Yet, due to work and family obligations, and the expectation to always be “online,” it can be a challenge for many people to get enough quality rest at night. At some point in our lives, many of us have experienced insomnia—having trouble falling asleep, or waking up in the night and not being able to fall back asleep. When the insomnia is chronic, however, it can cause or exacerbate a variety of health issues.
Sleep disturbances are often caused by hyperarousal, which can result from running thoughts or a mind that “won’t turn off.” Yoga can help reduce arousal, thereby increasing the chances of a good night’s sleep.
We can also manage the hyperarousal that accompanies insomnia by tailoring our daily routines in order to expend excess energy during the day, and invoke a calming energy in the evening, and we can make yoga a part of these routines. (Both scientific research and ayurvedic knowledge support establishing daily routines in order to address sleep challenges, and also suggest helpful lifestyle changes—such as avoiding caffeine and sugar in the afternoon and evening, and staying away from work and electronics in the hours leading up to bedtime.)
Here below is a morning sequence I designed for increasing energy levels and reducing early-morning grogginess. I also share a restorative evening sequence meant to help the body and mind prepare for sleep.
What you need:
- A yoga mat
- 2 blocks
- A bolster or 1–2 pillows
- 1–2 blankets
Fold a blanket lengthwise, and lay it parallel to the top of your mat. Lie back so that the blanket rests under your shoulder blades. If this is uncomfortable for your neck, roll or fold an additional blanket to place under your neck or head. To increase the backbend, use a bolster instead of a blanket. Place your arms out to the side with the palms facing up and rest your legs in any position that’s comfortable.
Stay for one to two minutes. To come out of the pose, roll onto one side and come onto your hands and knees to prepare for child’s pose.
From hands and knees, with your knees either together or apart, sit back on your heels and rest your forehead on the mat. If your forehead doesn’t reach, place a blanket or cushion under your forehead. Rest your hands next to your hips with palms facing up.
Stay for five to ten breaths.
Child’s Pose Flow
On your next inhale, come to a high kneeling position and sweep your arms up toward the ceiling. As you exhale, lower back down, bringing your arms down by your sides, and resting your forehead on the mat.
Repeat five times. After the last child’s pose, come to easy pose (sukhasana).
From easy pose (or kneeling if that’s more comfortable), inhale to lengthen your spine. Maintain that length and, on an exhale, place your left hand on your right knee or thigh and your right hand on the floor (or a block) behind you, twisting to the right. If it’s comfortable for your neck, look over your right shoulder. On each inhale, lengthen your spine more; on each exhale, see if you can twist a little more deeply.
Stay for five to ten breaths. Then return to center on an inhale and switch sides.
Downward Facing Dog
From easy pose, come to hands and knees. Walk your hands forward a few inches and press through your hands and feet to lift your knees, sending your hips skyward as you come into downward facing dog. You can keep your knees bent (which can prevent your lower back from rounding and might make the pose feel better), or you can straighten your legs if you're able to maintain a neutral spine.
Stay for five to ten breaths. To come out of the pose, walk your hands toward your feet, coming into a forward fold with knees bent. Bring your hands to your hips, and rise up to standing with a long spine.
Chair Pose to Warrior I
From standing, come into chair pose, sinking your hips back and down so that you can still see your toes. On your next inhale, raise your arms overhead; on the exhale, step back with your left foot, planting it at about a 45-degree angle. Place your hands on your hips and turn your torso toward the front of your mat (widening your stance if you need to). Reach your arms back up toward the ceiling.
Stay for five breaths.
To come out of the pose, take another inhale in warrior I, then on your exhale, step your left foot forward, returning to chair pose; then straighten your legs, and lower your arms. Take a resting breath here, then sink back into chair pose, and on an exhale, step back into warrior I with the right foot.
Do the pose twice on each side. After you’re done, come to mountain pose and fold forward, then make your way back down to a seated position.
Sit on the mat with your knees bent, feet planted on the ground. Placing your hands behind you, lift both feet off the ground so that your calves are parallel to the floor. Draw your shoulder blades back, keeping your chest open and your spine long.
Variation 1 (for extra support): Bring your hands behind your thighs for support.
Variation 2 (for a core challenge): For even more of a challenge, stretch your arms forward, reaching out through your fingertips.
Aim to stay for for thirty seconds, keeping your spine long. Then, place your feet back on the mat, and roll down onto your back. Lengthen your legs to prepare for the next pose.
Lying on your back, reach your arms overhead and hold your right wrist with your left hand. Reach both arms over to the left. Then shift both legs over to the left, making a “banana” shape. To increase the stretch, cross your right ankle over your left ankle.
Stay for ten breaths. Then return to center and change sides.
