Imagine feeling great after five hours’ sleep. It’s not unheard of (Theresa May, Donald Trump and Margaret Thatcher – we’re thinking of you!), but for most of us to wake up refreshed, seven to eight hours of shut-eye is a minimum. Less than that and we’re moody, snappy and unable to make sound decisions. Not fun – for us or anyone in our orbit.
But, let’s face it, few people choose to burn the midnight oil night after night by choice – insomnia is a curse thrust upon them by stress, anxiety or an over-active mind. I’m lucky – I usually enjoy deep, uninterrupted sleep (eight hours +) and, by morning, I’m fired up and ready to meet the day ahead. It was a different story when my children were babies. Being on high-alert kept my sleep superficial, and I struggled to go back under after night-time feeds or sudden wake-up calls.
It’s a pattern I see repeated time and again in my pregnant and postnatal students – long hours spent tossing and turning, night after night. And it’s not just women dealing with heartburn or 3 AM feeds who suffer. An alarming number of adults I know struggle with the quality or duration of their sleep. Insomnia is an epidemic in today’s society, affecting one-third of adults.
“Insomnia is an epidemic in today’s society, affecting one-third of adults. People are living off adrenaline and caffeine, and consuming too much alcohol to unwind.”
People are living off adrenaline and caffeine, and consuming too much alcohol to unwind, all of which has a negative impact on the frequency of our brain-waves at night. We struggle to transition from a state of ‘Beta’ wakefulness to a state of ‘Theta’ deep relaxation, and on to a ‘Delta’ state of deep, dreamless sleep. This final state is essential for wellbeing, as our brain is literally bathed with cerebrospinal fluid and cleansed of toxins.
So, what’s my recipe for a great night’s sleep?
I’m a big fan of a nightly dose of magnesium citrate to relax my muscles and promote a deeper sleep. And, where possible, I include an Ayurvedic oil massage into my evening ritual before bed. It subdues ‘Vata’ – an energy that’s present in all of us and governs nervous activity and anxiety.
“Certain yoga postures encourage the parasympathetic nervous system (the ‘rest and digest’ part of our nervous system) to ease off and repair.”
Then there’s yoga – every insomniac’s best friend. Certain yoga poses encourage the parasympathetic nervous system (the ‘rest and digest’ part of our nervous system) to ease off and repair. Yoga Nidra (a state somewhere between meditation and a sleep-like consciousness) relaxes you on a deeper level and is perfect to practice anytime, either during the day to recharge or in the evening to encourage a night of deep sleep.
And, of course, nothing can beat a calming, restorative yoga routine for soothing the body and mind. Here are some of my favourite yoga poses to help restore sleep and take you from ‘surviving’ your days to ‘thriving’. In each yoga pose, close your eyes and hold for at least 10 deep breaths, placing emphasis on a long, deep exhale. Do whatever it takes to get comfortable – you may need to place folded blankets or yoga blocks under your knees or bottom. Relax and unwind…
10 yoga poses to soothe you to sleep
Easy Cross-Legged Pose (Sukhasana)
- Sit crossed-legged, resting your upturned hands on your knees and settle into the pose closing your eyes. Soften your shoulders and sit tall, lengthening upwards through the spine.
- Place one hand over your heart and the other on your belly. Inhale and feel the breath swell into your abdomen and chest so they start to press gently into your hands. Exhale, drawing your navel towards your spine, drawing the lower ribs down.
- Repeat for a minute or so. See if you can slow down your breath, keeping the face relaxed. Start to lengthen each exhalation.
Half Lord of the Fishes Pose (Ardha Matsyendrasana)
- Bend both knees, feet to the right side and lift your right foot, placing it on the outside of your left thigh.
Inhale and reach up with both arms.
- Place your right hand behind you on the floor, turning the body and folding your left arm around your right leg. Breathe into the twist for 5-10 deep breaths. With each inhalation, extend through the crown of your head and with each exhalation, twist a little further.
- Return to centre and repeat on the other side.
Seated Forward Bend (Paschimottanasana)
For this pose, you may need a strap.
- Sit tall with straightened legs. Firm your thighs and press down with your heels, feet flexed drawing the toes back.
- Reach forward, folding from your hips, keeping length through the spine.
- Take hold of your big toes or loop a strap around your feet. Inhale and lengthen your torso. Exhale and fold forward. Repeat a few times, going deeper into the pose if it feels comfortable. Hold the pose for a few slow, deep breaths, focussing your awareness inward, then return to a seated position.
