Back in college when I had a lot of free time on my hands (LOL), I had a vinyasa-centric ritual. As often as I could, I would grab my yoga mat and head to a Yin class at my neighborhood studio once darkness fell in New York City. I always slept like a very happy baby on those nights. And, from a purely anecdotal point of view, right then and there, I decided: Yes! Yoga for sleep is a thing.
“Sleep is a function of the parasympathetic nervous system, the system devoted to rest and digestion,” says Katie Hagel, 1,000-hour certified instructor at Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health. “Not surprisingly, sleep onset and yoga are both associated with an increase in parasympathetic activity.” In other words, yoga, like your eight hours, calms the body down and unwinds stress. It’s basically the equivalent of a back rub for your nervous system.
“The asana practice of yoga harmonizes the mind and body. So when we practice, the nervous system is balanced and mental and physical knots are released.” —Joi Wheatley, yoga instructor
Joi Wheatley, a yoga instructor at New York City’s Stretch Relief studio, says that energetically, too, yoga has the power to propel you into sweet, sweet slumber. “The asana practice of yoga harmonizes the mind and body. So when we practice, the nervous system is balanced and mental and physical knots are released. When we are calmer, the body can come into a rest state easily,” says Wheatley. That means more yoga might mean you nod off more quickly. And a growing body of research is finally backing up the 10,000 years-long relationships between yoga and rest.
A 2013 study conducted on people 65 years or older found that participants who practiced yoga had better overall sleep quality, as well as fewer instances of disturbed sleep, and fell asleep more quickly. And yet more research found that people with chronic insomnia slept better with consistent practice. Research on yoga and sleep is still fairly tiny (in both number of studies and participants actually included in the research), but the early stats suggest that it may just be worth cozying up with a sequence and seeing if it works for you. Below, three yoga teachers bring you a pre-bed practice to complete on your mat or your bed to ease you into a long night’s rest.
Want to try yoga for sleep? These 7 poses and meditations will get you started
1. Child’s pose
- Come to tabletop pose: hips over knees and shoulders over wrists.
- Take a block—or a pillow—and place it in between your hands.
- Sink your hips back towards your heels, toes together, knees wide.
- Rest your forehead on the block and extend your arms out in front of you, elbows resting on the floor.
- Breathe down and into your belly and feel your belly expand against your thighs.
- Exhale fully and completely, releasing your belly.
- Take a few more breaths in this way and then welcome the breath into the back body, including the kidney area and the back of the heart.
- Let the breath slide up and down the spine. Stay in this pose for one to three minutes, as long as you are comfortable.
The sleep benefit: Placing the block beneath your head creates a myofascial release for the muscles of the face that are often holding tension from, you know, everything you do during the day.
2. Sphinx pose
- Slither forward onto your belly, drawing your elbows under your shoulders to prop your body up.
- Relax your shoulders, glutes, and back.
- Let everything drape to the floor.
The sleep benefit: “This will help open the front line of the body and gently stimulate the adrenal glands,” says Megan Kearney, yoga teacher, and therapeutic specialist with Yoga Medicine.
3. Pigeon pose
- From downward dog, draw your right knee forward and place it between your hands. “You may slide the right knee closer to your right wrist and guide your right foot in front of your left hip, never forcing, never straining, going only so far as is safe for your right knee,” says Hagel.
- Keep your hips square to the front of the room. On an inhale, bring your hands underneath your shoulders and lift your heart forward and up, elongating your spine and arching your upper back. Taking all of that length with you, fold forward towards the earth. Your forehead can rest on stacked fists, or you can rest your forehead on the floor and extend your arms out on the floor in front of you. You can also rest your forehead on a block.
- Uncurl your back toes. Notice what it is like to explore this shape with your breath, focusing on the back body, the right hip and the belly pelvis.
- Breathe, relax, and deepen into the pose. Sustain for one to three minutes.
- To release, bring the hands back under your shoulders and press up to down dog or table.
- Repeat on the left side.
The sleep benefit: Your hips hold a day’s worth of tension from sitting. Stretch it out.
4. Supported bridge pose
- Roll onto your back. Bend your knees and plant your feet hip-width apart, directly underneath your knees, so that your shin bones are vertical.
- Bring your arms down alongside your body, palms facing down. Avoid letting your knees splay out to the sides.
- Take a block and place it on its lowest setting directly under your sacrum, the bony part of your waist. Let the block receive the weight of your hips.
- Breathe down and into your belly, and draw the inhale up from your belly to your ribs and all the way up to your chest. As you exhale, send the breath down from your chest to your belly.
- Continue to breathe in this way, sustaining the pose for one to three minutes.
- To release, lift your hips just enough to slide the block out from underneath you, let your knees drop in to rest on each other, place your hands on your belly (or one hand on the belly and one hand on the heart) and take a few breaths to integrate and self-soothe.
The sleep benefit: Focusing on your belly moving up and down will center your energy and calm your mind.
5. Supine twist
- Lie on your back with your legs extended. Reach your arms overhead on the floor and stretch long through both arms and both legs. You may even lift your chest slightly to create a slight arch in the upper spine as you do.
- Bend your right knee and draw it in towards your chest. Interlace your fingers around your right shin. Take a couple of full, complete breaths here in wind-relieving pose.
- Then lower your right foot to the floor next to your left inner thigh. Press into your right foot to lift your hips up of the floor. Lower your hips down a few inches to your right. Place your right foot on your left thigh and bring your arms out to T-position on the floor.
- Using your right arm as a brake, lower your right knee across your body.
- Keep your right shoulder on the ground and avoid forcing your right knee down to the floor. You can place your left hand on your right knee for support, or place a block under your right knee.
- Direct the breath down to the abdomen and sustain for one to three minutes.
- To release, on an inhale, draw the right knee back up towards the midline, recenter your hips and stretch both arms and both legs long across the floor. Repeat on the left side.
The sleep benefit: Decompresses and elongates the spine to calm the nervous system.
6. Legs up the wall
- Bring your mat over to the wall. Come to sit right up against the wall with your right hip next to the wall.
- Turn towards the wall and slide your legs up the wall, bringing your seat almost up against the wall.
- Rest your arms on the floor a few inches away from your body as if for savasana, palms facing up. Sustain this pose for at least a few minutes or even up to ten minutes.
- To release the pose, bend your knees, slide your feet down the wall and roll over into a fetal position.
- To make this pose even more comfortable, slide a pillow under your sacrum.
The sleep benefit: Legs up the wall is an inversion style pose, meaning your head is below your heart. Classically, this is believed to calm the nervous system and stimulate lymph stuck in the body.
7. Mantra meditation
- To practice, choose a word or phrase that you find calming and soothing and repeat it silently to yourself over and over again.
- Whenever your mind wanders, gently coax it back to the mantra, without any judgment or scolding, as if you were escorting a child or a puppy that had gone astray. In this way, you skillfully disengage the mind from those pesky thoughts that might be keeping you up at night.
- Do this until you actually fall asleep.
The sleep benefit: “Mantra meditation can be particularly helpful for ramping down the nervous system and quieting the mind so that you can fall asleep,” says Hagel.
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