02/26/2014 11:48 am ET | Updated Apr 28, 2014

The A, B, ZZZs of Yoga


A Yogi's Guide to Sound Sleep
Have you ever glanced at the illuminated numbers on the clock near your bed and thought in shock, "It's already 1:30 a.m. Crap! I have to get up at 6:30 a.m. If I can just fall asleep right now, I'll get five hours of rest." As you lie restless, you try to convince yourself that you can function on five hours of sleep -- yeah, right! You tell yourself this again at four hours, and then at three hours before you have to roll out of bed, until you start to get, dare I say, agitated and angry. Lord knows that won't help your cause.

Sleeplessness can be caused by a lot of things. Sometimes, it's a mind that won't let up. Your mind might be worried and frightful, or it could be so full of joy, happiness and excitement that it won't slow down, much less become still enough to let you get some shuteye. It doesn't matter whether you're thinking about a pending disaster or anticipating the best day of your life; you need your sleep, and to get it, you need to quiet that monkey mind. So how do you deal with a busy brain that won't let you get to sleep? My go-to nightcap is yoga. It's kind of like that warm glass of milk that helps you wind down and get ready for bed.

One of the main reasons yoga works so well as a sleep aid is that it releases your tension. Tension is anti-sleep. If you practice yoga, you can learn to release that stress, and also tune yourself into the habits that keep you from hitting the hay. But yoga doesn't just hush that monkey mind. It also triggers the parasympathetic -- "rest and digest" -- system in the same way that a few ZZZs do. By jump-starting parasympathetic activities like energy conservation, digestion and slowing of your heart rate, yoga can help you get ready for that much-needed shuteye. Studies have even shown yoga helps decrease insomnia.

Ready to start using yoga as your sleep aid?

First you need a plan, a ritual. Here's what works for me: Say you want to get to sleep by 10 p.m. By 7 p.m., stop taking in stimulants like coffee, alcoholic beverages and sugar. Also steer clear of heavy meals. Kill the TV by 8:30 p.m. I know, Breaking Bad and Dexter come on at 9, but you got TIVO, don't you? Keep your tube time to the daytime. Once the TV, laptop, tablet and phone are all dark, break out your yoga mat. Now, start the 90-minute advanced Astanga series. (Just kidding.) Relax, you're just going to do about 15 minutes of gentle forward bends, seated and supine postures, all with deep breaths designed to illicit the relaxation response in your mind. Whereas back-bends are exhilarating and standing poses are powerful, the gentle poses in this sleep routine make you do what gravity wants you to do anyway: move without exerting a ton of effort. Free your mind and your ass will follow, and much needed sleep will come.

Here's the yoga:

Stand with your feet hips distance apart at the back end of your mat, with your hands resting on your hips. Take a deep inhale and on the exhale, hinge at the hips and fall forward into a forward bend. Your knees should be softly bent to support your lower back and hamstrings. Take 10 breaths with your head hanging with gravity. Imagine all the busyness dumping out and dissolving into the floor while you empty your mind and melt your body. From your forward bend, walk your hands out into downward facing dog. Take five to eight breaths, not working too hard. You're doing this just to take the edge off and burn any excess energy that may be keeping you from sleeping. You're not trying to get stronger or fitter in this practice. You're trying to relax.

From down dog, drop to your knees and take child pose for 10 soft breaths. Feel your body soften and your mind start to surrender. As you come out of child pose, find your way into a seated posture. Bring the soles of your feet together in Baddha Konasana and gently drift into a forward bend. Take a few deep breaths. After cobbler posture, release both legs straight out in front of you for a long-held forward fold, 10 breaths at least. Move into a supported shoulder stand with a bolster. Better yet, move to the wall so you can stay for 10 breaths without working too hard. Lowering from should stand, take a gentle leg across body twist on both sides. Find your way to Savasana (corpse pose).

Here is the one time falling asleep in Savsana is not a bad ending. Stay in corpse pose until you feel ready for sleep. Move slowly off your mat. If you're not quite ready for bed, have a bedtime tea and spend five to 10 minutes in mediation. Whatever you do, please don't turn the gadgets back on. You're free, for now. Practice that easy routine every night, and you'll be the next Rip Van Winkle -- minus the bad hair and the halitosis.