We’re all wound up and it's really ruining our sleep. “We’re asked to be productive at every moment — thinking, strategizing, solving problems,” says Stefani Eris, yoga teacher trainer and instructor at Exhale Mind Body Spa. “Our senses are constantly being stimulated, which keeps our nervous systems revved up.” As a result, we lay in bed, unable to wind down.
Yoga can help power down the body and the mind. When you’re wired, your adrenal glands take note, shifting into gear and releasing the stress hormone cortisol. Stretching and focusing slows things down; deepening breaths during poses activates the body’s parasympathetic nervous system, or relaxation response, and allows us to tap into the body’s resting state. Studies show that cortisol levels are significantly reduced after a number of asanas.
Here, then, are five poses engineered to help you clear your mind and prepare you for sleep. You can hold each pose anywhere from several breaths to several minutes. All are appropriate for every fitness level, and, best of all, you can do them in your bed.
Star Pose (Tarasana)
Sit down on the ground or on your bed with the soles of your feet together and your knees apart. Slide your feet away from your pelvis (about two palms distance), creating a long diamond shape. If you notice that your lower back is rounding, sit up on a blanket or a pillow. This will help tip your pelvis forward and give you more space to hinge forward from your hips. Rest your head on a yoga block, a pillow or on your hands to get the full relaxation benefits.
What it does: Directs your senses and attention inward and away from the outside world. The low-back release, gentle inner thigh stretch, and breath directed into the back body encourage a relaxation response.
Supported Fish Pose (Matsyasana)
Sit on the ground or on your bed with a yoga bolster or rolled-up blanket flush against your lower back, running in the same direction as your body and mat. Slowly lie down over the blanket and allow yourself to relax into the support. Slide your shoulder blades towards each other underneath you, turn your biceps towards the ceiling, and rest your elbows and forearms on the floor. Separate your feet mat-width apart and let them flop out to the sides. If your lower back feels strained in any way, you can place a yoga block, pillow or a folded blanket underneath your pelvis and plant your feet on the floor.
What it does: Opens up the front body, reversing the round-shouldered, hunched-over posture we tend to hold during the day while using our computers and phones. Lifts the heart level to or above the head, shifting awareness from the thinking mind towards how we feel. This pose encourages feeling grounded yet open.
Supported Bridge (Setu Bandha Sarvangasana)
Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet on the floor, heels stacked under knees. Inhale and lift your pelvis just enough to slide a yoga block, a bolster or even a stack of books in the manner depicted above.
What it does: Releases tension in the neck, upper and lower back, and hips. Allows the head to rest on the floor. When contracted, our hip flexor muscles are strongly associated with the flight or fight response. A soft release of the hip flexors combined with slow deep breaths can help realign your pelvis and lower back, taking your body out of rounded, over-protective mode into a more open posture.
Supine Spinal Twist (Jathara Parivartanasana)
Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet on the floor. Move your pelvis a few inches to the right of your mat and drop your knees to the left. Let your knees, legs and feet rest on the floor or pillows, or your bed. Relax your right shoulder blade and elbow towards the ground, palm up, bringing you into a gentle twist.
What it does: Relaxes the entire torso, especially the back, after the previous back-bending pose. Twists compress one side of the body while stretching the other; this internal pressure sends breath into the side and back of your body. (Dropping the breath down and back into blood that pools at the base of the lungs brings more oxygen into the body.) This pose can help lower your blood pressure; as that happens, the body’s stress response dissipates.
Legs Up the Wall (Viparita Karani)
This pose is best done on the floor unless your bed is flush against a wall. Lie on the floor (or on your bed) with your legs resting vertically (or nearly so) against a wall or another upright support. Relax your pelvis and back on the floor, keeping your spine in neutral. Extend your arms by your side, palms facing up. You may need to slide away from the wall to relax your back and straighten your legs, depending on your flexibility. Stay here, breathing deeply for two to three minutes. To come out, bend your knees and roll onto one side.
What it does: Restorative inversion is great if you spend a lot of time on your feet.
Inversions (any pose in which the head is below the heart) improve circulation, which has a soothing, healing effect on almost every system in your body.
Note: There are certain contraindications to going “upside down” — unmedicated high blood pressure, for instance — so check with your doctor if you have any health conditions you’re unsure about.
All photos courtesy of Karen Greatti