To finish the practice, roll onto your side and come back to easy pose (propping yourself with blankets or sitting on a block for support if you’d like). If sitting this way is uncomfortable, you can kneel instead (perhaps placing a block between your feet to sit on) or you can sit on a chair.
Consider practicing alternate nostril breathing from here, or another breathing or meditation practice of your choice!
Shoelace Forward Bend
Begin in easy pose with your spine long, tuning in to your breath. To move into the pose, bring your left foot to the outside of your right hip and stack your right leg on top of your left (so that from the front your legs look almost like a laced shoe). Point your feet, but keep your toes active and drawing back toward your ankles (this is sometimes referred to as “flointing” your feet because they're in a position between flexed and pointed). Sit up tall and stay here for at least one breath cycle. Then, start to walk your hands forward until you feel a stretch in one or both of your hips. You can allow your spine to round in this pose, placing a block under your forehead if that is most comfortable for you.
If this feels too intense, you can practice the forward fold from easy pose instead, changing sides by switching the leg that’s in front.
Stay for three minutes, then rise up to a tall seated position and switch sides. When you’re done, come to table pose.
Supported Child’s Pose
Gather your props, and create a T shape with two blocks in the middle of your mat, and lay a bolster or pillow on top of them. To do this, place your first block parallel to the top of your mat, on the highest setting. Place the second block on its flattest setting, perpendicular to the top of the mat and resting near or against the other block. Place your bolster on top so that the high end is resting on top of the high block.
Begin facing the bolster in table pose. Bring your big toes to touch, spreading your knees out to either side of the bolster, and sit back on your heels. Walk your hands forward so that your chest rests on the bolster, and rest your right ear on the bolster. Take a moment to adjust your props to make this pose more comfortable if needed:
• If the bolster feels like it’s at too steep of an angle, bring the highest block to a lower setting.
• If you need more neck support, fold a blanket to place under your head like a pillow.
• If your knees or ankles feel sore in this pose, roll a blanket and place it behind your knees, or kneel on a folded blanket.
Stay for three minutes, and then turn your head to the opposite side and hold for another three minutes. To come out of the pose, bring your forehead to rest on the center of the bolster and walk your hands back up to return to table pose. Move your props off to one side, and then lie down on your back.
Legs up the Wall Pose
For this pose, you can rest your legs on either a wall or a chair. To begin, place a bolster or a folded blanket lengthwise against the wall or just in front of the chair. Fold another blanket to rest your head on, placing it a few feet away from the wall or the chair.
To enter the pose, sit with your back to the short end of the blanket or bolster. Next, lean back, and swing your legs up, rotating your hips onto your support, and resting your legs up the wall or on the chair. Lie back perpendicular to the wall, and adjust the blanket for your head as needed.
If the stretch is too intense for your hamstrings, move the blanket or bolster a few inches away from the wall to reduce the angle on your legs, or simply bend your legs. Once you’re in a comfortable position, you can bring one hand to your belly and one hand to your chest if you like, or keep your arms alongside you with palms facing up.
Stay for five minutes.
To come out of the pose, bring your arms to your sides, bend your knees into your chest, and roll off the bolster or blanket. Use your hands to slowly press back up to a seated position.
Supported Fish Pose
Place two blocks horizontally on the back third of your mat: one on its medium or high height (which will be behind your shoulder blades) and another on its medium or low height (which will go under your head). Note: Depending on the size of the blocks and the length of your torso, you may need to experiment with finding a comfortable position for the blocks.
Then sit with your hips about half a foot from the blocks to begin, knees bent and feet on the floor. Lean back onto the blocks, adjusting as needed the height and position of each of the blocks. If you’d like, you can separate your feet mat-width apart and allow your knees to fall in toward each other, or assume any other leg position that feels good. Bring one hand to your belly and one hand to your chest, feeling the breath move in and out of your body.
Stay for five to seven breaths. To come out of the pose, separate your knees (if they’re together), placing your feet hip-width apart on the floor where you began, and use your hands to slowly rise back up to a seated position, head and neck coming up last.
Place one or two stacked pillows or a bolster widthwise across the lower end of your mat and a folded blanket near the top of your mat. Lie down on the mat, bringing the bolster or pillows under your knees and adjusting your blanket to comfortably support your head like a pillow. Allow your feet to splay open, and rest your arms alongside you with palms facing up.
Stay in this pose for up to ten minutes, allowing the relaxation from this practice to seep into every part of your body.
If you’ve done this routine just before bed, you can move your savasana into your bed and allow yourself to drift off to sleep. If you’ve done this routine earlier in the evening, aim to honor the relaxation you’ve developed by continuing with a restful end-of-day routine.
Enjoy these practices, and see if incorporating them into both your day and your evening improves your quality of sleep.
Photography: Andrea Killam