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Yoga for Better Sleep

Trouble sleeping? I have been there. Many times. Sleep has been something I have struggled with on and off since high school. Sleep trouble can hit you when you are trying to fall asleep and end up lying there for hours. Alternatively, it can strike in the middle of the night – that 3:00 witching hour when you are suddenly awake and struggle to drift back off to sleep. Sometimes I will settle into bed, thinking I'll be drifting off in no time and then end up tossing and turning. My list of to do's run through my head around and around the racetrack. Then sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and just can't get back to sleep. It can be physically and mentally exhausting. When I don't get enough sleep, everything seems like too much effort. I'm frazzled, my brain is foggy and things that normally wouldn't upset me become a big deal. Then the next evening comes and I start to worry about not being able to sleep again which becomes a counterproductive cycle.

Some people live on much less that the ideal 7-9 hours of sleep, thinking it doesn’t affect them. However, anything less than seven hours can increase most people’s risk of high blood pressure, stroke, obesity, diabetes, and other conditions that reduce life expectancy, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Stress, lack of physical activity, and pre-bed screen time are also culprits for keeping us awake, according to the Washington, DC–based Sleep Foundation. Many of us get so busy during the day that we can't or won't deal with the real issues in our lives. As soon as we settle down and attempt to go to sleep, the unconscious mind can finally begin to deal with it all. Then there's so much going on and so much to process, that it rattles the conscious mind awake again.

Yoga can help calm your nervous system and help you get better sleep. Better sleep is important for balancing the body and mind, especially during times of stress. Getting enough sleep can help balance your hormones leading to better immunity. The following six yoga practices can help you find peace of mind and hit the pillow ready for sleep. Sleeping well can keep you healthier and stronger. These practices can be done when sleep just won't come or when you find yourself awake in the middle of the night. It can be just enough to begin to digest what's on your mind and ease towards a peaceful sleep. When I find myself getting caught up in the same old stories ruminating in my mind, I remind myself that I can choose to engage with these thoughts or let them pass. So, while I can't will myself to sleep or demand that my mind stop chattering, I can invite a sense of peace and well-being. Taking this nonviolent approach towards sleep and sleeplessness can help release the thoughts that keep you trapped in sleeplessness.

Begin by taking a few supportive steps: turn off any screens, gather blankets, pillows and an eye pillow. Dim or turn off the lights. Place a few drops of lavender or frankincense essential oil onto a cotton ball and place it near your head or into a diffuser. These essential oils are known to help reduce nervous system tension and promote sleep. If you notice anxiety or stress begin to creep in, count the length of your inhales and exhales, working to eventually extend your exhale by several counts.

1. Dynamic Forward-Fold Sequence

Begin standing. Exhale as you fold forward with a long spine, sliding your hands down and around the backs of your legs. With each inhalation, rise up to extend your back into a halfway lift, sliding your hands up to the backs of the knees. On each exhalation, slide the hands down the backs of your knees as you fold forward. After six repetitions, remain folded forward, keeping the knees bent to support the lower back. Allow the spine to lengthen and the head to drop easily to the floor. Rest your hands down. Hold the forward bend for 10 breaths.

2. Cat-Cow Series

Lower your knees to come onto all fours with wrists beneath the shoulders and knees beneath the hips. To start the series, inhale and drop the belly, gently drawing the chest forward and the tailbone back, creating the tiniest of backbends. Then, begin to exhale as you round the spine. Complete the exhalation as you lower all the way back with the hips on the heels and the belly on the thighs. Let the exhalation stretch twice as long as the inhalation. Then repeat: As you inhale, rise back up and again extend the spine, moving fluidly between the three phases of the pose. Repeat 10 times.

