It seems like sleep should be a completely natural and problem-free activity, as it requires no effort, either mental or physical. But like other completely natural activities (eating and sex come to mind), good sleep can easily go off-track. Many of us have trouble either falling asleep or sleeping long enough or well enough to feel rested when we wake up.
One problem is that we carry the tensions of the day—the residue of mental and physical effort—into the time for slumber. The nervous system doesn’t let down its guard in the body or the mind, and it either refuses to let us sleep, or stays on the alert while we’re sleeping. Fortunately we know that the practice of yoga can disarm the nervous system, relieve residual tension in the body and mind, and invite a relaxed state of contentment that welcomes the sandman.
The following five poses target areas of the body most associated with the physical and mental stress of modern lifestyles. Move slowly, with complete attention to sensations in the body. Be aware of how the breath is flowing, and soften the body until the breath slows down and becomes smooth and even. The intention is to bring ease and comfort, rather than to push the envelope in terms of flexibility or performance. Using your conscious attention to link the body and breath allows the mind to rest in the comfort of the body, perchance to sleep.
1. Wind-Relieving Pose
This pose targets the hip flexors (iliopsoas muscles), which are not only sensitive to stress but also become habitually shortened thanks to our seated lifestyles. The prop allows for a deeper stretch, but the pose is also effective without it.
Rest on the floor in savasana for a few breaths, allowing your entire back and pelvis to soften into the floor. Bend your knees, press into your feet to lift your hips, and slip a bolster or folded blanket(s) under your pelvis, as you might for supported bridge pose. Then extend one leg straight out on the floor, reaching through the heel. Draw the opposite thigh into your belly, using interlaced hands against your shin or the back of your thigh.
Relax your jaw, eyes, and tongue. Broaden and soften your entire back into the floor, being particularly aware of how your body responds to your breath. Release any subtle, small contractions that may be shaping and restricting your breath. Hold for at least four slow breaths. Release slowly and repeat on the other side.
2. Reclining Twist
The big muscles of the side waist and the back are stabilizers and need a little encouragement to release at the end of the day. Start with your pelvis on the bolster, knees bent, and your feet on the floor. Shift your hips to the left, drawing the left knee up and crossing it over to the right as you straighten the right leg on the floor. Rest the knee on the bolster (with an additional prop under the knee if needed). Press your left shoulder toward the floor, allowing your chest to roll open. Stretch both arms out comfortably (palms either up or down), to expand across the chest. Breathe into the side waist, and up the back all the way up through your shoulders. Let as much of the body as possible sink into the floor: upper back, arms, and back of your head. Soften your face and breathe. Adjust your upper body and legs to facilitate a stretch in the areas crying out for attention. If you can’t get comfortable, or if the back of the rib cage is not on the floor, try using a lower prop or no prop at all.
Hold for four or more breaths, then switch sides.
3. Supported Fish Pose
Many of us spend the day hunched over our work and our electronic devices in a position that constricts the lungs and heart and compromises the alignment of the neck and head. The result is that the chin juts forward, the neck shortens, and the belly and viscera contract to compensate for the out-of-balance upper body. Supported fish pose gently reverses this unhealthy alignment.
Place a bolster under your thoracic spine such that the back of your shoulders and head remain on the floor. Keep your knees bent and your feet and pelvis on the floor to prevent strain in the lower back. You can reach your arms overhead, open them into a T, or let them rest alongside your body, whichever feels best. Breathe. Let the breath create space between your ribs, feel freedom in the diaphragm, and soften your back ribs, jaw, and eyes.
Hold for at least four slow breaths. To come out, press your feet into the floor, lift the pelvis, and slide the bolster out. Gently extend your legs, and rest on your back for a breath or two.
4. Supported Bridge Pose
Now you’re ready to reverse your position in the gravitational field with some simple inverted postures, moving more deeply into countering the effects of being upright all day. Lying on your back, bend your knees, place your feet hip-width apart, press your feet into the floor, and place a bolster under your pelvis. Your knees should track straight out from the hip joints, parallel to each other. Rest your arms on the floor alongside the body. Gently press the feet squarely into the floor to energize the legs. Relax your belly, chest, arms, and head.
This position will allow the hip joints and the SI (sacroiliac) joints to realign with the spine, and the abdominal viscera to claim their rightful positions. Soften your heart, throat, jaw, eyes, and forehead, and let the breath nourish the heart and throat. Hold for four or more breaths.
For a more active version, straighten your legs out in front of you by reaching through your heels, keeping the inner thighs engaged and the knees only a few inches apart.
5. Inverted Action Pose
Rejuvenating and balancing, the inverted action pose soothes the nervous system. From supported bridge pose, bend one knee and then the other toward your body; then extend the legs up one at a time, feet reaching toward the ceiling. The heads of the femurs should drop directly and deeply into the hip sockets, with the pelvis fully supported on the bolster. Find the sweet spot where you need very little effort to keep the legs raised. Soften your belly and your face, bringing your awareness to your heart and throat. Broaden your upper back against the floor and breathe length into your spine. Hold for at least four relaxed breaths.
To come out of the pose, bend your knees, bring your feet to the floor, press into your feet to lift your pelvis, and slide the bolster out from under you.
Let your body rest on the floor for a few minutes with breath awareness. You may now want to do a systematic relaxation. Otherwise, roll to one side, sit up, and move languorously to bed.