Last year, a good friend of mine was having sleep troubles. As a music producer, he often headed to sleep when I was waking up. He was accustomed to this schedule, as he’d been doing it for many years. The problem was that on some nights he wanted to drift off before midnight and found it impossible. The result was that every few weeks he would crash and sleep for 16 hours straight. He wanted stability.
I prescribed him one of the most relaxing yoga postures imaginable: Viparita Karani. Without much effort, he was quickly able to silence his mind and deepen his breath enough to drift off. The result? A solid and stable night of rest without the tossing and turning.
This also works with people who have trouble falling - or staying - asleep because of an inability to quiet the mind. As someone who suffers from occasional panic attacks, I am prone to midnight bouts of anxiety. Lying awake for an hour or two is not uncommon for me.
Iyengar teacher Roger Cole warns that you should never lie in bed for more than 15 minutes without sleep. I agree that your association with your bed should be with restfulness, not the stress that you may not fall asleep.
So when this happens to me, I use one or more of following deeply relaxing yoga poses. Try them out for at least 10 minutes before sleep and see if they help you drift to neverland more peacefully.
Yoga Pose for Sleep No. 1: Viparita Karani
Purpose: Calms your mind
Otherwise known as the “legs up the wall” pose, which is a shoulder-stand variation, this is a great place to begin. (See it here.)
Take one or two folded blankets and place them against a wall.
Sit with your right shoulder facing the wall, and as you lie back across the blankets, swing your legs up the wall. Your head and shoulders will end up on the carpet with your hips supported on the blankets. (Since my friend didn’t have a headboard, he was able to lie on his bed, slide right up against the wall, and simply put his legs up.)
Hold the pose for 15 minutes, gently come out of it the way you entered, and notice your calm state of mind.
This pose should feel extremely comfortable. If not, try adjusting the blankets to take pressure off your lower back. Roger Cole warns not to fall asleep in this pose, which is actually easy to do. If you do, you may experience difficulty falling asleep when you come out of it. Yoga Journal also suggests that this pose helps with headaches, digestive problems and mild depression, all of which could compromise your sleep.
Yoga Pose for Sleep No. 2: Paschimottanasana
Purpose: Stretches and decompress your spine
One of the most popular yoga postures, the Seated Forward Bend is completely relaxing. (See it here.) It lengthens the compressed vertebrae in your spine, and you will come out feeling refreshed and calm.
Sit on the ground with your legs straight in front of you. If your hamstrings are tight, keep your knees slightly bent and slide a pillow under them for support.
Simply hold your shins or ankles and with every exhale, let your body relax over your legs a little more. (Exhaling longer than inhaling automatically calms your nervous system.)
Take at least 20 long breaths in the pose.
Many people assume that getting your hands wrapped around your feet is the point of this pose. That’s the wrong approach. Instead, think of your heart coming to your knees, and then allow your head to relax into your heart. You should not feel like you’re tugging yourself to get as low to the ground as possible.
Yoga Pose for Sleep No. 3: Supta Virasana
Purpose: Opens your hips and relaxes your lower body
Reclining Hero’s Pose can be a delicious hip-opener, if it relaxes you - and it should, even if you need two yoga blocks to accomplish it. (See it here.)
Lie on your back (or over a bolster, if available) and bring your feet together, letting your knees open wide. If this is uncomfortable on your lower back or hips, place those two blocks (or pillows) outside and just below your knees so that the stretch is minimized but still present.
Place one hand on your heart and the other over your lower belly.
Observe your breath beginning in your chest and causing your low belly to rise, then reverse the awareness so that your exhale lowers your belly and then your chest.
Stay here at least 10 minutes in complete relaxation.
To come out, bring your hands outside of your hips and slowly close them, then draw your knees into your chest and gently rock from side to side to release your lower back muscles.
Yoga Pose for Sleep No. 4: Savasana
Purpose: Brings you into a deep state of relaxation and comfort
Corpse Pose is instantly recognisable to anyone who has taken a yoga class (See it here.) While it appears to be the same as lying down, it is more of a conscious letting-go of your thoughts and body for a few minutes before continuing your day - or, in this case, heading off to bed.
Lie flat on your back, arms 6 inches or more away from your body, legs spread open 10-12 inches. (If this bothers your lower back, roll up a blanket or stick a pillow underneath your knees, alleviating pressure from your lower back.)
Close your eyes and breathe. Try not to focus on anything.
If you’re new to yoga poses, simply scan your body and notice places you might be holding tension: in your jaw, shoulders, forehead, ankles, wherever that may be. Then consciously try to relax those areas.
Give yourself these 10 minutes on the floor (carpeted, unless you only have wooden floors, in which case you’d use a yoga mat) for complete and total relaxation.
Savasana should be the most comfortable pose imaginable; cover yourself with a blanket if you are cold.
(Derek Beres for Completely You, March 2012)