A Yoga Sequence for Better Sleep

One of the first things I ask my private clients is about the quantity and quality of their sleep. In my years of teaching and asking this question I would estimate that less than 10% of my students feel that their sleep is either adequate or restful. Some complain of having difficulty getting to sleep, whilst others find themselves waking up too early or in the middle of the night. Lifestyle factors and busy schedules mean that for many of us sleep is no longer a priority and gets squeezed out to make time for other things.

We now know however, the huge toll a lack of sleep has on our physical and mental health. Poor sleep hygiene has been linked to a greater risk of many chronic diseases such as diabetes and obesity, as well as an increase in mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression.

Knowing the implications of poor sleep habits is important but it can also make us feel further stressed and anxious about the fact that we are not getting enough sleep, which in turn makes it harder to fall asleep in the first place – a vicious cycle!

What I love about yoga is its pragmatic outlook and that it offers us so many wonderful, practical and realistic tools and techniques for managing our health.  Scientific research has shown that yoga can have a beneficial impact on our ability to not only fall asleep more easily, but also to improve the quality of the rest that we do get. This might be explained by the fact that yoga is a wonderful way to help us down-regulate our stress reactions and ‘turn on’ the ‘relaxation response’. The poses are also wonderful for reducing physical tension and tightness, which in turn can make it quicker and easier for us to drop into a state of deep rest.

Below is a short sequence of breathwork practices and yoga poses that I give to clients with insomnia and other sleep-related issues. The whole sequence takes around 30 minutes to complete but can be shortened by omitting a couple of the poses or doing shorter holds as time permits. Needless to say this would be an excellent practice to do prior to bed perhaps with a candle and some relaxing music playing – just make sure you’re already in your pj’s and ready to roll into bed afterwards! 🙂


Thanks to Tummee for the graphics!


  1. Alternate Nostril Breathing

This is a fantastic technique for soothing stress and switching on the parasympathetic nervous system – the branch of our nervous system that regulates rest and relaxation.

The key to this technique (and to all breathwork practices) is to be comfortable and in a position that supports a natural length to the spine and open-ness around the ribcage. You may like to practice sitting cross-legged or in a chair, whichever is more comfortable for you.

Start by closing your eyes and establishing a natural and even breath through the nose, aiming for around 4-5 seconds breathing in and out.

Now using your right hand place the middle and index finger to rest between the eyebrows. Inhale, and as you start to exhale, close the right nostril with your thumb and breathe out through the left nostril. Inhale through the left nostril, and as you start to exhale close the left nostril with your ring finger and breathe out through the right nostril. Continue in this way, breathing in through one side, exhaling through the opposite side for 2-5 minutes. The breath should feel natural, effortless and without strain – adjust the length and pace of the breaths accordingly.


  1. Eye Exercise Palming

This is a lovely technique for soothing tired eyes or feelings of strain or tension around the sockets of the eyes.

After practicing a few rounds of Alternate Nostril Breathing, release your hands and rub them vigorously together for 20 seconds until they feel warm. Place your warm hands over your closed eyes and allow the heat to soak in through the skin and muscles around the eye sockets. Repeat 3 times in total.


  1. Childs Pose with a Bolster

A lovely pose to free up tension in the lower back and hips, and its gentle cocooned shape promotes a sense of safety, quietness and rest.

You can use a yoga bolster or a couple of pillows/cushions stacked up to a comfortable height. From hands and knees position, bring your big toes to touch and widen your knees to outer hip-width apart. Sinking your hips towards your heels, lay your upper body over the bolster or support. Turn your head one way and allow your arms to come to rest around the sides of the bolster. Allow your breath to deepen and feel it move into your lower back, side ribs and belly. Hold the pose for a total of 2-5 minutes, switching the turning of the head half-way through.


  1. Reclined Hero Pose with Blankets

We have a lot of latent energy stored in the strong muscles at the front of our thighs and hips and these areas can get very tight from long periods of sitting  – stretching this area out can help to free up tension here, as well as gently open up the chest and ribcage making it easier to take slow, deep restorative breaths.

