Maybe our brains won't shut off, or we find ourselves tossing and turning all night, unable to get comfortable. Whatever the reason for your lack of sleep, it takes a toll. Studies abound linking sleeplessness with increased risk of serious health problems such as diabetes and stroke, as well as depression, impaired judgment, memory lapses and other cognitive deficiencies.
Thankfully, there are some easy yoga-based techniques you can use nightly to fall asleep and stay asleep. It only takes about six minutes to leverage your body's natural sleep-facilitating processes.
These are the same stretching, breathing and meditative methods used by my professional athlete clients. As a yoga trainer for numerous sports teams, it's my job to help athletes restore their bodies and minds to perform at optimum levels. This includes creating sleep-facilitation programs to counter the effects of grueling game and travel schedules, so players can feel refreshed and ready.
I've designed this six-minute sleep program to be effective and accessible for most people, not just athletes.
It begins with two postures done bedside to address the tension that builds over the course of the day, particularly in your lower back and hip flexors. By lengthening and realigning these areas, you can prevent waking in the night due to stiffness, aches and pains.
Lengthens spine, especially low back; realigns pelvis and hips
Standing with your feet hip-distance apart and arms extended at shoulder level, exhale and sit back into a deep squat. Maintain weight in your heels. Avoid allowing your knees and/or toes to turn out. If you have difficulty squatting all the way down without lifting your heels or feeling unsteady, hold onto something secure, like your bed frame, for support.
Take three long deep breaths while squatting. Focus on relaxing your lower back with each exhalation.
If you experience discomfort in your ankles, knees or shins, try widening your stance and making sure you're dropping back into your hips as opposed to pushing forward into your knees.
Warrior one with side bend
Lengthens calves, hip flexors and side waist muscles
From standing, step your right foot back, placing your heel down with your toes angled slightly out. Bend your left knee to align above your ankle. Keep your back leg straight. Place your left hand on your left hip. If balance is a challenge, place your left hand on your bed or other support, instead of your hip.
Inhale as you reach your right arm up and over your head to the left, stretching your right side and front of your hip. Exhale to hold the posture. Inhale and return your arm to your side. Step back to standing. Repeat on the opposite side, then get into bed.
Once in bed, practicing a gentle twist to promote blood flow in the abdomen helps initiate the parasympathetic nervous system, also known as the "rest and digest" aspect of our autonomic nervous system, which lowers your heart rate and blood pressure and inhibits the production of stress hormones.
Supine bent-knee twist
Stretches hip, groin and low-back muscles; increases blood flow in the pelvis and abdomen; enhances mid-back mobility; opens chest
Lie on your back with your legs extended and arms at your sides. Place a pillow under your head, if desired. Hug your left knee into your chest. Inhale as you place your right hand on the outside of your left thigh and reach your left arm to the left. Exhale fully as you gently twist from your mid-back to bring your left knee across your body to the right.
Take two more long, deep breaths. Unwind and repeat on the other side.
Employing deep diaphragmatic breathing supports the restorative action of your parasympathetic system. And because the diaphragm also works as a postural muscle, attaching to the ribcage and lumbar spine (low back) and running through the hip flexors, diaphragmatic breathing promotes proper ribcage, back and pelvis position, which decreases the likelihood of waking due to discomfort or the need to change position.
Pairing deep breathing with backward-counting meditation is a simple yet effective way to focus and relax a wandering mind.
Diaphragmatic breathing and backward-count meditation
Get comfortable with your head on one pillow and another placed under your knees. If you prefer a side-lying position, lie on your left side with a pillow between your legs.
Close your eyes. Inhale through your nose, filling the lowest lobes of your lungs and back of your ribcage. You should feel your lower ribs expand outward, as opposed to only inflating your upper chest. Exhale and focus on your lower ribs internally rotating and descending. It's important that you feel your ribcage release downward as you exhale for proper function of your diaphragm. And a full exhalation is necessary to raise CO2 levels in your blood enough to inspire a natural, functional inhalation. When you think you've fully exhaled, contract your abdominal muscles to see if you can push out any remaining air. You'll likely find some! Once you've fully exhaled, pause before inhaling.
Try to lengthen and deepen your breathing to match this pattern: 5-count inhalation, 5-count exhalation, and 2-count pause after exhalation.
Once you've established the breathing pattern, begin counting your breaths backward from 20 to 1. Concentrate your mind on an image of each number and the sensations of your breathing. If you still haven't drifted off after 20 breaths (approximately three to four minutes), repeat the process, starting at 30 or 40 breaths.
Practicing this six-minute yoga program before bed should deliver consistent quality rest by creating an optimal physical (muscle relaxation and body positioning) and physiological (parasympathetic nervous system and diaphragmatic breathing) foundation for falling asleep and staying asleep.