Struggling to fall asleep? Try this restorative yoga sequence
After 15 years on the yogic path and now as a full-time teacher, I’m in a position where I’m fortunate enough to regularly embark on the most enlightening conversations with other yogis. One subject that crops up again and again is people’s relationship with yoga and the recognition that yoga is not just a way to keep fit and healthy but can also be used remedially.
This interest in yoga’s therapeutic uses is why I’ve been privileged on a number of occasions to assist with Judith Lasater’s restorative yoga teacher training in Australia, helping to promote the benefits of this deliciously passive practice. It uses effortless postures to restore the body and mind in a really effective way that allows you to relax, renew and appreciate a sublime state of restfulness.
As well as providing relief for lower back pain, headaches, breathing difficulties and jet lag, restorative yoga can also help bypass the need for prescription drugs to help with insomnia.
As well as providing relief for lower back pain, headaches, breathing difficulties and jet lag, restorative yoga can also help bypass the need for prescription drugs to help with insomnia. In fact, anyone who suffers from lack of sleep can enjoy the benefits of restorative yoga for full physical relaxation. On a spiritual level, this yoga form helps you to reconnect to your source, even if you are a beginner or new to yoga.
If you practise in the evening, restorative yoga can give you the ability to relax your body and mind to effectively fall asleep and, when practised during the day, it can provide additional rejuvenation if you’re recovering from an illness or just generally feeling depleted.
So, while restorative yoga’s excellent as a bit of a pick-me-up in those times when you’re feeling exhausted, it can also provide you with the essential tools and techniques that result in improved quality of sleep.
Stress vs rest
Modern lifestyles tend to be filled with computer work, long-distance Travel, constant communication and the information super-highway of the internet, none of which your body was designed for. This can lead to the very real and common problem of living with the constant stimulants of stress. Stress in excess — chronic stress, as it often becomes — can be harmful to your health. Because of the high stress levels in contemporary society, it’s important to learn how to manage your response to stress and at the same time activate the parasympathetic nervous system. This is the part of the nervous system involved with slowing things down and promoting digestion and assimilation as well as rest and relaxation.
As busy people, we all need to consciously set aside time to rest. Scheduling just a 10-minute savasana into your daily routine can improve your overall health and enhance the quality of your sleep. In a basic savasana pose, you lie on your back with your legs comfortably apart and feet rolling out to the sides, and your arms out to the sides with your palms facing up. The left and right sides of your body should be more or less symmetrical, so it’s always a good idea to have a look at the positioning of your arms and legs and adjust them if necessary.
Because of the high stress levels in contemporary society, it’s important to learn how to manage your response to stress and at the same time activate the parasympathetic nervous system.
Spending 10 minutes in supported savasana (described below) will help to reduce fatigue, stress and anxiety. And, if you precede it with elevated legs-up-the-wall pose (also described below), the effects of the inversion help to further quieten the mind and refresh the heart and lungs, encouraging your body and mind to relax so you can sleep when you need to.
Longer restorative practices need a bit of preparation and arrangement of props, but you can use the same props in a number of ways. A good idea is to take a photo of a prop setup that works for you so you can remember how to use it again. Why not think about designating an hour or two on the weekend (Sunday evening works well for many people) to have a practice session, trying out a few different postures and taking pictures of the setup? Then, when you’re tired during the week, you can just default to one of the postures you’ve already tried and tested.
Practices to induce sleep
A really basic practice could include a simple savasana with a bolster under the knees for 10 minutes; or, if you have a little more time, you could do 10 minutes of lying with your legs up the wall before savasana. If you have longer still, you could include any supported reclined postures, with an emphasis on reducing fatigue and quietening the mind using full deep breathing in each and every pose.
In a yoga practice for sleep, you want to avoid stimulating and awakening postures such as backbends, side stretches or anything that involves muscular engagement. Once in position, your eyes should remain closed for the duration of each pose: an eyebag is an ideal aid to encourage the muscles around the eyes to relax. (If using an eyebag, most of the weight should be over your brow line, not on your eye sockets.)
As you may fall asleep in a restorative pose, it’s a good idea to set a gentle-sounding timer so you can totally relax. Pay attention to your body and work with it. If your sleep deprivation or insomnia is severe, be sure to see a health professional; however, for mild stress-related fatigue, restorative yoga works very well to develop new habits of relaxation.
When you start learning restorative yoga postures, your initial preoccupation will surround what props you need, where to place them and how to use them. As you get more experienced, though, you’ll begin to learn what works for you so you can make your own decisions and variations on how and when to use them. Everyone has different alignment, so individual needs will vary. It’s a good idea to begin in a sitting position so you can set up your props before you recline back. Once settled, make sure you are comfortable by scanning through your body to feel the props are at the right height and in the correct place for you to relax. This practice is about generating internal quietude through withdrawal of the senses, and the appropriate use of props can create a great environment for encouraging rest.
In addition to props, a key component to restorative yoga is a quiet environment, which basically means disconnecting from the outside world. The ability to fall asleep requires this separation from disturbances to become physically inactive (for less tossing and turning in bed) and mentally disconnected (for less thinking and mental planning) as your head hits the pillow. Getting into the habit of turning off electrical devices at least 30 minutes before bedtime and avoiding lengthy conversations at the end of the day are also good habits to get into, which is why I recommend putting your phone on flight mode before you do your practice.
