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This article is evidence-based, verified by John Cottrell, Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology
Sleep is essential for mental and physical health. When you don’t have a good night’s sleep, a condition we know as insomnia may occur. Insomnia is a sleep disorder that can leave you feeling tired and lethargic for the rest of the day. You may also experience low energy, have trouble concentrating, and have an altered mood.
When you have important work to do, like studying, providing for your business, or taking care of your family, you cannot afford to have little or no sleep. Besides taking over-the-counter medication, is there another remedy for insomnia? Can Yoga help with insomnia? Yes, it can. Let’s take a closer look.
What is Insomnia?
Insomnia is a complicated condition. That is, those that have this condition experience various severities of it. It can range from being acute to be severe for some people. Generally, it is a condition in which an individual has difficulty going to sleep or staying asleep. As a result, one can experience the after-effects mentioned above.
Many things can be related to insomnia. Having an irregular sleep schedule due to work, for example, may influence the way that you sleep. If you’re not able to have a regular pattern of sleep each day, this can create an imbalance in your sleep cycles.
Feeling stressed and tense is also related to insomnia. If your mind and body are unable to relax, falling asleep or continuously awakening during the night may be the result. Being overstimulated at bedtime can be a problem, too.
Watching television, drinking caffeinated beverages, physical activity, overuse of electronic devices, eating a big meal are just some examples of overloading your system in a way that relates to disrupted sleep.
Some of these causes can change with some adjustments in your behaviors and lifestyle. But for others, insomnia is more chronic and may not be related to external stimuli. If one has a more severe case of insomnia, often medical attention is needed.
Whether you experience an acute or chronic case of insomnia, there is a way to help compliment the lifestyle changes and therapeutic intervention. Yoga can be a useful tool for managing insomnia.
How Does Yoga Help with Insomnia?
There is research to indicate that Yoga may not be a formal treatment for sleep disorders like insomnia, but it can help with improving your sleep.
Breathing exercises, called Pranayama in Yoga, is foundational for bringing calm to the entire body and mind. Voluntary breathwork is essential when targeting the part of the brain that activates relaxation. When stressed, for example, the brain triggers the fight or flight response, causing hormones like cortisol to enter the bloodstream.
It inhibits the parasympathetic nervous system from doing one of its primary functions: induce rest and sleep. Slow deep breathing exercises can create a reverse effect: reduce stress and increase relaxation.
One Pranayama breathing practice that contributes to relaxation is a simple counting exercise. Here’s how you do it.
Firstly, find a comfortable seat; this could be the floor, a chair, or the edge of your bed. You could even try this practice in your car before you drive to work. Close your eyes, and start to focus on your breathing. Become quite aware of each inhale, and each exhales. Notice the feeling of your breath and even the sound of your breath.
As you tune in, start to notice the pace of your breath. To yourself, count the beats as you take a full inhale and the beats as you release the breath. For example, as you breathe in, count “1….2….3…” and so on until you have taken in a full breath. Do the same counting as you exhale. Manipulate the inspiration to have the pace of your exhale match the rhythm of your inhales. Continue with the exercise for 2-3 minutes.
Even this minimal amount of time devoted to this practice brings a sense of calm to your body. Further, you’ll experience mental clarity for a productive day, and more importantly, a restful night’s sleep.
Which Yoga is Best for Sleeping?
Yoga has many benefits. Regardless of the style you practice, you will undoubtedly gain from experience. In regards to insomnia, you would assume that more relaxing yoga practices and meditation would be the best yoga styles for managing this sleeping disorder. Any form of Yoga can be useful in assisting you with more restful sleep.
Moving Yoga Practices
In dynamically moving practices like Power Vinyasa Yoga or Hot Yoga, there is an element of relaxation integrated into the moving body. The key is the breath. As mentioned earlier, breathing is the foundation of most yoga practices. As you move from posture to posture in a flowing Power Yoga class, you breathe intentionally to guide you in and out of each pose.
It brings energy and strength to your limbs and muscles, but it also generates the needed blood and oxygen flow throughout the body. The deep breathing complements the Yoga poses you practice. As a result, you feel rejuvenated. You may also experience a sense of ease and calm even after having a strenuous yoga session.
The same applies to the Hot Yoga class. With the added element of heat in this dynamic style of Yoga, the body can still reach a state of relaxation. In some hot yoga sessions, the student is practicing challenging postures that are held to really engage the muscles. The temperature of the body, in addition to blood flow and breath production, all increase. The body is in a state of conditioning and cleansing.
