7 Simple Yoga Tips for Better Sleep

Yoga poses, breathing exercises, and meditation can help improve your sleep.

Posted Jan 19, 2016

Yoga, meditation, and mindfulness are the latest "next wave" therapies to encourage better sleep and treat insomnia. Over 55% of people who do yoga find that yoga helps them get better sleep.

Yoga, including physical poses, breathing techniques, and meditation, can help calm down a busy mind and get rid of nervous energy. Yoga has both energizing (brahmana in Sanskrit) and calming (langhana) elements, and the combination of the two can achieve a sense of balance. Yoga also helps you become more aware of the mental and physical states that are preventing sleep. Yoga can be safely integrated with the current main form of therapy for insomnia: cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I).

Yoga, meditation, and other mindfulness have been shown to improve sleep in several studies, including  people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, military veterans, older adults, and nurses. Yoga also can improve sleep quality in people with physical illnesses, including osteoarthritis, breast cancer, Parkinson's disease, and irritable bowel syndrome.

Not everyone will enjoy the same elements of yoga-- some people find it difficult to sit still in meditation and others find yoga poses repetitive. Even if it feels frustrating at first, stick with it-- consistency is rewarding over time and will change your practice. Find what works best for you, and keep in mind that your experience of the same exercise changes day to day.

Here are 7 tips on how to use yoga for better sleep. Do these exercises after your regular nighttime routine so you can go straight to bed after the last exercise. Avoid doing these exercises in bed since your bed should be reserved for sleep as much as possible. Part of good sleep hygiene is a routine that prepares your body and mind for sleep. Consistency is important, so do even a little every night.

1. Start with self-compassion.
A fundamental basis of yoga is being kind and compassionate to your body and mind. Notice if you are holding onto harsh thoughts toward yourself or others. Set an intention to bring self-compassion throughout your practice, and let go of the idea of perfection. Do not do anything painful.

2. Get in touch with your breath.

  • Find a comfortable seat or lie down on your back.
  • Close your eyes.
  • Place one hand on your abdomen and the other hand on your chest.
  • Begin to take smooth, slow breaths as if you are sipping air through your nose. Exhale through your nose slowly, keeping your mouth closed.
  • Pace your breath by repeating these phrases in your mind:

On the inhale, "I breathe in, and let go of the day."
On the exhale, "I breathe out, and let go of the day."

3. Release tension using a yoga breath called Lion's breath.

  • Inhale through your nose.
  • Stick out your tongue and exhale through your mouth loudly, as if you are fogging up a mirror.

4. Calm down using forward folds.
Avoid using your hands to pull yourself forward or forcing the shape of the pose--it's not about your hands or head reaching the floor or your feet. Instead, let gravity do most of the work.

Standing Forward Bend

  • Arm variations: Place your hands to opposite elbows, or clasp your fingers at the base of your head
  • Bend your knees as much as you need to in order to rest your torso on your thighs.

Wide-Legged Forward Fold

Head to Knee Forward Bend

Revolved Head to Knee Pose

Do not pull or tug with your hands. For a more supported pose or if your hands cannot reach your toes, rest your the elbow of your lower arm along your thigh or onto the floor. Bend your lower arm so that you can prop your head up with your hand. Your top arm can rest along the top of your head for a gentle side stretch and let your arm dangle rather than reach for the foot. Let gravity do the work. Repeat for other side.

Seated Forward Bend

5. Gently stretch your hips.
Be cautious if you have any hip injuries.

Bound Angle

Knees to Chest Pose

6. Try a gentle inversion.

Legs Up the Wall

7. Wind down your practice with a body scan meditation.

MP3 Audio here: Body Scan for Sleep meditation (12 minutes)

Jon Kabat-Zinn's Guided Body Scan

If you're still feeling stressed, check out my Yoga Poses for Stress Relief.

Connect with Dr. Wei at Facebook / Twitter / Harvard Medical School Guide to Yoga