March 28, 2014

No Pills: 6 Yoga Poses for Insomnia. ~ Frances Sheridan Goulart

sleep 2

Sun’s down and still up?

If this describes you, then you’ve got plenty of company. 48 percent of us have occasional insomnia, while 22 percent have the no shuteye curse nightly. In short, if you have trouble staying awake during the day  but can’t fall asleep or stay asleep at night, you’re among the numbered. Forget the warm milk and unroll your yoga mat!

Why Are You Still Awake?

One factor that could be affecting us is Sleep Maintenance Insomnia, which occurs when we fall asleep but wake up without being able to nod off again. Another factor could be Circadian Rhythm Disorder, where your body’s internal clock is out of sync with the schedule you are trying to follow. Add in some depression, anxiety, and life events like a divorce or a job loss, and stress hormones are in high gear and robbing you of sleep.

Caffeine is known to inhibit sleep, along with antidepressants and many other medications (Get the list from your doctor or pharmacist).  Hypnotic sleep inducing medications can be harmful and/addictive, but yoga poses are safe enough for a child to do (and if a child is the reason you’re still wide awake, unroll a mat for them, too!).

Yoga Poses Can Help Us Sleep

The right yoga poses can be good therapy for a good night’s slumber, says Dr. Timothy McCall, MD, author of Yoga as Medicine: The Yogic Prescription for Health and Healing (Bantam, 2007). One reason for this is that a common blood pressure reflex (the bareflex) causes reclining and inverted positions to promote sleep, in contrast to standing positions which inhibit it.

So roll up your pajama pants, grab a bottle of water (but not a beer, alcohol also leads to early morning waking and poor quality sleep) and get down.

This sequence should be done at least 60 minutes before your bedtime, and don’t cheat on the finale—Savasana (corpse pose). The final 10 minutes of relaxation may turn into the real thing, especially if you’ve covered up with a blanket.

 1) Downward-Facing Dog (Adho Muhka Svanasana):

Kneel on all fours, then press up into a pyramid shape, moving your hands ahead of the shoulders and creating length in the spine. Place a yoga block, a bolster or a rolled up blanket under your head as a support and to make the pose restful. Let the support take the full weight of the head.  Hold for a minute or two, drop down onto all fours and sit back toward heels. Repeat two times.

2) Legs up the Wall Pose (Viparita Karani):

Lie on the floor parallel to the wall. Lift legs and swivel around so heels are supported by the wall and hips are few inches away from wall. Slide a pile of folded blankets or a bolster under lower back and open arms into a cactus shape. Relax the entire body, close the eyes. If legs become fatigued, slide the soles of feet together and open knees, or pull knees into the chest for a minute, then repeat the pose. Hold as long as comfortable. To increase the restorative quality of the posture, place a scented eye bag or eye mask over the eyes.

 3) Cross-Legged Forward Bend (Sukhasana):

Sit cross legged with a bolster or folded blankets in front of knees.  Fold the arms and rest them on the support with your head down and eyes closed. As a variation, extend the legs and place the bolster just ahead of the lap and rest your arms and head on this support.

 4) Bridge Pose (Setu Bandha Sarvangasana):

Lie on back with knees bent and feet hip distance apart. Lift the hips and roll weight onto the upper back. Place a bolster under the lower back or a yoga block sideways or on its shorter side so that the prop is supporting the lower body. Extend the arms alongside the body, cover the eyes, and relax. Alternately, extend the legs.

 5) Supported Child’s Pose (Balasana):

On a blanket or yoga mat, start on all fours, then open knees wider than hips and slide a bolster or stack of blankets under the head and torso. Turn cheek to one side and rest, then turn to the second side.

 6)  Corpse Pose (Savasana): 

Lie on your back on a comfortable blanket or rug, and open your arms and legs with your palms facing the ceiling. Roll the shoulder blades down the back and rock the head side to side to release the neck. Add a comforter or blanket. Cover the eyes. Turn on some soothing music. Let go!

Why Do Calming or Restorative Yoga Poses Help Sleep?

  • Shift the balance from activating the sympathetic nervous system to relaxing the parasympathetic nervous system
  • Lower levels of cortisol, a hormone that increases the effects of adrenaline surges
  • Induce a feeling of equanimity, calming the mind
  • Reduce muscle tension which positively effects quality and quantity of sleep
  • Promotes slow deep breathing which raises levels of carbon dioxide, a natural sedative

To maximize the chances of slithering from Child’s Pose into sleep, consider adding a little meditation and pranayama (breathing) before (hopefully) calling it a night.

Sitting comfortably on a folded blanket on a chair in a room without distractions, simply close your eyes. Inhale and exhale through your nose, gradually lengthening your exhale breath. Set a timer, resisting the temptation to fidget or get up and become active again.

Begin with five minutes, lengthening the practice time of each session. The mind will gradually begin to slow down in response to the moving wave of the breath.

A little calming Chamomile or Valerian tea on the nightstand can’t hurt either when you’re ready to move from the mat to the mattress. Om!


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Editorial Assistant: Lizzie Kramer / Editor: Catherine Monkman

Photo: Courtesy of Francis Sheridan Goulart and Pixoto/ Mike Kremer

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