Similarly to a Vinyasa Yoga practice, the student finishes feeling re-energized and relaxed simultaneously. That dynamic captures the duel nature of Yoga: the union of opposites. One feels strength and softness, full and emptied, grounded, and light. This sense of balance can also be contributed to restful sleep.
Due to busy schedules and obligations, not everyone can partake in full yoga practices like Hot Yoga or Power Vinyasa Yoga. You may only have time for home practice with limited time. The same relaxing and balance effects of yoga practice can be generated with only a few yoga poses. Here are a few you can practice helping reduce tension in your body that can contribute to better sleep.
Standing Forward Bend
Stand tall with your feet about hip-distance apart. Allow your arms to hang down by your side. Roll your shoulders back slightly and keep your gaze forward. This is Mountain Pose; it prepares you for the intended posture. Inhale and extend your arms into the air. Exhale to fold forward from the hips. Keep a right bend in your knees to protect your back as you fold. It is ok if you’re fingers do not touch your toes. You can rest your hands on your shins if you need to.
Remain in this folded position for several breaths. Feel free to hang heavily forward to release tension along your spine, in your back, neck, and shoulders. We tend to hold a lot of stress in the upper regions of the body. Hanging forward in this fashion with intentional breathing can be an excellent way to eliminate tightness and tension.
To rise back up, first, roll back onto your heels, bend your knees more, then inhale deeply to stand up. Extend your arms into the air for a beautiful stretch. Exhale to lower your arms down by your side. If you’d like, you can practice this posture several times.
Legs Against The Wall
This is a therapeutic position that can also aid in bringing relief and relaxation to your body. It’s an inverted posture, which means your legs will extend into the air. Being upside down is quite therapeutic. It re-circulates the blood flow in your body. And if you have swelling in your lower extremities, this can be beneficial to you, also.
You will need some wall space for this yoga posture. Sit on the floor with one hip against the wall. Roll down onto your back while swinging your legs up the wall. Rest your arms down by your side or on your chest. Your legs do not need to be perfectly straight. It is ok to keep a slight bend in your knees. You may also want to have some padding like a blanket or pillow to support your head, neck, or back. Hold this posture for 3-5 minutes. It is a very relaxing posture.
This yoga posture is often practiced at the very end of a yoga class. It is a culmination of all the work you have done during the course and allows for the body to rest. Even if you do not partake in a full yoga practice, you can still perform this pose. It is another restorative position that brings relief to your whole body and mind.
You can do this pose lying on your back on the floor (with a blanket underneath you for some cushion) or lying in your bed. Bring your body to complete stillness and focus on soft, gentle breathing. This is designed to be a completely relaxing yoga posture. No movement is required. Simply close your eyes and rest. If you notice that your mind begins to wander, do your best to return your awareness to your breath.
By keeping your attention on your breathing, you maintain some distance from the thoughts that tend to overtake your mind. Remain in Savasana for several minutes. It can be practiced anytime to restore some energy and focus as you proceed with your day. You may also exercise this pose as a way to ease yourself to sleep.
Subtle Yoga Practices
In addition to the moving practices that can help with conditions like insomnia, some other more obvious yoga practices can also help. Yin Yoga, Restorative Yoga, and Yoga Nidra can be put into the category of Subtle Yoga Practices. They have much less movement and highly focus on relieving tension, easing muscles, and inducing relaxation.
This is a style of practice that has a focus on releasing connective tissue, tight muscles, limbs, and joints. Stress and tension have an enduring way of remaining stored in the fibers of our bodies. For adequate relief, direct manipulation to the areas of the body that hold stress is often needed. Getting a specialized massage can help, but Yoga can also assist in this effort, particularly Yin Yoga.
When you attend yoga practices like Hot Yoga or Vinyasa Yoga, you are engaging muscles through active movement. Active movement referred to as Yan (or Yang) Yoga. Yin, on the other hand, implies stillness and de-activation. In a Yin Yoga practice, you hold postures for a significantly long period: up to 10 minutes for some poses.
These specific postures are designed to release the fascia and connective tissue in the body that tends to be bond up and be tight. Fascia is like the webbing throughout the body that holds all of your vital organs, bones, muscles, and other tissues in place.
After an injury or surgery, for example, these fascial connections constrict, even more, creating limited mobility and functionality in some parts of your body.
While holding a posture in Yin, the idea is to disengage your muscles to release the bound up fascia. Soft props like pillows, blankets, blocks, and bolsters help to support the body in place while you hold in stillness. As a result, you regain mobility, flexibility, and functionality.
And because you are deactivating your muscles, you are fully relaxing your body and mind, which can help you with achieving a higher quality of sleep.
