10 yoga exercises for a better night's sleep
If you often struggle to fall asleep, you're not alone: lots of people toss and turn for hours in bed before finally drifting off and getting some actual rest.
When it happens regularly you can end up feeling constantly tired during the day, possibly overusing sugar and coffee to stay awake, and even getting depressed and gaining weight as a result. That's serious!
Doing the following yoga poses before bed will help you fall asleep (and stay asleep). They're all quite simple, so even if you've never done any yoga and don't think of yourself as "flexible," you'll be able to master these without a problem.
The first time you do these poses, it's good not to stay in them too long. One minute is plenty. Later, you can extend the pose to five minutes or even longer.
1. Balasana — Child's Pose
If you have knee problems, this one probably isn't a good idea. But for everyone else, this pose will relax your nervous system, back, shoulders, belly, and your mind.
If your rear end doesn't reach your heels, fold a blanket a few times over and tuck it under your bum so you can really let go. You can stretch your arms out in front of you or let them relax at your sides. Set an alarm so you know when to come out of the pose. While you're in the Child's Pose be sure to breathe deeply, especially into your back.
2. Utkata Konasana — Reclining Bound Angle Pose
Some people call this the butterfly pose: lying on your back, prop up your knees, place the soles of your feet together and gently let your knees fall away to the sides.
Most of us can't lie flat in this pose. Our knees will be at least a few inches away from the ground. So to relax, put a stack of books or a rolled up blanket or pillow under each knee. Let your arms splay out at your sides, totally relaxed as well. Breathe all the way in to your lower belly.
3. Back Roll
Lying on your back, take hold of your knees (or if you can reach, all the way around your shins as pictured here). Rock gently from side to side. It's a great way to stretch and massage your lower back after a long day. Let your legs and feet completely relax. At the same time, let your shoulders melt toward the ground — be sure not to tense them while holding your knees. And of course, breathe deeply.
4. Supta Matsyendrasana — Reclined Spinal Twist
Lying on your back, prop up your knees and then let them fall over to the right side. You can stabilize your legs by holding the left thigh with your right hand. But at the same time, stretch your left arm out to the left and gently roll your head to the left.
Here too, you want both shoulders to relax into the ground as much as possible. And yes, breathe! Then repeat the pose on the other side.
5. Matsyasana — Fish Pose
Lying on your back with your arms on the ground at your sides, slide your hands — palms down — under your rear end. As you slide them, start to press the whole lower arms into the ground while bending your elbows. The effect is to lift your upper body gently upward and open your chest.
You can hold your head up, if your throat and neck are uncomfortable, or gently let your head fall backward toward the ground. Take five to ten deep breaths and then carefully remove your hands from under you. Lie flat and enjoy the open sensation in your chest.
6. Kapotasana – The Pigeon
This is a more advanced pose that you can save for when you've practiced the others a few times. Most people need a blanket, pillow, or book to prop under their seat during this pose so prepare yourself first. Now, seated cross-legged, place your palms on the ground in front of you and shift your weight forward off your rear end. Slide your left leg backward until it's stretched out, as pictured. The back of your left foot should be pressing against the ground.
Open your chest forward, relax your shoulders, and be sure that you place a thickly-rolled blanket or pillow under the right side of your rear end so you can fully let go. It's both an intense stretch and a super-relaxing position.
Now carefully walk forward with your hands until your upper body is stretched over your bent right leg. Try to keep your back as straight as possible: it's more important to keep length in your back than to bend all the way forward to the ground. Continue breathing and letting go in your head and shoulders, while allowing the stretch to extend in your hips and groin.
At the beginning you shouldn't stay longer than one minute in the Pigeon Pose, but later you might enjoy it for up to ten minutes. And then repeat the pose on the other side!
As countless people have discovered, meditation is incredibly good for relaxing, leaving the day's stress behind, being in the moment and letting go. Cross your legs, seated on the edge of a neatly rolled blanket or thick book. Extend your spine upwards and relax your shoulders at the same time.
It's good to have set an alarm for the amount of time you want to sit (one, five, ten minutes or longer!). Now start to breathe more deeply. Focus on the sensation of breathing and each time your mind wanders away, just come back to the air coming in and flowing out.
If you're distracted by a particular subject, or a feeling or experience, see if you can allow yourself to be just as you are — even if it's frustrated, sad, angry, or excited. For right now, instead of being distracted by it, just "be" it. And come back to your breath.
8. Paschimottanasana — Seated Forward Bend
Sitting up, stretch your legs out flat and before leaning forward, sit up very straight. Extend your spine upward and once your back is as lengthened as it can get, bend forward.
If you want to focus more on your legs, then you can "droop" over forward with a bent back. But if you have any back problems, or if you want to include your whole body in the pose, then keep your back straight and just bend as far down as you can with a straight back. Even if it's not at a 45 degree angle, don't worry! Most people aren't very flexible and the depth of your forward bend doesn't matter at all.
Prop yourself up (to help keep your back straight) by placing your hands next to your thighs or knees depending on how far forward you can bend. And what else? You got it: breathe!
9. Parivrtta Sukhasana — Meditation Pose with Turn
Sit cross-legged, place your right hand on your left knee and your left hand behind your left hip. Twist your upper body gently to the left. Continue to breathe (of course) and extend your spine even while you rotate. Then repeat on the other side.
10. Legs on the Wall
Find a free wall where there's enough space on the ground to lie down and prop your legs against the wall. Let your arms rest at your sides and your shoulders melt into the ground. Breathe into your whole chest.
If you're on the stiff side, you may want to be a little further from the wall for a gentler stretch. And for anyone with lower back issues, you can try tucking a blanket or pillow under your tailbone as a support.
If you've always been skeptical about yoga, then here's your chance: you don't have to go to a yoga studio filled with super-fit advanced yogis. You don't have to chant anything or light incense (though of course you may, if you like). Quietly, secretly, without telling anyone at all, you can try these poses to help with sleep problems, anxiety, or stress, and just see what happens.
After all, it's not just new-age gurus telling us yoga's healthy anymore, it's actual scientists. Lots of them. And if any of these exercises work for you, be kind and share them with a friend!