Crawling into bed for a good night of sleep is a comfort at the end of a long day; a moment of pure, comforting bliss. However, for some people, sleep anxiety creeps in at exactly that moment, bringing stress, anxiety, and sadly, little to no sleep. Sleep anxiety is likely related to an anxiety disorder experienced in one’s waking life, and/or related to the terrifying experiences of parasomnias such as nightmares, sleep paralysis, or night terrors. If sleep anxiety is causing you to experience insomnia and miss out on precious sleep, yoga may be just the tool you need to help you peacefully drift away into sleep.
When practicing yoga, the calming breath technique known as ujjayi (or ocean/victorious) breath aids in flooding your brain with fresh oxygen; this oxygen from deep breathing tells your brain to relax; your brain then slows your heart rate, helps your muscles release tension, and your blood to circulate better. We know why yoga helps us sleep better, but what kind of yoga should we be doing?
What Type of Yoga and Breath?
There are different styles of yoga, but not all are created for the same purposes. Vinyasa, or flow, yoga and hot yoga are geared more towards those wanting a heart-pounding exercise. This is great for another time, but getting your heart pumping before bed is not a good idea for those struggling with insomnia or sleep anxiety. No, what you need is hatha yoga or nidra, which John Hopkins Medicine says focuses on body position, more restorative poses (which involve more sitting and/or lying down), and the all-important ujjayi breath.
The Art of Living states that “uijayi” in Sanskrit translates to “breath of victory”; this breath is also known as the “ocean breath” because the sound heard in the back of the throat resembles waves crashing on the shore. To generate your breath of victory, constrict the back of the throat as if trying to whisper. As you inhale slowly through your nostrils, you should be able to feel the slight constriction and hear the “ocean” sounds. While inhaling, you should also be feeling your belly filling with air and expanding to your sides, back, and up to your chest. Once your belly is full of air, exhale slowly through the nostrils while keeping the constriction in the back of your throat. The breath should flow smoothly and, after some practice, become effortless. Focusing on the movement and sound of your breath will help slow your racing thoughts and bring relaxation into your hatha yoga practice.
What Are the Best Poses?
Before beginning your calming, bedtime yoga, set the stage for sleep. Turn off your screens, have some dim lighting, possibly some soft music or white noise, and even some relaxing aromatherapy. Do not forget your comfortable pajamas; you can even bring some cozy props, like pillows or blankets, to your yoga practice. When you picture someone doing yoga, you might envision them balancing on one arm or twisted into a non-human, pretzel-like shape, but the poses needed for better sleep are not that. They are achievable, meant to help with blood circulation, release muscle tension or swelling, help alleviate back aches or headaches, and overall, simply to help you relax. The Huff Post gives a detailed list of the best yoga poses to do at home before bed. Some of these poses are:
- Standing Forward Fold (Uttanasana)
- Plow Pose (Halasana)
- Legs up the Wall (Viparita Karani)
- Reclining Butterfly (Supta Baddha Konasana – Not pictured)
- This pose helps release tension in the hips, which is especially helpful after a day of sitting at your desk. To do this pose, lay down, and bring the soles of your feet together; let your hands rest at your side or on your belly. For a deeper stretch, bring your heels closer to your body.
- Supine Spinal Twist (Supta Matsyendrasana)
- Corpse Pose (Savasana)
Stay in these soothing positions for one to five minutes each, focusing on your ujjayi breath, letting your body relax and your thoughts slow down. After completing this calming flow, refrain from doing anything else so you can stay in your relaxed mental state, keeping your body and mind ready for sleep.
Conquering sleep anxiety and overcoming insomnia can feel impossible, but with a good bedtime routine, a healthy lifestyle, and the relaxing assistance of a regular yoga practice, it is possible.