We tend to hold a lot of tension in the back. Here is a Yin Yoga posture you can practice to begin releasing that tension. Sit on the floor with your knees bent and the soles of your feet touch. (This actually will open up your hips that also can hold tension.)
Place a stack of blocks or pillows in front of you. Slowly fold over the props, draping your body until your back rounds, and you feel completely relaxed in the posture. Settled into the pose so that you can hold it for 5 to 10 minutes. (Set a timer to help you track the time.)
Focus on your breath as you disengage your muscles. That is how the connective tissues are allowed to open up for you.
This is another relaxing yoga practice to rest and restore a fatigued bodily system. It is very similar to Yin Yoga, but you’re mostly composed in reclining postures with the support of props to experience relaxation. It is also a beautiful yoga practice to balance the active movement your body endures daily. It is a reminder that the body needs rest to counterbalance the work. It also trains the body and mind to relax fully, so when it comes time actually to go to bed, you can easily drift off into slumber.
This type of Yoga could be done on a yoga mat or even in bed as a technique to help you fall asleep. You want to have soft props, like blankets or pillows, to support your body. Here is a Restorative Yoga pose that you can practice at home. Start by lying on the floor or in your bed. If you are on the floor, place a blanket underneath you for comfort. Prop up a bolster, folded blankets, or pillows on some yoga blocks or a stack of books to create an inclined backrest.
Lie back onto this rest. Bend your knees, so the soles of your feet touch. Place a block or pillows under each knee for support. Settle into a very comfortable position and hold this pose for several minutes (5-8 mins). Feel free to rest in silence in this posture or have light music playing in the background.
The intention of this and other restorative poses is to experience complete ease. Allow your mind to soften and your muscles to relax. After your intentional yoga practice, you may find that it is easier for you to drift off to sleep.
Another excellent yoga practice that will lead you toward the restful state of mind and body is called Yoga Nidra. Translated, this means “yogic nap.” It is a guided meditation in which you feel as if you took a nap during the session. The result is a rejuvenated body and mind. You will feel fully rested after a Yoga Nidra class.
For some, a guided meditation is more comfortable than doing meditation on your own. You’ll be able to tune into the guidance from the instruction. What is unique about this meditation is that it takes you on a journey from the waking state to a dream-like state. Although you remain awake during the entire session (usually), you experience a deep state of sleep.
Much like Yin Yoga and Restorative Yoga, you are training your body to move from an engaged, stressful state of being to a more relaxed state.
Because this is a guided meditation, you will need to attend a class or find audio recordings of a Yoga Nidra practice so you can practice at home. Professionally recorded Yoga Nidra sessions can easily be found and practiced at your convenience from the internet.
When is the Best Time to Do Yoga?
The yoga practices mentioned in the latter part of this article suggest that subtle yoga practices should be practiced at night or when you are about to go to sleep. That is not necessarily the case. Any of the styles of Yoga mentioned can be performed any time of day: morning, afternoon, or evening.
It is mainly up to you and what is most convenient in your daily schedule. The idea is to integrate these relaxing intentional practices into your routine to train your body and brain. Some methods seem more conducive to do in the morning, while others seem more practical to practice at night. It is certainly up to you.
As a way to begin your day, try some of the stationary poses mentioned at the beginning of the article. Pranayama can be practiced at any time of day because it only takes a few minutes, and you can do it practically anywhere.
Hot Yoga or Power Vinyasa Yoga may take place in the morning or afternoon as a way to awaken the body, give you energy, as well as foster a release of tension throughout the body. Restorative Yoga or Yoga Nidra can be practiced anytime, too, but as a tool for high-quality sleep, you may exercise them in the evening time.
If you’re experiencing an acute or chronic state of insomnia and are looking for a healthy, resourceful means to improve your sleep, try Yoga. Adding yoga practice to your daily routine, whether it’s breathing exercises, Hot Yoga, or a relaxing restorative yoga session, can assist you with the conditions that are related to this sleep disorder.
Overall, practicing Yoga can provide you a source of balance that produces energy within your body as well as a sense of ease and relaxation for healthy sleeping patterns.
John Cottrell, Ph.D. is a yoga instructor and certified yoga therapist in Salt Lake City, Utah, USA. He has been teaching yoga since 2000. John is originally from Oakland, California earning his Master of Science and Ph.D. from Pacific Graduate School of Psychology in Palo Alto, California. His clinical practice led him to child and adolescent psychotherapy, drug and alcohol treatment, psychological and neuropsychological testing, and group/couples therapy. John continues his devotion to sharing health and well being through his business, mbody, from which he offers private and group yoga classes, yoga therapy, workshops, retreats, written yoga articles, and a men’s yoga clothing line.