Goodnight, Insomnia: An Urban Zen Sequence for Better Sleep
This combination of restorative yoga, meditation, essential oils, and Reiki— from dream team Colleen Saidman Yee and Rodney Yee—will help ease anxiety and insomnia to deliver your best night’s zzz’s.
By Tasha Eichenseher; Sequence by Colleen Saidman Yee and Rodney Yee
This combination of restorative yoga, meditation, essential oils, and Reiki— from dream team Colleen Saidman Yee and Rodney Yee—will help ease anxiety and insomnia to deliver your best night’s zzz’s. Like this? Then you'd love the Foundations of Urban Zen, a three-day training in ultimate restoration techniques with the Yees, at YJ LIVE New York, April 21-24. Sign up today!
Around 15 years ago, prominent yoga teacher Colleen Saidman Yee started having trouble sleeping. She would settle into bed and then toss and turn, a list of to-dos running through her head. Or she would wake up in the middle of the night, unable to fall back asleep. It was physically and mentally exhausting. “When I suffer from insomnia, everything seems like too much effort; my nervous system is frazzled, my brain is foggy, and things that normally wouldn’t upset me take me down,” she explains. “Then as evening sets in, I start to worry about not getting to sleep, which is counterproductive.”
Saidman Yee isn’t alone: Sleep disorders like insomnia and circadian rhythm sleep disorder (in which you can’t fall asleep at a conventional bedtime) plague at least 40 million Americans, according to the National Institutes of Health. And an estimated 84 million adults in the United States get fewer than seven hours of sleep a night. That may seem like enough slumber, and for some lucky people it might be, but anything less than seven hours can increase most people’s risk of high blood pressure, stroke, obesity, diabetes, and other conditions that reduce life expectancy, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Why are Americans chronically tired? “Many adults sacrifice sleep for work demands,” explains Carol Landis, PhD, professor emerita and sleep researcher at the University of Washington’s School of Nursing. In her 25-plus years of studying sleep, she’s noticed this common adage: I can get by on very little sleep. “This attitude stems from a lack of understanding about the health consequences of inadequate amounts of sleep,” she says.
Stress, a lack of physical activity, and pre-bed screen time are also culprits for keeping us awake, according to the Washington, DC–based Sleep Foundation. As Saidman Yee battled insomnia, she found practices that helped her ease into uninterrupted sleep. Key to her routine: practicing a demanding asana sequence, especially standing poses, during the day, to make sure she doesn’t have pent-up energy in the evening; and restorative poses around bedtime, to promote mental and muscular relaxation.
Scientists have long recognized that muscle-relaxation practices and meditation can treat insomnia, says Roger Cole, PhD, a certified Iyengar teacher and Stanford University–educated sleep researcher. “Restorative yoga—which incorporates both—can help you sleep,” he adds. Cole explains: The physiological deep relaxation of restorative yoga and the process of falling asleep are nearly identical—your heartbeat slows and your breathing grows quieter; your muscles release; and your brain waves slow down.
Enter Urban Zen Integrative Therapy (UZIT), created by the Yees and launched with fashion designer Donna Karan in 2007. (Read more about their collaboration in our Good Karma Awards.) The UZIT system relies on the synergistic effects of in-bed movements, restorative poses, breath-awareness exercises, meditation, essential oils, and Reiki (energy balancing) to ease insomnia, pain, anxiety, nausea, constipation, and fatigue—things we experience in daily life but that are amplified during illness or a hospital stay. The Yees crafted the UZIT sequence to help all of us sleep soundly. Try it for yourself, and we’ll see you in the morning!
This UZIT sequence designed by Colleen Saidman Yee and Rodney Yee offers poses that can help you rest. Additional essential-oil treatment, a breath-awareness meditation (included below), and self-Reiki work with the poses, or done on their own, can enhance your ability to get a good night’s sleep. Begin the sequence by taking a few simple steps: Turn off any screens; gather blankets, bolsters, pillows, a strap, a block, a sandbag (or another form of weight), and an eye pillow; and dim the lights. Place a few drops of lavender or frankincense essential oil onto a cotton ball and put it near your head or into a diffuser. Both fragrances are known to help reduce nervous-system tension and promote sleep. If you notice anxiety or stress creeping in, count the length of your inhales and exhales, working to eventually extend the exhalation by several counts, or use the breath-awareness meditation on this page. If you start to fall asleep in any of these poses, call it a night and crawl under the covers.
Mix It Up
If you are physically and mentally agitated, practice poses 7, 5, and then 1.
If you are exhausted, practice poses 9, 6, and then 2.
If you are struggling with a monkey mind, practice poses 8, 4, and then 3.
This comforting pose will help you turn your senses inward, release the muscles that keep you upright during the day, and settle into a restorative, restful practice. Place a bolster lengthwise in the middle of your bed or mat. Come to Child’s Pose, with your toes touching and the bolster between your thighs. Fold forward and rest your belly, chest, and head on the bolster. Rest your arms to either side of the bolster. Turn your head to the right and close your eyes; breathe here for 2 minutes. Then, slowly turn your head to the opposite side and stay for the same duration, allowing your exhales to lengthen.
