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7 Yoga Tips for Better Sleep

01/19/2016 08:28 am ET | Updated Jan 19, 2016
  • Marlynn Wei, MD, JD Harvard-trained Psychiatrist, Certified Yoga Teacher, Author of The Harvard Medical School Guide to Yoga

Yoga, meditation, and mindfulness are the latest "next wave" therapies to encourage better sleep and treat insomnia. Over 55 percent of people who do yoga find that yoga helps them get better sleep.

Yoga, including physical poses, breathing techniques, and meditation, can help calm down a busy mind and get rid of nervous energy. Yoga has both energizing (brahmana in Sanskrit) and calming (langhana) elements, and the combination of the two can help a sense of balance. Yoga also helps you become more aware of the mental and physical states that are preventing sleep. Yoga can be safely integrated with the current main form of therapy for insomnia: cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I).

Yoga, meditation, and other mindfulness have been shown to improve sleep in several studies, including helping people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, military veterans, the elderly, and nurses. Yoga also can improve sleep quality in people with physical illnesses, including osteoarthritis, breast cancer, Parkinson's disease, and irritable bowel syndrome. A recent national randomized controlled study found that a yoga program that integrates poses, breathing, and meditation improves overall sleep quality and memory in cancer survivors.

One study used focus groups to find out how mindfulness changes sleep. Several people found that mindfulness helped them relax so that they could "just decompress and fall asleep." One person experienced immediate effects:

My sleep was almost immediately, positively impacted though I didn't sleep longer, but I slept better. So, I woke up more refreshed even though I wasn't sleeping more, and that happened for me very quickly.

Mindfulness also increased awareness of disruptions. One person stopped using the phone at night and reported becoming "possessive of my winding down time."

Participants also noticed that consistent practice is key:

I couldn't meditate during the vacation. And I noticed that the benefits left me. I came back home and here was the chatter all back again, "I shouldn't have said that. Shouldn't have done that. I said the wrong thing to that person."...It was all back.

And as I went to lay down and go to sleep I couldn't go to sleep. And when I do the meditation that chatter goes away. And I can't even say how it goes away, it just goes away. I lay down at night, and I'm not chattery.

"Body scan? That's sort of everybody's enemy or best friend at some point. I remember I really hated it at first," one person observed. Not everyone will enjoy the same elements of yoga. You might find it difficult to sit still in meditation, or you might find poses repetitive. But just because it feels frustrating, you can find rewards over time.

So find what works best for you, and keep in mind that your experience of the identical exercise will change day to day.

Here are seven tips on how to use yoga for better sleep. Do these exercises after your regular nighttime routine so you can go straight to bed after the last exercise. Avoid doing these exercises in bed since your bed should be reserved for sleep as much as possible. Part of good sleep hygiene is a routine that prepares your body and mind for sleep. Consistency is important, so do even a little every night.

1. Start with self-compassion.
One fundamental basis of yoga is being kind and compassionate to your body and mind. Notice if you are holding onto harsh thoughts. Try to weave in self-compassion for both your body and mind throughout your practice, and let go of the idea of perfection. Do not do anything painful.

2. Get in touch with your breath.

  • Find a comfortable seat or lie down on your back.
  • Close your eyes.
  • Place one hand on your abdomen and the other hand on your chest.
  • Begin to take smooth, slow breaths as if you are sipping air through your nose. Exhale through your nose slowly, keeping your mouth closed.
  • Pace your breath by repeating these phrases in your mind:

On the inhale, "I breathe in, and let go of the day."
On the exhale, "I breathe out, and let go of the day."

3. Release tension using a yoga breath called Lion's breath.

  • Inhale through your nose.
  • Stick out your tongue and exhale through your mouth loudly, as if you are fogging up a mirror.

4. Calm down using forward folds.
Avoid using your hands to pull yourself forward or forcing the shape of the pose--it's not about your hands or head reaching the floor or your feet. Instead, let gravity do most of the work.

Standing Forward Bend

  • Arm variations: Place your hands to opposite elbows, or clasp your fingers at the base of your head
  • Bend your knees as much as you need to in order to rest your torso on your thighs.

Wide-Legged Forward Fold

Head to Knee Forward Bend

Seated Forward Bend

5. Gently stretch your hips.
Be cautious if you have any hip injuries.

Bound Angle

Reclined Figure Four

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Reclined Bound Angle
If you have tight hips, try placing blocks or a folded blanket underneath your knees or placing your feet further away from your tailbone.
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6. Try a gentle inversion.

Legs Up the Wall

7. Wind down at the end of your practice with a body scan meditation.
Body Scan for Sleep meditation (12 minutes)

If you're still stressed, check out Yoga Poses for Stress Relief.

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