It's 2:00 am—your mother has finally gone to sleep (though how long she'll actually stay in bed is anyone's guess). You retreat underneath the covers, eager to capture a few hours of shut-eye.
The problem is, your eyes—and your brain—refuse to close.
The minutes tick by, but you can't stop thinking—and worrying. Countless questions chase their tails inside your mind as you listen for the unmistakable squeak of mom's door hinges, heralding her return to the land of the sleepless.
The occasional sleepless night is an inevitable side effect of caring for an elderly loved one. Chronic insomnia however, can pose a serious threat to your health and wellbeing.
Can yoga help you snag extra sleep?
One way you may be able to snatch some extra shut-eye is by adopting a nightly yoga routine.
Harvard University researchers recently discovered that a regular yoga practice helped people fall asleep faster, stay asleep longer and improved the overall quality of their rest.
Previous studies have also linked the ancient form of exercise to improvements in sleep efficiency for post-menopausal women, cancer survivors and those suffering from osteoarthritis.
According to Brent Brandow, director of operations at Parkway SleepHealth Centers, using yoga to lose weight and learning proper breathing patterns can be particularly helpful for those suffering from weight-induced sleep apnea—a condition where a person experiences abnormal pauses in breathing while sleeping—perhaps even allowing them to be weaned off of Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) machines.
These findings come as no surprise to long-time yoga devotees.
"Yoga facilitates sleep by relaxing both your mind and body," says Rina Jakubowicz, yoga instructor and founder of Rina Yoga, "It forces you to be present, slowing down all the worries that collect throughout the day."
Yoga also helps improve body alignment and flexibility, two things that contribute to physical aches and pains that may rob you of precious rest time.
Yoga goes beyond just bending and twisting. Breathing techniques play an essential role in grounding the body and opening the mind.
Jakubowicz describes "belly breathing," a respiration method people often use to relax and rejuvenate while practicing yoga:
- Stand up or lie down, whichever you prefer. Just be sure to keep your spine long.
- Put one hand on your belly and inhale, expanding your belly like a balloon.
- When you exhale, pull your belly button in towards your spine.
- Repeat this for at least ten deep breaths (you can definitely do more if you want to). Each time you inhale, try to relax and inflate your belly as much as you can.
Poses to put you to sleep
You don't have to be a die-hard yogi to reap valuable sleep benefits—though Jakubowicz points out that adhering to a regular practice can provide a variety of health perks—you just need to incorporate a few poses into your nightly routine.
Here are seven simple sleep-stimulating yoga poses to try:
- Supported Inversion: Lie down so that you're perpendicular to an empty wall. Place your legs on the wall and scoot your hips as towards the where the wall and carpet meet, walking your legs up the wall as far as they will comfortably go. Jakubowicz says to try and keep your legs as straight against the wall as you possibly can without forcing it. Place your arms by your sides with your palms facing upwards. Close your eyes and take deep, cleansing breaths.
- Pigeon Pose (right and left): Get down on all fours. Place your right knee behind your right wrist and angle your right foot towards the left. Slide your left leg back. Place a pillow lengthwise, to the left of your right leg. Lay your belly and chest on the pillow and let your arms relax to either side. Relax your head to whichever side feels most comfortable and breathe deeply. If the stretch is too intense, Jakubowicz suggests placing another pillow underneath your chest, or using a cushion to support your right hip. Repeat this pose on the opposite side.
- Reclined Butterfly: Lie down on your back. Put a pillow, lengthwise, underneath your spine. Bring the soles of your feet together until they touch and then let your knees gently drop to the sides. Be sure to keep your hips off of the pillow. Stretch your arms out to the side, away from your body, with your palms facing upwards. Jakubowicz says you can put a pillow underneath your knees if you need to decrease the intensity of the stretch in your hips.
- Reclined Spinal Twist (right and left): Lie flat on your back. Bend your right knee in towards your chest and cross it over the left side of your body. You should feel the twisting stretch in your spine. To soften the stretch, Jakubowicz suggests placing a pillow underneath your right knee for support. Stretch your arms outwards, creating a "T" shape with your body. You can either keep your head facing up, or look to the right if you want a deeper neck stretch. Repeat this pose on the opposite side.
- Plow Pose: Lie down on your back. Engage your abdominal muscles to lift your legs over your head until your toes touch the floor behind your head. If your toes don't reach the floor, do this pose against the wall (lying perpendicular with your head touching the wall) so that your feet will be supported by the wall. If you can, interlace your fingers behind your back and then slowly straighten your arms, otherwise, just keep your arms at your sides, palms facing downwards. When you want to get out of the pose, do so carefully by rolling slowly out of it, one vertebra at a time. According to Brandow, plow pose helps stretch out your back and neck muscles, reducing physical tension and relaxing your body.
- Cobra Pose: Lie down on your stomach ad place your palms flat on the floor next to your chest. Keeping your elbows close to your sides, inhale and lengthen your body while lifting your head up and expanding your chest forward. Only come up as far as you comfortably can, and keep your hips on the ground. This pose is particularly useful for people who spend a lot of time bending over and lifting things, says Brandow, because it engages your back muscles in the opposite way that those kinds of activities do. It also helps stretch your shoulders, chest and abdominals.
- Seated Heart Opener: Sit in a kneeling position, if you can. If you suffer from knee issues, then you can sit with your legs extended out in front of you. Put your hands on the ground behind you, palms on the floor and fingers facing away from your body. Inhale and lengthen your spine. Exhale and lean backwards, arching your back and lowering your head behind you. If you're on your knees, push your hips into your heels. According to Brandow, this pose is beneficial because it provides a movement that is the opposite of the hunched over position that most people are in during the day.