Do Yoga, Sleep Better — How to Cultivate a More Restful Practice
by Catherine Morris | March 5, 2021, updated over 1 year ago
A couple of weeks ago, right around the time the temperature dropped to a bone-chilling minus 15 degrees, I decided to take my first hot yoga class (I should point out that this was between lockdowns and it was technically 'warm' yoga to comply with Covid regulations).
I came, I posed, I got toasty… and then I went home and promptly fell asleep on the couch. When I was finally able to drag myself from sofa to bed, I had the best night's sleep I've had in a while.
When you start a yoga practice, the benefits just keep adding up. This diverse and ancient practice can improve your flexibility, your strength, your balance, your mood… and, yep, your sleep.
Yoga for Sleep
Around a third of us don't get enough sleep, according to the CDC, and that's not just a crisis in the bedroom, it has some very worrying consequences for our overall health—affecting our immune system, mental health, and resilience to disease, just to name a few.
The unfortunate reality is that lots of things wreck our rest. Chronic insomniacs, pregnant women, the elderly, people in shift work, anyone with sleep apnea, those with mental health issues or physical ailments all have trouble getting their optimal eight hours, but here's the good news—yoga is safe, easy to do from the comfort of your own home, and very effective.
Yoga triggers our parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), otherwise known as our 'rest and digest' functions. When activated, your PNS slows your heart rate and drops your blood pressure making you feel calm and relaxed. In this state, the body is conserving energy rather than using it. A great many yoga poses trigger our PNS, helping us quiet our minds and ready us for sleep.
Which Style of Yoga is Best for Sleep?
One of the wonderful things about yoga is that there's a style for everyone—from the muscle-bound athlete at the peak of their fitness to the absolute beginner who hasn't been able to touch their toes in a decade.
When picking the style that's right for you, there are two things to consider. Firstly, your ability level, and secondly your health goals. While I got my best rest from hot yoga, the more restorative styles are generally where you'll find the most benefits for your sleep. They’re also gentle enough for beginners while giving seasoned exercisers an effective stretch for tight muscles.
Gentle yoga forms include Hatha, a slow-paced routine that focuses on easing injury and promoting mindful movement, but if you're looking for a style specifically for sleep check out Nidra, a lesser-known yoga practice that has a strong meditative and spiritual bent.
Yoga Nidra, also referred to as 'yogic sleep', is one of the oldest branches of the practice and describes a trance-like state, where the body is neither fully awake nor fully asleep. Yogis enter this state through mindful breathing and meditation. Lying in corpse pose, yogis are guided through a meditation that takes the mind through five 'koshas' or energies—the idea being that each kosha represents a layer of self and in moving through all of them, the yogi truly connects with their spiritual centre.
Like most forms of meditation, the practice eases stress and anxiety. In one recent study, a group of chronic insomniacs gave Yoga Nidra a try and reported promising results—not only did they find it easier to fall asleep, they also noted an improvement in sleep quality throughout the night.
If you're new to meditation and struggle to sit still, don't worry—even an 11 minute stint on the mat can help your rest.
Pose to Doze—Which Yoga Poses are Best for Sleep?
Yoga classes are hard to find these days, thanks to Covid regulations. You can still take a class online, of course, and connect with a yoga practitioner virtually, but you also might want to try a few easy asanas yourself.
In yoga, every pose has a purpose. Some are energizing and some are specifically designed to relax the body and mind. Restful asanas include Legs Up the Wall (which is pretty self-explanatory… lie down, butt up against a wall and extend your legs upwards), Reclined Butterfly (lying down, bend your knees then let them fall open and away from each other to form a diamond shape) and, of course, that old favourite—corpse pose.
You might also want to try Child's pose, where you kneel on the floor and lean over, arms outstretched and belly resting on the thighs. From there, lift the hips (but keep the knees on the floor) into Extended Puppy Pose, another restful asana.
If any of the above poses are too strenuous, don't push it. Discomfort is not going to help you sleep and forcing your body into a position it's not happy with will only add to your stress. Ease out of any asana that doesn't feel right, or use a prop to support any weak areas. Place cushions under each knee in Reclined Butterfly to lighten the stretch in your inner thighs, put a block under your hands in child's pose so there's not as much strain on the shoulders. Don't be afraid to use whatever's handy if a stretch is too much, because comfort is key!
You might also consider an eye pillow, scented with sleep-supporting essential oils like lavender or chamomile. You don't have to turn your bedroom into a yoga studio, but thinking about creating the right environment for good sleep hygiene will help you go from downward dog to sleeping human in no time!
If you're new to yoga or just want to connect with an experienced yogi to learn more about yoga nidra and other sleep-supporting styles, reach out to one of our Which Doctor yoga practitioners. These experienced professionals offer online classes and consultations at discounted prices through our easy booking platform.
Catherine Morris is an award-winning journalist with a bad case of wanderlust and a passion for all things health and wellness. Originally from Northern Ireland, she worked as a news and feature writer for media outlets in the UK, South Africa, France and the Caribbean before settling in Canada. Catherine now lives in Alberta with her husband and rescue mutt and spends her time happily exploring the great outdoors with both.