Come into kneeling, taking the feet a little wider than the hips so that you are sitting between your feet. Your toes should point straight back. If this is too much for the ankles or knees, explore putting a blanket or two under your hips. Come to lie yourself back over a stack of folded blankets, a yoga bolster or a pile of cushions. You should feel a pleasant stretch and sense of opening across the front of the body. If this position feels too strong in knees, ankles or your lower back, then explore the next pose instead. Remain here for 2-5 minutes.


  1. Reclined Butterfly with a Bolster

This is a good alternative to the previous pose particularly if you have sensitive knees or lower back. Gently helps to open up tightness in the chest, shoulders and inner thighs – all sources of unconscious tension from long periods of sitting or stress.

Sit your hips up against the edge of a yoga bolster or pile of cushions/blankets. Lie back over the support. Put some extra height behind your head to ensure that the forehead is slightly higher than the chin – this will make the pose more restful and relaxing. Bring the soles of your feet together and allow the knees to open out with gravity. Allow the arms to come to rest by your sides with the palms facing up. Remain here for 2-5 minutes.


  1. Side-reclined Shoulder Stretch/Supine twist

Twists are inherently balancing for the left/right sides of the body and provide a lovely ‘squeeze and soak’ effect for the spine and abdominal organs.

Lying on your back, allow your knees to drop to the right as you allow the belly and upper body to twist to the left. Stretch the arms out to allow an opening in the chest. Explore bringing your knees up higher or further away from the chest to find the position that feels most comfortable for your lower back. Consider putting cushioning under the bottom knee or between the thighs if more comfortable. Hold for 1-2 minutes and then switch sides.


  1. Sleeping Pigeon at the Wall

This is a fantastic pose for relieving lower back and hip stiffness and tension from sitting for long periods. The support of the wall and floor also makes this a supportive and safe option for people with lower back issues.

Extend both legs up against the wall, with your hips about 10-15cm away from the wall. Bring your right ankle over the top of your left knee and slowly slide the left foot down the wall until you start to feel a stretch in your outer right hip. Make sure your lower back stays on the floor, so only go as far into the stretch whilst maintaining this alignment. If you want more stretch, shift your hips nearer to the wall. It may also be required to put a blanket or two behind the head to ensure that the forehead is slightly higher than the chin. Relax the arms and shoulders in whatever position feels restful to you. Hold for 1-2 minutes and then switch sides.


  1. Legs Up the Wall Pose

Another great wall yoga pose for helping to relieve tired legs, as well as gently opening up the back of the body without placing undue strain or tension on the lower back. Gentle inversions such as this one, with the legs above the heart, have a quietening, soothing effect on the nervous system, helping to promote a sense of deep rest and relaxation.

Place your legs up the wall with your hips a comfortable distance from the wall. If your legs are tighter you will need to move your hips slightly further away, you can also bend your knees slightly. To increase the inversion effect, put a rolled up blanket or yoga bolster under your hips by pressing your feet into the wall, lifting the hips and sliding it underneath. Put additional padding behind your head as needed for comfort. Allow the arms to rest by your sides and settle into relaxed abdominal breathing. Allow the eyes to close, jaw to unhinge and feel the muscles of the back slowly

A Simple Breathing Practice to Restore and Heal

“The oscillation of breathing is a perfect mirror of the fluctuations of life. If we are open to this process, life will move us. If we are unable to integrate life’s changes, we begin to resist by restricting our breathing.

When we hold the breath and try to control life or stop changes from happening we are saying we do not want to be moved. In those moments our desire for certainty has become much stronger than our desire to be dynamically alive.

Breathing freely is a courageous act. ~ Donna Farhi


One of the fundamental teachings of yoga is that our breath mirrors our emotional state and by changing our breath we can at a deep level change the way we feel. Not only that but as Donna Farhi’s quote above outlines, our breath is a direct reflection of our relationship to life itself.


