How many times has this happened to you: you’re laying in bed hoping to get to sleep, but the more you fret about the sleep you need, the more elusive it becomes. Many times when we get our bodies into bed, they somehow miss the cue, or get mixed signals from our still-racing-like-it-was-midday minds. Also, if you didn’t get a chance to get some exercise that day, muscle tension can inhibit your body’s ability to relax.
I’ve found that shifts in your day require transitions, just like yoga poses in a flow class; if you fling yourself from one pose to the next, it won’t be beneficial to mind or body. You need to use your breath and coordinate it with your movements in order to transition smoothly from one asana to the next. Likewise, if you just fling yourself into bed after a hectic day, hoping to go right to sleep, chances are it isn’t going to happen. Consider how much you are cramming in after dinner, when you should be unwinding; tv and computer time close to bedtime can lead to insomnia, as can inconsistent bedtimes. See if you can set a time to turn off anything with a screen, and try to go to bed around the same time each night. Build a bedtime routine that consists of quieter, more meditative activities (reading, a relaxing bath or shower, even doing the dishes), vs. anything that might agitate you. Once you get into bed, light a candle for a few minutes, or try an eye pillow for gentle pressure and a darkening effect. The more signals you can send your nervous system that it’s time to rest, the better.
A gentle before-bed yoga practice can also help transition the mind-body connection towards sleep. Try these five simple poses to wind down from a full day, so you can get the good night’s sleep you crave. Holding the poses for longer and focusing on deepening your breath will enhance the relaxation response.
Before Bed Yoga Practice
Goodnight, Hips.The first two poses focus on gently releasing the hips, which can hold a lot of tension. Sometimes we don’t even realize how much we’re holding in our hips. These poses counter the effects of sitting all day. If you are particularly tight in your hips, breathe through those first intense moments and visualize sending your breath to tight spots. Work up to longer holds.
Gomukhasana – Cow Face Pose
Night-night notes: Make this first seated posture a time when you close your eyes, bring your awareness to your breath to slow it down, and make it your intention to transition from day to night. As you inhale, count up to four; as you exhale, count down from four.
- From a kneeling position, cross your right leg over your left, the right foot ending up flat on the floor. You’ll need to shift your hips to the left, so that your left foot comes outside the right hip (so you’re not sitting on it).
- Take hold of your right ankle and gently pull it back towards your left hip. You want to stack your knees as much as possible, so you can also apply some gentle pressure with your palms to the outside of your knees to help do that. If stacking the knees is challenging, place a yoga block or blanket in between them. Try to position the heels equidistant from the hips.
- Your sit bones should be grounded on the floor. If this is difficult (and if you had trouble stacking your knees in the previous step), place some support (block or blanket) under your seat to elevate it.
- Do a few gentle shoulder shrugs to release tension. On your inhale, lift the shoulders up towards the ears and on the exhale let them drop down the back.
- Take your thumbs and press them into the arches of your feet. Keep applying pressure as you hold the pose, or move your thumbs up and down the arches if you prefer.
- Hold for 25-50 breaths, or 3-5 minutes, then switch sides (left knee on top).
Night-night notes: This pose is often practiced without lowering the hip to the floor (as shown here). In before bed yoga, we’ll let the floor support it for more restorative hip work.
- From downward dog, bring your feet together and come into a push up position with your shoulders lining up directly over your wrists.
- Keep your left leg straight as you bring the right leg under you and out to the side, with the foot flexed and the leg as straight as possible. Keep the back leg straight and strong, with the toes tucked under and the front of your leg facing the floor.
- Come down to your elbows, and keep your forearms parallel. Don’t drop your head — keep it lined up with your spine.
- Allow your right hip to slowly drop down to the floor. Realign your back leg position if necessary.
- Hold for 25 deep breaths and step back to downward dog. Switch sides.
Unwind Your Spine. Our backs can feel stiff and sore at the end of the day due to poor alignment, lack of movement and accumulated tension. These supported poses gently open up both the lower and upper back, and get rid of spinal stagnancy.
Bedtime Bridge Pose
Night-night notes: Come into bridge pose before you place the block under your sacrum; don’t try to lay down on the block.
- Have your yoga block next to your mat within reach. Lie on your back with your knees bent. Your feet and knees should be hip distance apart.
- Extend your arms by your sides; your fingertips should touch or almost touch your heels (but make sure your feet and knees stay hip width apart here).
- Move your shoulders underneath you and in towards one another so that you feel a slight lift in your chest.
- On an inhale lift your hips up, keeping your feet grounded and your knees over your ankles. Grab your block and carefully put in under your sacrum; the block can be any height, so experiment to find what works best. Make sure the block isn’t tilted and that all four bottom edges are firmly on the floor. The block should feel good and supportive, not like it is digging into your low back; it is very important that it supports the sacrum, just above where your bum begins.
- Release entirely into the support of the block for 25+ breaths, or 3-5 minutes. Take note if your back starts to feel sensitive; if it does, you can lower the block height or release the pose.
Supported Fish Pose
Night-night notes: This is a restorative version of matsyasana, fish pose. Take advantage of the open chest and throat to slow and deepen your breath.
- Start seated on the floor. Take the top of the block (repeat: the top of the block) and position it along the base of the shoulder blades. Note that positioning the block is key! This will not feel good if it’s in any other place.
- Keep the block glued into position as you carefully recline over it. Feel it open your chest as you drop the back of your head to the floor. (If your head doesn’t reach the floor, bridge the gap with a soft blanket or towel.)
- Close your eyes and let everything be heavy. Feel the support of the floor and block. Slow your breath, and stay here for 25-50 breaths, or 3-5 minutes.
- To come out, pull your elbows in towards your sides and use them to push yourself straight up off the block, bringing your chin into your chest. Do not roll off the block.
Restorative Rest. The great thing about restorative work is that it’s not really work – you get to lie there and allow the props to support you. And having the support of blankets and blocks allows you to stay in the posture for much longer, which gives things a chance to really open up and release.
Want more? Another great restorative pose to finish this practice is viparita karani, or legs-up-the-wall. This pose incorporates an inversion. Get the how-to here.
Supta Baddha Konasana – Reclining Bound Angle Pose with blanket
Night-night notes: SBK is a lovely pose on its own, but the blanket just makes it heavenly. Use a yoga blanket or towel to make a tight, fairly thick roll. You can adjust the height by unrolling part of it if needed. This is a passive backbend that you can stay in for 10-15 minutes. Got 20? Even better.
- Sit at one end of the blanket, placing the roll right up against your tailbone (your bum stays on the floor). Carefully lay your spine down on the roll, keeping your seat on the floor. This is where you may need to adjust the thickness of your roll. If your head is off the roll, place a pillow or a yoga block under it to keep your head lined up with your spine.
- You can keep your legs straight, or for more hip opening, bring the legs into Baddha Konasana position by bringing the soles of the feet together so that your knees open out. You can play around with the distance between your feet and hips; the more you bring your feet in, the more hip opening it will be. For less intensity, take your feet further away from your hips. If you have two yoga blocks or big books, you can place those under your knees for support.
- Arms are by your sides with the palms up (backs of hands on the floor).
- Stay here for at least 10 minutes, keeping your awareness on your breath. When you finish, slowly bend your knees and bring your feet flat, then roll to one side and draw the knees into the chest. Sit up. Ready for bed?
Namaaaahhhhhhste and sweet dreams.
Photos by Addie Hare at the Red Rock Ranch in Kelly, Wyoming, where Margaret taught yoga during their Spa & Fitness Week.