by Leanne Connolly October 31, 2020 5 min read
A consistent yoga practice is known to promote better sleep, due mainly to the fact that yoga reduces stress. Stress can present itself in many different ways to us, and the level to which it affects our sleep varies too. The right amount of stress, however, is actually meant to help you. Stress alerts the body and mind of any present danger, filling your body with energy and a sense of alertness; it sends this response through neurotransmitters and hormones, namely the hormone cortisol. But too much stress will release unnecessary and unhelpful amounts of cortisol, keeping you awake and affecting your quality of sleep. Yoga and mindfulness are known to reduce levels of cortisol, which is one reason why yoga is recommended and widely practiced for people with sleep conditions, such as insomnia or sleep apnea.
The second way in which yoga helps promote better rest is through the regulation of the nervous system. When we connect to our breath and exhale deeply in yoga, we activate our parasympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system lowers our blood pressure and boosts digestion, and puts us in what is more commonly known as rest and digestmode. Alternatively, when we are in fight or flight mode, our nervous system will be wide awake, even if we feel tired. This fight or flight mode can be triggered from any stressful part of your day, whether you were rushing to meet a deadline or having an uncomfortable conversation, and can stay elevated even up until nighttime. Yoga is an opportunity to come to a state of homeostasis more easily, where our chemicals are more balanced, and we can relax.
There are many styles of yoga one can do, and each of them can help with sleep in unique ways. For instance, some might choose not to practice a vinyasa style of yoga in the evening because it is known to be more energizing and can leave you feeling alert and awake for an extended period. The breathwork practiced in a flow class can help relieve tension, though, leaving you feeling calmer or simply tired from the more intense level of exercise. In this way, a more invigorating practice can undoubtedly help yogis attain better sleep.
For most yogis, however, a restorative class or series of poses may be more beneficial for sleep, mostly when done closer to bedtime. Primarily through the use of props such as blankets, bolsters, and blocks, restorative yoga encourages deep relaxation because yogis can be supported entirely through the pose, letting go of tension and effort.
Here is a closer look at some restorative poses for better sleep:
Reclined Bound Angle Pose (Supta Baddha Konasana)
Bring the feet together and allow the knees to fall open. You may have heard this pose be called Reclined Goddess Pose, and it is a deep hip opener. It gently stretches the inner thighs, pelvis, and lower abdomen. You can place one hand on your heart and one hand on your belly to tune in to your breath for relaxation. Gravity will do its part to deepen the stretch, which will allow your mind to surrender along with your body. Bolsters or folded blankets can be used under the knees for even more profound relaxation.
Child’s Pose (Bālāsana)
In Child’s Pose, your knees will also be apart. You can choose how wide to place them, but generally, mat distance length is an excellent place to start. Bolsters can be placed between the legs. Gently fold forward and rest your head and upper body on the bolster or mat as you extend your arms out in front of you or to the sides of the bolster.
This pose helps turn your focus inward, inducing a grounding effect as you follow the movement of your breath through to the back body, and allow your lungs to expand. This pose helps you to follow the breath to specific spaces of the body so that you can develop more awareness and ease tension in those areas.
Extended Puppy Pose (Uttana Shishosana)
In a similar shape as Child’s pose, Uttana Shishosana is done with your knees together as you walk your hands forward and curl your toes under, almost as if you are moving into Downward-Facing Dog. This pose allows for a deep stretch of the spine and shoulders. Because Puppy Pose is a slight inversion, your heart will be just higher than your head, which helps promote a sense of calm.
Corpse Pose (Savasana)
Savasana is commonly practiced at the end of a yoga class or sequence because it is the ultimate surrender, as its name suggests. In Corpse Pose, yogis lie flat in a neutral position, releasing all effort and tension to the mat. In this way, Savasana lowers blood pressure and calms the nervous system. But this pose also brings yogis a sense of peace as they also call attention to other parts of the body where they may need to invite in more ease—for instance, relaxing the tongue or space between the eyebrows.
Legs Up the Wall Pose (Viparita Karani)
Also referred to as Waterfall Pose, in this pose, you will climb your legs up the wall as your scoot up toward the wall until your legs can rest against it. If using a bolster here, you can bend your knees as you press your feet flat against the wall so you can slide it underneath you, and then straighten your legs. Hands can be placed on the chest to tune in to the breath, or arms relaxed out to the sides for a deep, relaxing arm stretch.
This inversion helps reduce blood pressure and stress by improving circulation and allowing the blood flow in the opposite direction. Waterfall pose is an excellent go-to pose for an evening practice that will help you get a more restful sleep.
Forward Fold (Paschimottanasana)
This pose is a good stretch for the shoulders, spine, and hamstrings. Placing a bolster on top of the thighs to make this a supported fold will allow yogis to achieve a deep stretch and a sense of calm for the mind. Yogis can rest their head on the bolster and turn it to one side for a gentle neck stretch. Breathing into the diaphragm here can help lower stress and even mild depression.
Doing some of these poses, especially at nighttime, is beneficial for the body and mind, which work together to foster a deeper and more restful sleep. At night, our minds tend to wander, especially if we are still holding onto stress from the day, so these poses can help us notice our thoughts and slow down some of our mind chatter. This bit of mindfulness before bed will rejuvenate our mind, body, and spirit, so we can sleep peacefully and wake up prepared to welcome the day.
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