When we live in fear, or try to control the world around us, this often manifests in a tightening and gripping in our bodies that limits and restricts our ability to breathe well. Breathing freely is courageous because it signals to ourselves and the world that we are OK with change, that we strong and resilient and able to face whatever comes our way.


In my private sessions I spend some time in each session exploring and working with the breath. I believe that breath is one of the master techniques and an incredibly valuable tool which can be applied and used to great affect from the very first yoga session.


I teach my clients that through conscious and deliberate awareness of their breathing they can soothe (or stimulate) their nervous system, and in turn create a complete physiological and psychological shift in literally a matter of minutes.


Many of my clients come to me with restricted breathing patterns which in turn keep them unconsciously locked in a chronically stressed state. Stress tends to manifest as short, irregular, shallow breathing patterns which are felt predominantly in the chest and neck. This type of breathing creates a vicious cycle, keeping our body in a hyper alert state and imprisoned in the stress response.


Before I teach clients specific breathwork techniques I almost always give them the time and space to observe their natural breathing patterns, that is, the way they normally breathe without making any changes to it. I invite them to get a sense of how and where they are breathing, the pace, texture and relative ease (or not) of their breath. This helps to give me and the client a sense of where they are starting from.


I strongly believe that we can not create change if we are not first aware of what is actually happening. Awareness is the absolute prerequisite for transformation to occur.


Once clients have a sense of their natural breathing patterns we then progress to exploring techniques that offer more healthful ways of breathing.


The following short audio is one of my favourite ways to work with the breath and I teach it and many variations to my clients. There are two parts to the exercise:


  • Breath Awareness through Touch

This part of the exercise is designed to get you comfortable and familiar with feeling the breath move into different parts of the body. We are learning to move breath through the body and to get a sense of what that feels like. I find that using the hands gives us a very immediate and tactile form of feedback which can be useful in the early phases of this work.


  • The Complete breath (sometimes called the Yogic Breath)

Taking our ability to move breath into the belly, ribcage and upper chest as our starting place we now explore how to integrate these movements of the breath into all three areas during one complete breath cycle.

Some of the benefits of this exercise include:

  • Increased energy and vitality as we improve circulation and oxygen-intake to the body
  • Strengthened and promotion of proper functioning of the diaphragm which in turn stimulates the relaxation response and reduces
  • Reduction in tension and load of the accessory breathing muscles in the neck, shoulders and upper back/chest
  • Enhanced focus and clarity as the mind is required to stay present on the technique



The best part about breathwork exercises is that they are incredibly versatile. Breathing requires no special equipment, can be done at any time of the day (or night) and is inconspicuous enough to do in public. This is important because we become what we repeatedly do – thus the more we can integrate these practices as we go about our daily lives, the more we can rely on the power of the breath to soothe, settle and heal at any moment.

The Complete Guide to using Yoga for Stress Management – Part 2

In The Complete Guide to Using Yoga for Stress Management Part 1 we looked at yoga’s unique approach to stress management and how the physical yoga practice and breathwork can help to both reduce stress and its negative side effects.

In Part 2 we’re going to go a little deeper. Yoga teaches us that it’s not enough to treat the symptoms; we need to investigate the root causes of why we get caught in chronic stress in the first place.

To some extent I think its human nature to want to find the most immediate and least effortful way possible out of our suffering. We have a sore neck, so we go for a massage – it helps ease the pain for the moment but we never address the underlying cause of why our necks are so sore in the first place. We feel we need to lose weight and we go on a diet – again this might have a positive temporary impact but will be short-lived if we never stop to look at the real reasons why we overeat.

Yoga often asks us to look into the deeper reasons behind why we do the things we do. When we step onto a yoga mat the practice asks us to tend to our tendencies – to look at our behaviour patterns, our habitual ways of thinking and to start to see how these things affect us at all levels, physically, mentally and emotionally.