This practice is about generating internal quietude through withdrawal of the senses, and the appropriate use of props can create a great environment for encouraging rest.
Nevertheless, I totally get how difficult it is to abstain from technology, especially as we’re used to handling so many things at once. The urge to do just one last thing before bed, whether it’s mentally stimulating (such as checking your emails one last time) or physically stimulating (such as a last bit of housework), often seems far more important than the task really is.
That’s why it’s important to consider what is fundamentally more important: ticking off something on your to-do list, which will be there again tomorrow anyway, or taking the time to nurture yourself on a physical, mental and spiritual level to create a haven where your body, mind and soul can rest. Considering this daily will not only soften over-thinking and over-doing tendencies, it will also serve as a reminder that you are obliged to care for yourself first so you are then better able to take care of others. And your physical, emotional and mental wellness requires good-quality rest.
Your day is complete, it’s almost bedtime and, although you feel tired, you know you’re having one of those weeks where you just can’t fall asleep. What yoga postures can you do to allow for a good night’s sleep? If all you do is create an environment where you will not be disturbed, turn off your mobile phone and computer, dim the lights, use some pillows and blankets to create a comfy supported savasana, close your eyes and try to focus solely on the effortless flow of your breath for 10 minutes. That could be enough to send you to sleep.
Is that all a restorative yoga practice for sleep consists of? Possibly. To begin with, just experiment with reclined postures and variations of savasana using bolsters, blankets, pillows, cushions or other firm but soft support. Savasana is the ultimate pose for relaxing body and mind as it addresses both the physical and psychological requirements for sleep. Studies have shown that the physiological effects of deep rest greatly benefit your brain as well as your nervous system. So don’t limit a supported savasana to a restorative yoga session: it’s just as valuable after a more active session to be passively supported in order to receive energy at the end of your practice.
I would advise you to persist with the restorative postures below and experiment with what works for you, even if you start with a basic supported savasana and then introduce further options into your practice later. By making your pre-snooze yoga session a regular habit, you’ll establish a lasting passion to reset yourself and prepare for good-quality sleep so your physical and mental health can prosper.
Supported reclining pose
Suggested hold time: 10 mins
Suggested props: 1 bolster + 4 blankets
Place your bolster on the floor with a folded blanket at one end to support your head. Sit in front of the bolster with it touching your tailbone, placing a rolled-up blanket underneath your knees. Lean back onto the bolster so your head is resting on the folded blanket. Roll up another two blankets to use as armrests at about a 45-degree angle away from your body.
Settle into the props, arms out with your palms facing up. Slow your breathing as you allow each breath to lengthen, experiencing the physical comfort of the props’ support as you relax.
Supported bridge pose
Suggested hold time: 5 mins
Suggested props: 2 bolsters (or 4 or more folded blankets) + 1 blanket
Place your bolsters end to end to make one long bolster that will support your body. Lie back on the bolsters with your head and tops of the shoulders resting on the floor. Keep your chin level to your forehead to maintain the natural arch of your neck.
Be sure that the bolsters or blankets underneath you are completely supporting the weight of your legs and torso as you extend your arms out to the sides at a comfortable angle. Allow the props to support you as you settle in and relax. Focus on your exhalations to release stress and anxiety.
Supported wide-angle pose
Suggested hold time: 5 mins
Suggested props: 1 bolster or chair + 1 or more blankets
Come into a sitting position with your legs wide apart and a bolster in front of you. Lean forward to rest your torso, arms and head on the bolster; or, if you can’t lean that far forward, use a chair to support your head instead.
With restorative yoga the aim is not to stretch but to feel supported. Sit up on a folded blanket or two if your lower back feels any strain, and move closer towards the chair to decrease the angle of your torso.
Suggested hold time: 10 mins
Suggested props: 4 blankets
Place one folded blanket behind you for your head and neck to rest on. Fold another two or three blankets and pile them one on top of the other to elevate your lower legs, making sure the pile of blankets is long enough to support the distance from behind your knees to your Achilles tendons at the back of the heels.
Breathe normally, feeling the support of the props underneath you as you completely relax. As your breath naturally deepens in this position, notice your awareness moving into your abdomen, feeling your belly softly rising and falling with your breath.
Elevated legs-up-the-wall pose
Suggested hold time: 10 mins
Suggested props: 1 bolster + 1 or more blankets
With your bolster parallel to the wall, place a folded blanket perpendicular to the bolster, making a T shape. Sit on one end of the bolster side-on to the wall then roll onto your back as you swing your legs up the wall so your spine is supported by the folded blanket. With your sacrum resting on the bolster, your upper back will be resting on the floor and your legs will be more-or-less straight up the wall.
Rest your arms on the floor, either out to the sides or over your head if comfortable. Allow yourself to feel the support of both the bolster and the floor as you take slow, steady breaths.
Variation: you could do legs-up-the-wall without the pelvis elevated on the bolster if you need to avoid inversions.
Suggested hold time: 5–20 mins
Suggested props: 1 bolster + 1 blanket
Come into a basic savasana, lying on your back with your legs comfortably apart and your arms away from your body. Fold your blanket into a rectangle approximately 40cm × 60cm, roll up one of the long edges and use the rolled edge to support your neck and the flat part to support your head.
Place the bolster underneath your knees to release your lower back onto the floor. Your whole body should feel relaxed as you enjoy the stillness this posture brings to body and mind.