Get two blankets: Fold one blanket in thirds, lengthwise, and roll up the other one like a bolster. Lie on your right side, resting your head on a pillow. Draw your knees up toward your chest and place the folded blanket between your knees, lower legs, and feet. Your lower legs should be parallel to each other. Bring the rolled blanket in front of your torso to support your top arm and provide a sense of emotional support. Close your eyes and stay here for 5 to 10 minutes. Lying on your right side can help open your left nostril for increased airflow, which is believed to activate the right side of the brain and promote feelings of safety, ease, and sleepiness.
For this pose, you’ll need two folded blankets (or a blanket plus pillow), a block, a strap, and an eye pillow. Place the first folded blanket under the balls of your feet and bend your knees. Then place the block at its narrowest setting between your thighs, and loop and secure a strap to your mid-thighs to keep your legs and the block together. Lie down on your back and rest your head on the second folded blanket (or pillow), so that your neck feels relaxed. Place the eye pillow on your belly so you can more easily feel your breath rise and fall. Then, cross your arms over your upper chest, as if hugging yourself, and close your eyes. Stay here for 5 minutes, switching the cross of your arms halfway through. This relaxing pose releases the lower back, a place where many of us harbor tension that we carry to bed.
Find two bolsters (or pillows or folded blankets). Lie down and bend your knees, bringing the soles of your feet together for Bound Angle Pose (a.k.a. Cobbler’s Pose). Slide a bolster or blanket under each leg to support the knees, shins, and feet. Rest your hands on your lower belly and place your elbows on the bed. Stay here with eyes closed for 5 minutes.
Sit on the floor in front of a chair, propping your hips on a blanket folded to a height that allows you to sit with your knees lower than your hips. Place another blanket on the seat of your chair for cushioning. Inhale and lengthen through your waist, and then exhale to fold forward. Rest your forehead and arms on the chair; place your arms over your head. Breathe here for 5 minutes, switching the cross of your legs halfway. This cooling, calming seated fold helps to release tension in the muscles of the back, hips, neck, and face, and draws your senses inward, away from distraction.
Gather three folded blankets, a chair, and a sandbag (or another weight). Keep one of the blankets on the seat of the chair. Lie down with another blanket under your head and swing your legs onto the seat of the chair. Adjust so that your lower legs rest completely on the chair—you’ll know you’re in the right position when you feel some traction in your lower back. Then place the third blanket on your belly to bring awareness to your breath and help with relaxation. Add the sandbag on your shins to help release tension in your calves. Rest your arms along your sides, palms facing up, and close your eyes. Stay here for 5 to 10 minutes.
Stand up and face the chair. Place a folded blanket on the seat. Step your feet about one leg’s length apart and bring the inner edges of your feet parallel to one another. Fold forward until your head and arms rest on the seat of the chair. Stay here for 1 to 3 minutes. This pose can help release tension in the neck, shoulders, and backs of the legs, and cools the nervous system.
Sit sideways on the chair so the right side of your body is against the backrest. Place a rolled blanket and a sandbag (or two blankets) on the back of the chair and drape your right arm around them. Lean to the right until you feel pressure in your armpit. Look slightly over your left shoulder and hold your right wrist with your left hand. Cross your right ankle over your left knee and close your eyes. This pose opens the left nostril for easy breathing, which is said to activate the right side of the brain. The cross of the legs releases tension in the right hip joint. Hold here for 5 minutes.
Return to bed, or to a place on the floor where you can bring your legs up the wall. Have a bolster or pillow nearby. Sit with your right side against the wall, and then lower onto your back and swing your legs up. Bend your legs and press your feet into the wall to lift your hips off the floor, and then slide the pillow or bolster underneath the the back of your hips. In this pose, your hamstrings are flush against the wall. If your hamstrings are tight, bend your knees or move the bolster and your buttocks away from the wall. Place your arms and shoulders on the bed or floor in a cactus shape, palms facing up. Soften your belly and make sure your lower back is comfortable. This pose opens your chest, making inhaling easier. It also relaxes your legs. Rest here for 5 minutes before bringing your knees into your chest, rolling to your side, and finding a snug sleeping position.
For five breaths, as you inhale through your nose, feel your breath travelling down into your heavy, relaxed legs.
For the next five breaths, observe the pause at the end of your exhalations.
Keep bringing your mind back to the breathing cycle.
Observe how your entire body moves in concert with your lungs and diaphragm.
Model Colleen Saidman Yee came to yoga in 1987 and later graduated from Jivamukti’s teacher-training program in 1998. She’s worked with Mother Theresa at the Home for the Dying, opened two Yoga Shanti studios in New York, and taught alongside her husband Rodney Yee. She helped create Urban Zen’s Integrative Yoga Therapist program and several DVDs.
“All spiritual practice comes down to applying teachings to your own self, going inside, and listening to your body and heart,” says Rodney Yee, who has been practicing and teaching yoga for more than 25 years. With more than 30 DVDs and several books to his name, Yee co-chairs the Urban Zen Health and Wellness Foundation, founded by Donna Karan, with his wife Colleen Saidman Yee. He is a former gymnast and ballet dancer, now based in New York, where he teaches regular classes at Colleen’s studio, Yoga Shanti, in the Flatiron District.