Child’s Pose (Balasana)
- Kneel on the floor with your toes touching and your knees apart. Lower your torso between your thighs and rest your forehead on your folded arms. Stay here for 5 breaths.
- Reach your hands forward, arms relaxed. Stay here, slowing down your breath, softening the face, for 5-10 deep breaths.
- Move your arms to the right while keeping your sitting bones on your heels and your hips squared to the front. Enjoy the stretch along the left-side of your body. Breathe here for 5-10 breaths. Return to the centre and repeat on the other side.
Bridge Pose (Setu Bandhasana)
- Lying on your back, bend your knees and place the soles of your feet on the floor with the feet parallel. Rest your hands next to your body.
- Inhale press into the feet and raise your hips while you bring your arms over your head until they rest on the floor behind you.
- Exhale and lower your hips, rolling down through the spine slowly while you bring your arms down to the floor. Repeat five times.
Downward-Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana)
- On your hands and knees, bring your knees directly beneath your hips and your hands slightly in front of your shoulders. Spread your fingers.
- On an exhale, reach the hips back, the heels towards the floor, legs and arms straightening so your body forms an inverted ‘V’ shape.
- Press your thighs back and push the floor away from you through your hands, spreading out the fingers so your chest lowers slightly.
- Feel the navel move back with each exhalation. Breathe slowly for 5 breaths. Lower yourself to the ground, resting back into child’s pose for a few breaths.
Alternate Nostril Breathing (Nadi Shodhana)
- This breathing practice is great for balancing the two hemispheres of your brain and restoring equilibrium. Place your left hand on your left thigh and lift your right hand with the second and third fingers tucked in towards the palm.
- Close the right nostril with the thumb and breathe in through the left side, now breathe out through the right nostril as you close the left nostril with the ring finger.
- Repeat, breathing in through the right, closing the left and breathe out through the left, closing the right. Keep going with this pattern. Continue for a minute or so. Finish off exhaling through the left nostril and lower the hand down.
- Come back to a comfortable sitting position, close the right nostril with your right thumb, and inhale slowly through your left nostril.
- Close your left nostril with your ring finger and exhale through your right nostril. Repeat ten times then start again on the other side, inhaling through your right nostril and exhaling through your left nostril.
Legs-up-the-Wall Pose (Viparita Karani) to Shoulder Stand (Sarvangasana)
- Lie on the ground with your bottom against the wall and your legs resting vertically on the wall. You may want to place a support beneath your bottom and/or under your shoulder blades. Allow your weight to sink into the ground.
- Place your hands on your belly and breathe deeply, filling your belly with each inhale, drawing your navel to your spine with each exhale. Stay here for up to 10 minutes then choose if you want to progress to a shoulder stand.
- From Legs-up-the-Wall Pose, bring your hands behind your back and press your palms against your lower back for support. Broaden and lift your chest and peel your legs off the wall so your knees are stacked above your hips. Keep your head in the centre. Creep your hands up your back, encouraging your body to straighten. Your weight should be supported by your upper back, not your neck. Slowly lower back down, resting with the legs against the wall for a few minutes or longer if you like.
Legs-up-the-Wall Pose Variation
- This pose will deepen your relaxation. It’s also perfect for those who suffer from leg or back pain and struggle with the straight-legged version. With your hips close to the wall, bend your legs towards your chest and place your hands on your knees. Hold for one minute, softening the lower back.
- On an inhale, widen and straighten your legs, gently pressing your thighs open with your hands to deepen the stretch. Hold for one minute, or as long as feels comfortable.
- Bring together the soles of your feet with the knees bent. Hold for one minute or as long as feels comfortable.
- Slowly hug the knees to the chest and stay for a few breaths with the eyes closed. Roll over to the side to come back up slowly.
Corpse pose (Savasana)
- Everyone’s favourite pose! Hold it for as long as you can.
- Lie flat on your back. You can use a cushion under the knees if you want to. Spread your feet and allow your arms to fall to the side, palms up. Consciously move your awareness to each area of your body and relax each part.
- Observe your breath. Allow thoughts to drift through your mind. Relax.
Tara Lee is a UK-based yoga teacher with over 20 years experience (www.taraleeyoga.com). She specialises in Vinyasa flow yoga, pregnancy yoga and post-natal yoga.