Seven hours of sleep a day keeps the doctor away, right? OK, that's not how the saying goes, but it should, because shoddy shut-eye can hurt nearly every system in your body.
But with the weight of everyday worries — and concerns about the current coronavirus crisis — swimming in our heads when we hit the hay, lots of people aren't getting the prescribed amount of sleep.
In fact, a third of working adults are clocking fewer than six hours of zzzs a night, according to an April 2020 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. If that's you, look no further than your yoga mat to aid in the search for better rest.
Try This 5-Minute Bedtime Yoga Flow for Sounder Sleep
Even a short yoga flow can give you the calm you need to catch zzzs. This five-minute bedtime yoga practice from Brendon Abram, author of Teaching Trauma-Sensitive Yoga and founder of Get Yoga in Ontario, Canada, is "designed to release stressful energy from those places we tend to hold it the most."
To help you associate bedtime with relaxation, do this two-part flow in your bedroom before you hit the sheets. And for nights when you can't stop tossing and turning, try adding parts 3 and 4 to your relaxation routine.
Part 1: Getting Grounded and Centered
1. Ease Into Your Practice
About 15 minutes before your yoga practice, take some time to engage in an activity you find relaxing. A warm bath, soft music or cuddling with your fur baby are all nice ways to wind down.
2. Get Settled
- Find a comfortable seated position on the floor beside your bed. Your legs can be crossed or extended out in front of you. Allow your hands to rest on your knees or on your lap.
- As you inhale, lift your heart to lengthen the spine.
- As you exhale, maintain the length of the spine and allow your body to soften and sink around it into the support of the surface below.
- Connect to your breath, creating inhalations that are as long and deep as comfortably possible and exhalations that are slow and steady.
- Complete 4 or 5 rounds of breath.
3. Find Perspective
As you breathe, adopt a state of mind that will set the conditions for sleep to arise. Disconnect from your day, find the present moment and release any expectations about being able to go to sleep.
Remember, falling asleep is not a single discrete action. Rather, it's a set of steps that permit us to lower our overall level of arousal to the point where we stop being awake. If we take these steps to de-energize mind and body, sleep is the natural outcome.
4. Take Inventory
Take a few moments to observe and note what's present in the physical, emotional and cognitive domains of your being. Set the intention to let go of excess energy, which could be physical tension, emotional unease or ruminative thoughts.
5. Put Your Thoughts to Bed
Notice what thoughts are present and do your best to set them aside for the night. If they are truly important, you'll remember them in the morning.
Part 2: Asanas to De-Energize
As you move through these poses, become aware of any places you are holding tension, especially if it's one of the places you noticed tightness or stiffness in your inventory. Feel free to slow down or even pause as you explore these tense areas. Imagine you're breathing in fresh new energy to renew and refresh tired muscles and breathing out old energy and tension with each exhale.
Move 1: Neck Rotations
- On an inhale, lower your chin toward your chest. Move to a place where the sensation in the neck feels mild to moderate.
- As you exhale, keep the chin close to the chest and point it toward the right shoulder. Notice how the sensation in the neck changes. Maybe it changes location, maybe it changes in intensity.
- On the next inhale, bring the chin back to the center of the chest.
- As you exhale, point it to the left shoulder.
- Continue to follow your breath as you move from side to side for 30 seconds.
Move 2: Shoulder Stretches
- On an inhale, extend the left arm straight out in front at shoulder level.
- As you exhale, keep the left arm long and use your right forearm to draw the left elbow toward the right shoulder, bringing sensation into the left shoulder region. Stay here for 3 or 4 breath cycles.
- On an exhale, release the left arm and repeat on the right arm.
Move 3: Forward Fold
- Extend both legs long with the heels touching the floor. It's okay if there is a bend in your knees.
- As you inhale, reach both hands overhead and imagine you are lifting your heart to lengthen your spine. At the end of your inhale, suspend your breath for a count of 2.
- As you exhale, pull your navel in and up and hinge forward from the waist to bend the upper body toward the earth.
- As you bend, keep the spine long, extending the crown of the head away from the tailbone. Bend until you feel a mild to moderate sensation through the back of the legs or through the lower back region.
- Allow the hands to come down to the support of the earth wherever is most comfortable. You do not need to touch your toes.
