice that doesn’t require movement or stretching, yet alters brain wave states in a similar way to sleep. While it’s similar to a guided meditation session—featuring specific prompts, breath cues, and a set length of practice—some research indicates it might be more effective for managing the symptoms of some sleep-disrupting conditions, such as anxiety. (35) In fact, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs issues an evidenced-based protocol known as iRest Yoga Nidra to help treat post-traumatic stress disorder as well as reduce daytime sleepiness. (36)
The Cleveland Clinic indicates that the goal of yoga nidra is to “move into a deep state of conscious awareness sleep, which is a deeper state of relaxation with awareness.” Like a conventional yoga practice, yoga nidra works to balance the autonomic nervous system, only it’s more structured to cycle through various stages of consciousness. (37)
Wilson, a certified yoga nidra instructor, says the practice “improves our relationship with rest, which then translates into better sleep.” She’s had clients use yoga nidra to reduce symptoms of insomnia or return to sleep more easily if they frequently wake up at 3:00 a.m. or some other unacceptable time. “Personally, I enjoy yoga nidra as a regular practice because it’s so simple to lie down and put on a yoga nidra recording — I feel like a new person when I wake up!” she adds.
What about breathing techniques for sleep?
Great idea! They help activate your parasympathetic nervous system to create a calming response. There are many techniques to try, including the 4-7-8 breath, box breathing, and what Wilson calls three mindful breaths or “complaining sighs”: Inhale and raise your shoulders up toward your ears, and then exhale while you lower your shoulders with a sigh. Repeat for a total of three breaths, or more if you need it.
Can yoga help sleep and anxiety?
For most people, yes. Harvard Medical School indicates that yoga calms the stress response and has been known to increase levels of a brain chemical called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which is associated with improved mood and decreased anxiety. (16)
The Last Word From Sleepopolis
Yoga for sleep is a wonderful addition to a sleep hygiene plan and can be implemented with little effort or equipment. But as Wilson reminds her clients, a good night’s sleep starts during your waking hours. Here’s what she recommends:
- Exposure to sunlight earlier in the day, preferably in the morning, can help with balancing the circadian rhythm.
- Adding in movement sometime during the day also helps, as long as it’s not too vigorous a couple of hours before bedtime.
- Micro-moments of awareness throughout the day can really add up. “I like to think of this as ‘stealth yoga’: things like three mindful sighs or taking a moment to feel the ground underneath your feet while standing in line at the store,” she says. “Starting small and trying just one thing consistently can ease the overall allostatic (stress) load on the system, so there’s not as much to release at the end of the day.”
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