Yoga for better sleep

Here we are in a time when life could be simpler and calmer for many. With fewer places to go to, less trains to catch, and no social events in the diary during the lockdown period, surely this is the time to feel less stressed and sleep better? On the contrary, sleep problems still seem very prevalent. Many of us have to be glued to screens for many hours of the day, working and ‘schooling’ from home, anxiety is in the air and the new reality is problematic for many. So many of my students have complained about sleepless nights that I decided to consult the recent publication of “Yoga Therapy for Insomnia and Sleep Recovery” by Lisa Sanfilippo. This blog about yoga for better sleep discusses and demonstrates one of the simple yoga sleep sequences that Lisa promotes.

Sleep problems can have many causes, ranging from worries and screen overload to physical pain and old traumas. Lisa Sanfilippo writes that poor sleep can be caused by physical, mental and emotional imbalance and can in its turn impair our physical, emotional and mental wellbeing. Her sleep recovery program suggests tools that go beyond bedtime rules to healing the individual holistically through yoga practices and self-care habits. I agree with her that not sleeping well can be a wake-up call to start rebalancing and healing. In fact, some other forms of illness can also be a wake-up call to change and improve one’s life, thoughts and happiness.

Simple bedtime routine

Lisa’s assembly of yoga postures support sleep by relaxing the nervous system. Practiced slowly before bedtime, they consist of simple, well-known yoga poses that aim to stretch different parts of the body. This is an important part of the sleep recovery programme because physical tension, according to Lisa, is interpreted by the brain as unsafe and therefore not a good condition to relax (Sanfilippo 2019, p33).

I have enjoyed practising and teaching this relaxing sequence and decided to write it out in this blog for you. Many of the poses can be beneficial for lower back pain. Unfortunately, many of these positions are unsuitable for people with disc problems. To learn about the yoga poses that can help you recover from a herniated disc, please contact me here to discuss private sessions: https://beneyoga.co.uk/contact-for-yoga-classes-in-chiswick/.

The explanations with the poses are mine. I have added instructions to keep the poses safe and aligned for people with lower back pain. For the sequence you will need a belt (or an old tie or bathrobe belt) and a yoga brick or fat book.

To read more about the sleep recovery programme, you can consult “Yoga Therapy for Insomnia and Sleep Recovery” by Lisa Sanfilippo.

Start the bedtime routine on all fours.

Cat and cow

-For the cat pose, exhale and arch the spine upwards, bringing the navel up towards the spine.

-Allow the head to hang down.

-Then inhale and arch the spine downward, moving the shoulders away from the ears and the shoulder blades down towards the waist.

Look forward and down to avoid crunching the back of the neck.

-Repeat both positions 3 to 4 times.

Child‘s pose

-Exhale the hips towards the feet and rest in child’s pose for about 5-7 breaths.

-Breathe into your sides and back, allowing the breath to be as long or short as it wants to be.

-Place the elbows on the floor to keep the shoulders relaxed. The hands can also point back towards the feet if that is more comfortable. 

Dog pose

This is a pose you may want to avoid if you have shoulder, lower back or sacroiliac pain. Likewise, if you have not tried this position before or you are unsure, simply rest longer in the child’s position. The problem for people with back pain is that the hamstrings are usually tight; they pull on the pelvis and don’t allow the spine to elongate. One way to avoid this is to keep your legs bent, so you can avoid rounding the lower back in the dog position.

-If you have tight shoulders and neck, it is all the more important to keep the hands wide and shoulders broad, preventing the neck from being crunched and shoulders to get even tighter.

-From the child position, stretch the arms forward, place the hands shoulder-width or even mat-width apart and curl the toes under. 

-Exhale and uncurl the legs, keeping the legs bent, especially to begin with.

-With the legs bent you can send the tailbone up and away behind you, tilting the pelvis down so the spine can elongate.

-It can also be nice to bend one leg at a time, exhaling as you reach one heel down and the other leg bends. Press on the opposite hand and stretch the opposite side with the next exhalation.

-Stay for a few breaths and return to child’s pose.

Quad stretch

-Lie on your front with the left hand under the forehead.

-With your right hand reach down to hold your right ankle. You could use a belt around the ankle so that you can determine the level of stretch that feels right.

-Tuck the tailbone and use the lower abdominals to avoid shortening and hurting the lower back.

-Breathe into the stretch. Most people find this a very strong stretch in the front of their thigh.

-Hold for about 5 breaths and then repeat with the other leg.

-Lisa takes the pose a little further by also lifting the chest. Do this only when your lower back is not tight and painful.

-For this “half bow” pose, make sure the tailbone remains tucked under strongly (or alternatively think about the lower abdmoninal muscles contracting to achieve the same result).

-Slide the lower arm closer to the chest as the head and shoulders lift. Keep the back of the neck long and stay a few breaths.

Leg stretch with belt

-Place a belt around the right foot and extend the right leg to the ceiling.

-It is very important to keep the back relaxed and the hips heavy on the floor.  Also relax the shoulders and soften the jaw muscles.

-Stretch the leg as you exhale and bend it again with every inhalation.

-Then hold the stretch and breathe in it for about a minute.

-Repeat with the left leg.

Leg stretch to the side

-Hold the belt with your right hand. Without moving or tensing the back, bring your right leg out to the right. You can counterbalance the weight of that leg by bringing the left knee out to the other side.

-Focus on the back remaining uninvolved and relaxed; the pelvis has to stay evenly on the mat.

-Again hold for about a minute and repeat with the left leg.

Glut stretch

-Place the right ankle (not the foot) just above the left knee and hook your hands around the left leg so you can bring this leg towards the chest. You can leave the left foot on the floor if that feels like a sufficient stretch.

-Alternatively, you can also place the foot on a wall if the shoulders are tight/painful. You do this by lying shin-length away from the wall, placing the left foot against the wall and the right ankle just above the knee.

-Breathe into this stretch, sending the breath to the area that feels stretched. Imagine the muscles are relaxing a little more every time you exhale.

-Hold for 60 to 90 seconds if comfortable and repeat on the other side.

Twist

-Lie on the back with the legs bent and feet on the floor.

-Extend the arms to the side, 90 or 45 degrees.

-Try to keep both shoulder blades on the floor.

-Exhale and move the knees to one side. The knees can slide away from each other but try to keep the sides of the feet together.

-Inhale the knees to the centre and exhale them to the other side.

-The head always looks away from the knees.

-Repeat a few times to each side.

Supported bridge

-Lie on your back with the feet hip-width apart and in a comfortable distance from the body.

-Your arms are extended alongside the body with the palms up, 45 degrees away from the body tends to be most relaxing for the shoulders.

-Exhale and put weight on the feet, place a block or fat book under the pelvis. Rest in this position for a minute or even a few minutes. As I discussed in another blog about yoga for better sleep (https://beneyoga.co.uk/trouble-falling-asleep/), you can adopt this position (e.g. with a pillow) if you can’t get back to sleep in the middle of the night.

Hold knees

-Fold both legs to the chest and place one hand on each knee.

-Exhale and bring the legs a little towards the chest.

-Inhale and allow them to move away from you.

-Repeat for about a minute.

Rest

Rest for at least 5 minutes with your legs bent, or move to your bed to rest there on your back before falling asleep.

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