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As lonely as you might feel tossing and turning late at night, you’re definitely not alone in your experience. Recent research suggests between 30% and 50% of us suffer from chronic or occasional insomnia. And 1 in 5 adults experiences difficulty falling asleep every night. When you’ve exhausted other forms of sleep-inducing advice—or simply slipped and indulged in that late-afternoon espresso—there’s still something that you can try. These science-backed yoga poses for insomnia cost nothing, incur no ill side effects, and often offer relief in minutes.
However, the alchemy isn’t found in simply holding the yoga pose. Instead, the effectiveness is largely dependent on how you hold yourself in the pose. Straining to intensify the stretch or cursing the fact that you’re awake will only elicit more tension and stress, which competes with the restorative properties of each pose.
Instead, take a deep breath and exhale. Much of the research related to yoga poses for insomnia attributes the magic to a slower breathing pattern. Whenever your breathing rate relaxes, so does everything else. You can count your breaths or follow a prescribed breathing protocol that works for you. Or simply allow yourself to breathe with more ease than usual.
The following science-backed yoga poses for insomnia may be able to lull you to sleep, especially when you practice with consistency night after night.
5 yoga poses for insomnia that are backed by science
1. Padangusthasana (Big Toe Pose)
Why it works: Forward bends are legendary among yoga teachers as ways to bring about calm. The action of leaning forward stretches the back of your body, from your heels to your head, and releases accumulated muscular tension. It also stimulates the nerves running along your spinal cord, which are believed to be responsible for activating the parasympathetic nervous system, which incites calm in the body and mind. Additionally, the bottom of the big toe is believed to be a reflexology point for stimulating the pituitary gland, which regulates the body’s sleep-wake cycle through the release of melatonin.
How to: Stand with your feet hip-distance apart or, if you experience low-back tightness or pain, bring your feet wider. Gently bend forward from your hips, bending your knees as much as you need to experience a relatively comfortable stretch. Grip each big toe firmly with your index finger, middle finger, and thumb or rest your hands on the floor or the backs of your calves. Bend your elbows and actively press down through your feet, releasing the top of your head toward the floor as you relax your neck in Padangusthasana. Breathe deeply and stay here for 1-3 minutes.
2. Baddha Konasana (Bound Angle Pose)
Why it works: It is well documented that joint pain can cause sleep disturbances. There are numerous potential causes of this pain, although if it’s related to muscle tension, stretching your lower back, hips, shoulders, or knees can help reduce discomfort as you fall asleep as well as while you sleep. This single poses addresses each of these target areas. Always consult with your physician if you experience chronic pain.
How to: From standing in your forward bend, come to a seated position and bring the bottoms of your feet together, allowing your knees to release out to the sides in Baddha Konasana. Slide your heels a comfortable distance away from your hips. Lean forward from your hips to bring your chest closer to the wall in front of you. Rest your hands on your ankles and bend your elbows. Notice if you’re gripping with your hands and relax. Release your shoulders and, if it’s comfortable for your neck, let your head hang. Breathe and stay here for 1 minute.
Tip: For a more intense hip stretch, try Agnistambhasana (Fire Log Pose).
3. Uttana Shishosana (Extended Puppy Pose)
Why it works: This relatively passive backbend counteracts the effects of long hours staring at a screen by relieving tension in your upper back and shoulders. If you experience more intense shoulder pain that keeps you awake at night, this slight backbend may help release tight muscles, especially if you suffer from muscle spasms. Always consult with your physician if you experience chronic pain. And the gentle pressure on your forehead is believed, in yoga tradition, to stimulate the pituitary gland, which can induce drowsiness.
How to: From sitting, lean forward and come onto hands and knees. Keep your hips stacked over your knees as you walk your hands forward. Keep your elbows lifted, as you relax your forehead on the floor or a pillow. Release your chest toward the ground in Uttana Shishosana. If you like, slowly rock your head side to side to massage your forehead and ease facial tension. Breathe and stay here for 1 minute. Slowly shift your hips back to your heels and rest for a few moments in Child’s Pose.
4. Supine Twist
According to sleep researcher and Iyengar yoga teacher Roger Cole, PhD, inverted and reclining postures such as this twist promote sleep by relaxing the baroreflex, a reflex that maintains nearly constant blood pressure. Research indicates that impaired baroreflex sensitivity is associated with sleep difficulties.
Lie on your back and draw your knees into your chest. Extend your arms straight out to the sides and let your knees fall to the left, stacking your right knee on top of the right. Release your right shoulder down toward the floor as you allow gravity to pull your legs toward the earth. If it’s comfortable, turn to gaze over your right shoulder or shut your eyes. Let your belly be soft and your breath be slow. Stay here for at least 1 minute. Repeat on the other side.
5. Viparita Karani (Legs Up the Wall)
Why it helps: Even if you’ve never done yoga before, you can benefit from this restorative yoga pose. The completely passive inversion incites calm by releasing muscle tension and, when coupled with a slowed breathing rate, can incite your parasympathetic nervous system and induce relaxation.
How to: Place a folded blanket or a pillow a few inches from the wall. Sit with one hip alongside the wall and slowly lower your sacrum on the as you bring your legs up the wall about hip-distance apart. Try to situate your sitting bones in between the support and the wall. Relax your legs rather than trying to hold them upright. Take a comfortable bend in your knees if that helps. Rest your arms alongside your body and close your eyes. Take a long, slow exhalation here and rest here for 5-15 minutes.
Tip: You can also try this pose in bed—facing the wall, of course. If you experience any strain or pain in your lower back with your legs up the wall, try instead taking your legs up a chair, coffee table, or the bed and resting your calves on the surface for additional support.
See also: 15 Poses to Help You Sleep Better
This article has been updated. Originally published December 29, 2014.