- At the end of the exhalation, pull the navel in and up even more to expel every last bit of breath. Suspend your breath here for a count of 2.
- Inhaling slowly, rise, bringing the hands above the head. At the end of the inhale, suspend the breath for a count of 2, then exhale and fold forward again.
- Repeat 2 or 3 times.
Move 4: Cow Cat
- Take your time to transition onto your hands and knees into a tabletop position. Place your hands under your shoulders and your knees under your hips.
- As you inhale, tilt the tailbone back and up, lower the belly toward the floor, and lift your heart as you move into Cow. Keep the neck soft as you gaze to the front.
- As you exhale, pull the navel in and up, pressing down gently through the hands and knees as you arch your back upward into Cat.
- Follow your breath as you flow between the two. Inhale Cow, and exhale Cat.
- Do this for 3 or 4 rounds of breath.
Move 5: Heart-Opening Pose
- From tabletop, lower your torso toward the ground, hips pointed up to the ceiling. Allow your forehead to release to the floor, supporting it with a blanket, block or cushion.
- Place your hands wherever it feels most beneficial for you. You could extend them in front to lengthen the arms. You could place one hand on top of the other and use them to support your forehead, or you may wish to extend your hands back toward the feet.
- Pull the navel in and up and tilt the tailbone back and up to lengthen the spine. Maintaining the length of the spine, use exhales to release into and connect to the support of the surface beneath.
- Stay here for 3 or 4 rounds of breath.
Move 6: Side Bends
- From here, walk both hands to the right and press them into the floor to create a nice stretch through the left side body.
- Stay here for 3 or 4 rounds of breath. Feel how the side body expands with each inhale and how sensation diminishes with each exhalation.
- When you're ready, walk the hands back through center and to the left to create a nice stretch through the right side of your body.
Move 7: Child's Pose
- Lower your butt onto your heels and your torso down toward the floor, resting your forehead on the mat.
- Extend your arms in front of you, palms facing up to intensify the stretch or extend your arms behind you with your palms resting face up next to your hips
- Allow yourself to sink into the support of the ground below and each inhale to replenish you with soft, peaceful energy. With each exhale, think of releasing energy which no longer serves you.
Part 3: Guided Relaxation
Listen to your favorite guided relaxation. It could be based on imagery or sound. A yoga Nidra practice (i.e., a systematic form of guided relaxation) can be a really good way of taking your energy down an extra notch.
Part 4: Sleep-Inducing Breathwork
Sleep experts and behavioral therapists often recommend this style of pranayama or breath practice to deal with hyper-arousal. This 4:7:8 ratio breath exercise takes a bit of effort, but if you persist, it'll pay off.
- Inhale for a count of 4, suspend your breath for a count of 7, then exhale for a count of 8.
- As you breathe, do your best to pay attention to the act of breathing. If you catch yourself thinking of something other than your breath, set it aside and come back to breath.
- Repeat until you feel relaxed and fall asleep.
How Yoga Can Help Improve Sleep
"Yoga is a great way of shutting down the hyper-arousal that causes insomnia," Abram says.
When you experience hyper-arousal, your neurobiological and psychological systems are on overdrive. And a December 2013 study in Sleep Medicine found that hyper-arousal and anxiety negatively affect nighttime sleep and daytime wakefulness in patients with insomnia.
"This is where a consistent home-based yoga practice can help you get a better night's rest," he says. "Yoga is a process that helps us reduce excess energy below the threshold at which sleep is possible."
Indeed, a study in the May/June 2014 issue of Alternative Therapies concluded that three months of twice weekly yoga classes improved sleep quality for older adults with insomnia. Other research found that yoga offered more superior sleep-based benefits than aerobic exercise, per a paper in the April-June 2017 issue of Sleep Science.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “QuickStats: Percentage* of Currently Employed Adults Aged ≥18 Years Who Reported an Average of ≤6 Hours of Sleep† per 24-Hour Period, by Employment Category§ — National Health Interview Survey, United States, 2008–2009 and 2017–2018.”
- Sleep Medicine: “Hyperarousal in insomnia.”
- Alternative Therapies: “Yoga for Improving Sleep Quality and Quality of Life for Older Adults.”
- Sleep Science: “Effect of yoga and aerobics exercise on sleep quality in women with Type 2 diabetes: a randomized controlled trial.”