Why do we get stressed? Why do we react the way we do to certain situations or scenarios? How can we use this self-knowledge to help us learn how to cope better?

As always, yoga offers some powerful and yet very practical tools to assist us in unraveling the cycle of chronic stress. None of these practices are quick fixes but they can go a long way towards helping us live a calmer, saner and more peaceful life.


  1. Manage your monkey mind

One of yoga’s most ancient texts says that if we want to get to the root cause of our suffering we need to address the state of our minds:

 “Watch your thoughts; they become words. Watch your words; they become actions. Watch your actions; they become habits. Watch your habits; they become character. Watch your character; for it becomes your destiny.” ~ The Upanishads.

Bruce Lee put it another way. “As you think, so shall you become”.

Simply put, if we want to understand and manage our stress levels we need to look at our thought patterns. For a start, it’s helpful to know that from an evolutionary perspective our bodies and brains have a hard-wired ‘negativity bias’ for survival. Our sense organs are constantly scanning the environment for potential threats and our mind is constantly busy trying to interpret this incoming information. We’re wired to believe and expect the worst.

Stress occurs when we perceive that the world is threatening in some way to our survival. One of the reasons that stress can become chronic is that our bodies don’t know the difference between a real physical threat (such as stepping in front of a bus) and a mental or imaginary stressor (such as worrying about a difficult conversation we need to have with our partner). If left unchecked and unexamined this propensity to always fear the worst can leave us vulnerable to feeling constantly on edge and chronically stressed.

The good news is that the brain is changeable. Neuroplasticity shows us that we can rewire our brain to be less reactive. We can rewire neural pathways and link potentially stress-triggering events, such as being stuck in a traffic jam, with more positive emotions such as feeling calm and peaceful. Overtime, the more we practice, the more ingrained this neural pathway becomes.

The greatest resource we have against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another ~ William Jones


So what can I practice?

  • We live in a highly stimulating world, bombarded by screens, advertising and social media. This constant influx of information can lead to us feeling burnt out, fatigued and distracted. Yoga offers a simple solution called pratyahara – reduce the amount of external stimulation going on around you and turn your attention inward. Simple things like turning off your phone, closing down the laptop and selectively moving your attention to an internal phenomenon such as the breath are all examples of practising pratyahara. This can go a long way towards reducing that sense of overwhelm that we get in stressful and anxious moments – clearing space for us to become less reactive.
  • Mindfulness is another incredible tool for helping us to work with challenging circumstances and changing our relationship to stress-triggering thoughts. Jon Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as:

“paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and non judgmentally.”


  So why exactly is mindfulness such a powerful stress antidote?

  • When we are mindful we are deliberately focusing on the present moment which helps us to detach from rumination about the past or fears and anxiety about the future. We learn to focus on what is right in front of us. If difficult feelings are present we practice sitting with them, accepting them, neither ignoring nor trying to numb them out. By not resisting difficult moments as they arise we start to struggle less which in turn reduces our suffering and our stress levels.

  • The act of becoming present invites a certain level of spaciousness, allowing us to consider our options and respond to a situation rather than knee-jerk react. This in turn can lead to more thoughtful and insightful responses to events.
  • Mindfulness helps us to see the fundamental truth of impermanence. We watch thoughts come and go, sensations arise and dissipate, and we learn that everything changes. Sometimes in the grip of a stressful life event just this alone is comfort enough.
  • One of the most powerful benefits of mindfulness is that it can help us to relate to our thoughts in a different way so that we see them for the subjective, unreliable constructs that they really are. During mindfulness practice:
    • We learn to become less attached to our thoughts instead preserving a level of objectivity and distance.
    • We become aware of the tendency towards negativity and over-reactivity.
    • We wake up to our autopilot and habitual ways of thinking and reacting that get us caught in stress cycles and learn to consciously move away or separate ourselves from them.
    • We learn some key truths about our thoughts that help to undermine their power over us:
      • Our thoughts have no birthplace, they are random and reactive.
      • They are unceasing.
      • They are unoriginal and repetitive.
      • They are not truth of hard fact but rather our perception of reality based on our history, conditioning, judgement and expectations.


