Q: I'm new to yoga and was surprised to learn that many poses are not recommended for people who suffer from insomnia. I thought yoga would bring me serenity and help me sleep better. Can you recommend poses to help with insomnia? —Martine Tanguay, Quebec
Leslie Peters' reply:
Many things, such as stress, hormonal changes, medical or emotional problems, and certain medications, can cause insomnia. While there is no blanket solution to this complex and highly individualized problem, you are absolutely correct in thinking that the practice of yoga can be helpful to you. I don't have any specific details about your particular situation, but you mention that you are looking to yoga for serenity, which leads me to believe that you need poses that will quiet and calm you.
I recommend forward bends such as Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend), Prasarita Padottanasana (Wide-Legged Standing Forward Bend), Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose), Janu Sirsasana (Head-to-Knee Pose), and Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend). You can do them supported if you wish, on blankets or bolsters, and they should be held for five minutes if possible.
As your forehead gently presses into the bolster or blankets, make sure that your skin moves toward your eyeballs, as opposed to your hairline. This can help stimulate the relaxation response, thereby calming the nervous system and quieting
the brain. After a few minutes, you should begin to feel very calm. If, however, you don't feel calm and continue to feel anxious and agitated, try supported supine poses such as Supta Baddha Konasana (Reclining Bound Angle Pose), Supta Virasana (Reclining Hero Pose), and Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose).
While all of these poses should help, the most important of all is Salamba Sarvangasana (Supported Shoulderstand). When practiced immediately before bed, it prepares the body for sleep. And if done during the day, it may help compensate for some lost sleep. You can also practice it supported on a chair.
All inversions—such as Salamba Sirsasana (Supported Headstand), Halasana (Plow Pose), and Viparita Karani (Legs-up-the-Wall Pose)—are helpful to practice when you can't get to sleep. If the cause of your insomnia is hormonal, these poses and forward bends are particularly effective.
Finally, don't forget to practice the very important Savasana (Corpse Pose), unless you do Sarvangasana just prior to sleep. In that case, just come down out of the pose and climb straight into bed.
Leslie Peters is a certified intermediate Iyengar Yoga teacher and the former director of the Iyengar Yoga Institute of Los Angeles. She is featured in the book Yoga: The Path to Holistic Health, by B.K.S. Iyengar.