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Ah, sleep. It’s a pleasure we take for granted until it stops coming so easily to us. Unfortunately, even before this year’s pandemic, insomnia itself was becoming a worldwide epidemic; this year’s collective crisis only worsened an issue that was already brewing. So, what can we do? YJ talked to four expert yoga therapists for the practices that can help.
Sleep Issue: You spent all day glued to your screen—now you’re too hyped to unwind.
“Sometimes forcing calm in a chaotic world just isn’t possible, or even advisable,” says Lisa Sanfilippo, psychotherapist, yoga teacher, and author of Sleep Recovery. “Our bodies are primed to activate the stress response when our natural desire to take action is immobilized.”
In other words, when things are out of your control, your body responds by accumulating tension, which can create anxiety and interfere with sleep. Lisa’s expert advice? Try discharging tension during the day.
“Stomp your feet into the ground, floor, or better yet, earth. Then, through yoga asana, you can pull even more tension out of hotspots where stress collects,” says Sanfilippo. “For example, Eka Pada Supta Virasana (One-Legged Reclined Hero Pose) releases the line of tension from the quads—your thickest muscle group—through the hip flexor and into the abdominals, lengthening the front of the torso, which creates more space for a calming breath.”
Sleep Issue: You’re lying awake—and growing increasingly anxious about it.
Often the most stressful parts of not being able to fall asleep is the awareness that we can’t sleep, which works us up into a tizzy—making the odds of drifting off even more elusive.
“If you can’t sleep, don’t panic,” says Dr. Gail Parker, psychologist, educator, and author of Restorative Yoga for Ethnic and Race-Based Stress and Trauma. “Getting into a Restorative Yoga pose not only evokes our nervous system’s relaxation response and settles any agitation, but it can help us accept our current condition. Even if you can’t sleep, you can always rest.”
Dr. Parker suggests that something as simple as a Supported Savasana (Corpse Pose), which you can do right there in bed with an extra pillow under your knees, can help you find peace in frustrating circumstances.
In those moments, you can also tap into the power of the breath, says Jillian Pransky, yoga therapist and author of Deep Listening: A Healing Practice to Calm Your Body, Clear Your Mind, and Open Your Heart.
“When we are feeling anxious or thinking stressful thoughts, we make ourselves even more tense by inhaling longer than we’re exhaling. Exhaling, which is linked to the parasympathetic nervous system, influences our body’s ability to calm down. Research shows that longer exhales further stimulate your Vagus nerve (the direct switch to turn on our ability to “rest and digest”), which can really help us relax and settle,” says Pransky.
In fact, making the exhalation twice as long as the inhalation is a classic yogic tool, she says.
“I like to pair this breathing practice with yoga nidra when I need extra help getting to sleep. I use a 4-count inhale and 8-count exhale, but you can try counts of 2 and 4, or 3 or 6—whatever is comfortable.”
Start at your feet. On your inhale, on a count of 4, bring awareness in your feet and imagine the breath melting any tension in that area. On the exhale, on a count of 8, imagine liquid tension releasing onto your mattress. On your next inhale, continue bringing your attention to the next area, and so on.
- Lower Legs
- Full Length of Legs
- Lower Back
- Mid Back
- Upper Back
- Lower Arms
- Upper Arms/Shoulders
- Full Length of Arms
Sleep Issue: Falling asleep wasn’t an issue. Now it’s two in the morning, and you’re wide awake…
…and worrying about Covid-19…or ruminating about your morning schedule…or getting irrationally irritated that your partner is snoozing away peacefully. So, what can you do to salvage your rest? Yoga therapist Pamela Stokes Eggleston suggests a full-body, squeeze-and-release breathing practice that will help release tension and lull you back to slumber:
“Draw your attention to your breath. Inhale fully and deeply, and exhale completely, continuing to focus on your breath. After a few mindful breaths, tense your feet and toes on an inhale, and release the tension of the feet and toes on an exhale. Next, as you inhale, tense your legs; as you exhale, release. Continue moving up your body: Inhale, tensing your glutes and hips, exhale the holding; and so on. Once you complete your head and face, you can then tense the entire body, inhaling deeply, and release the holding, exhaling slowly and completely. Then focus on the breath again. If you have to, run through it again, starting at your feet and toes.”