  1. Find meaning in life

One of the fundamental tenets of Buddhist philosophy is that ‘pain is inevitable’ but ‘suffering is optional’. We all experience things in life that are difficult and distressing – there are no avoiding some stressors in life such as losing a loved one or having to move home or job.

How stressed and anxious we become has less, however to do with the external events that are happening to us, and more to do with our perception and the meaning we give to the events themselves.

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” – Victor Frankl

Our hardiness and resilience towards stressful events also lies in our ability to find a sense of meaning and coherence in our difficulties and challenges. We can re-frame our challenges in terms of life’s lessons and part of our spiritual growth.

More and more research is also pointing to the power of gratitude practices for helping us to change our worldview and to bring life’s stressors into perspective. Part of the ‘negativity bias’ of the brain is to see scarcity – there is never enough, time, money etc. Gratitude practices such as journaling help to shift us away from a sense of lack, to feelings of abundance and contentment. Studies show that those who keep a regular gratitude diary report higher levels of positive emotions, including feeling attentive, determined, energetic, enthusiastic, excited, interested, joyful, and strong, compared to individuals who didn’t keep a diary.

“Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today and creates a vision for tomorrow.” ~ Melody Beattie


So what can I practice?

  • Increase the number of things you do in your day that hold intrinsic meaning and value to you, whether it’s practicing yoga, spending time with a loved one, or becoming absorbed in a pleasurable activity.
  • Take a moment at the beginning of your yoga practice to set an intention – what would you like this practice to awake in you? How would you like to leave your yoga mat feeling? Inviting a sense of intention into your yoga practice helps to make it more personally relevant and meaningful to you.
  • In difficult yoga postures see if you can notice your reaction towards the difficulty and see if it is making the situation easier or more difficult. Practice staying connected to breath and a sense of steadiness and ease as you explore your physical boundaries.
  • Keep a gratitude diary – every day for a week, list 5-10 things that you are grateful for. Try to think of new ones every day. At the end of the week reflect on how this practice has helped to see things in a different perspective.
  • Practice loving-kindness meditation – this practice has been shown to increase empathy and compassion for ourselves and others. When we are very stressed we tend towards feelings of isolation – this meditation reminds us that we are just part of a much bigger supportive network.


  1. Find the bliss in stillness

The overall goal of yoga is to experience more episodes of samadhi – a state of peace, calm, bliss and inner quietude that lies beneath all the tensions of the physical body and fluctuations of the mind. This can be a challenging place to reach even when we’re not experiencing feelings of overwhelm, fatigue, fear or anxiety! However we are more likely to get to this state if we follow the advice of the earlier steps which ensure that:

  • our bodies are pain-free and healthy through mindful movement and exercise
  • our breathing is calm and smooth through conscious awareness and breathing exercises
  • our minds are undistracted and peaceful through mindfulness and meditation practices
  • we are living lives that we feel are meaningful in accordance with our values.

If we can make some headway in these areas then we are much more likely to enjoy moments of samadhi. Yoga does, however, have some incredible tools for helping us get a taste of this quiet space no matter what our life circumstances might be.


So what can I practice?

Of all the yoga techniques that I dish out to my clients yoga nidra is the one I use the most frequently for its powerful ability to move us out of a stress response and into a relaxation state.

Yoga nidra is a relaxation technique that guides us towards a deeply restful place somewhere between waking and sleeping, which in turn is deeply healing when we are dealing with chronic stress. In fact, so well-regarded has this simple relaxation practice become that it is now offered as a viable treatment for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

There are literally hundreds of great free yoga nidras online so its best to try a few and pick one that personally resonates. However to get started here’s one that I particularly enjoy. Practice daily for a week and feel the difference!