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!
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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