3. Supported Child’s Pose

This comforting pose will help you turn your senses inward, release the muscles that keep you upright during the day, and settle into a restorative, restful practice. Place a pillow lengthwise in the middle of your bed or mat. Come to Child’s Pose, with your toes touching and the pillow between your thighs. Fold forward and rest your belly, chest, and head on the pillow. Rest your arms to either side of the pillow. Turn your head to the right and close your eyes; breathe here for 2 minutes. Then, slowly turn your head to the opposite side and stay for the same duration, allowing your exhales to lengthen.

4. Supported Side Child’s Pose

Get two blankets: Fold one blanket in thirds, lengthwise, and roll up the other one like a bolster. Lie on your right side, resting your head on a pillow. Draw your knees up toward your chest and place the folded blanket between your knees, lower legs, and feet. Your lower legs should be parallel to each other. Bring the rolled blanket in front of your torso to support your top arm and provide a sense of emotional support. Close your eyes and stay here for 5 to 10 minutes. Lying on your right side can help open your left nostril for increased airflow, which is believed to activate the right side of the brain and the parasympathetic nervous system --promoting feelings of safety, ease, and sleepiness.

5. Supported Constructive Rest

For this pose, you’ll need two folded blankets (or a blanket plus pillow) and an eye pillow. Place the first folded blanket under the balls of your feet and bend your knees. Lie down on your back and rest your head on the second folded blanket (or pillow), so that your neck feels relaxed. Place the eye pillow on your belly so you can more easily feel your breath rise and fall. Then, cross your arms over your upper chest, as if hugging yourself, and close your eyes. Stay here for 5 minutes, switching the cross of your arms halfway through. This relaxing pose releases the lower back, a place where many of us harbor tension that we carry to bed.

4. Supported Reclining Bound Angle Pose

Find two pillows or folded blankets. Lie down and bend your knees, bringing the soles of your feet together for bound angle pose or supine butterfly.  Slide a blanket under each leg to support the knees, shins, and feet. Rest your hands on your lower belly and place your elbows on the bed. Stay here with eyes closed for 5 minutes.

5. Legs-Up-the-Wall Pose

In your bed, or a place on the floor, come to where you can bring your legs up the wall. Have a pillow nearby. Sit with your right side against the wall, and then lower onto your back and swing your legs up. Bend your legs and press your feet into the wall to lift your hips off the floor, and then slide the pillow underneath the back of your hips. In this pose, your hamstrings are flush against the wall. If your hamstrings are tight, bend your knees or move the bolster and your buttocks away from the wall. Place your arms and shoulders on the bed or floor in a cactus shape, palms facing up. Soften your belly and make sure your lower back is comfortable. This pose opens your chest, making inhaling easier. It also relaxes your legs. Rest here for 5 minutes before bringing your knees into your chest, rolling to your side, and finding a snug sleeping position.

6. Breath-Awareness

Now that you are in a comfortable position:

  • Notice your belly rising and falling.

  • Feel the rhythm of your natural breathing.

  • For five breaths, as you inhale through your nose, feel your breath travelling down into your heavy, relaxed legs.

  • For the next five breaths, observe the pause at the end of your exhalations.

  • Keep bringing your mind back to the breathing cycle.

  • Observe how your entire body moves in concert with your lungs and diaphragm.

Additional sleep tips:

1. Choose a relaxing activity to do every night before bed. Listening to music, reading a book, taking a bath, and doing yoga can all be helpful to establish a routine that your brain can interpret as time for sleep.

2. Ease up on caffeine and alcohol. Even one morning cup of coffee can be a problem for some people, me included. When I dropped all caffeine, I immediately started sleeping better. Alcohol can cause nighttime waking also, as it can lower your blood sugar causing an insulin spike in the middle of the night that leads you to wake up.

3. Keep a nighttime journal to write down all of your concerns about the things you have to take care of tomorrow. Knowing you don’t have to keep it all in your head can help you relax.

Do you have trouble sleeping? Did you try some of these poses and tips? How did it go? Let me know in the comments below. Are there any additional tips that have helped you?

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