Yoga is frequently presented as a balm to any number of things that may ail us—from back pain to stress to pandemic-related insomnia. Those who have a regular practice report feeling not only stronger and more flexible but also inspired to engage in complementary forms of self-care. According to one study, yogis are more motivated to eat healthy, exercise, and cut back on drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes. Over 55 percent also reported improved sleep—something we could all use more of these days.
Even before the pandemic, Americans were chronically sleep-deprived, but COVID has made our nights even more restless. “Coronasomnia” is a real thing, say neuropsychologists, with many of us losing sleep about our job, our kids being home, getting sick, and more. And with gym workouts largely off the table in most areas of the country, more people are establishing an at-home or online yoga practice to unwind and signal to their brains and bodies that it’s time to relax.
“Yoga has been especially popular during the pandemic due to its restorative properties,” says Julia Healey, director and head of account management at ClassPass. “Many people say yoga relieves anxiety, puts a spotlight on controlled breathing, and helps to establish a routine. With so many people looking for ways to balance pandemic stress, it makes a lot of sense that yoga increased in popularity.”
Physical activity or movement of any kind is correlated with better sleep. So whether you take a short walk with your dog, log a high-intensity interval training session, or simply move through a couple of asanas (or yoga poses), there’s a good chance your efforts will lead to improved sleep.
But with shorter days upon us, at-home orders in place, and chilly temperatures countrywide, yoga has emerged as the perfect way to stay fit at home, burn off some pandemic anxiety, and sleep more soundly.
Here are tips on how to maximize your yoga practice so that you feel its benefits day and night:
Types of yoga for better sleep
First, what is yoga? Ask 100 different instructors and you’re likely to get 100 different answers about this 5,000-year-old practice. While yoga generally involves getting into specific body postures, it doesn’t have to. Instructors often remind their students that “as long as you’re breathing, you’re doing yoga.”
There are at least eight major styles of yoga, including ashtanga, Anusara, Bikram, hatha, hot yoga, Iyengar, restorative, and vinyasa. Within these types, there may also be subtypes.
Each style of yoga shares a preoccupation with breath. “Because the breath is the only part of our autonomic nervous system that we can consciously control, it gives us a direct gateway into the regulation of the nervous system and the relaxation response that prepares us for sleep,” says Yoga Medicine founder Tiffany Cruikshank.
However, not all yoga is designed to promote relaxation. Hot yoga and vinyasa flow styles, for example, are going to elevate your heart rate, whereas these three styles are particularly notable for their sleepy-making properties:
- Restorative yoga: In contrast to vinyasa yoga, restorative yoga postures are held far longer, and the stretches are more passive. Props such as blankets bolsters, and pillows are often included in these postures to maximize your comfort.
- Yoga nidra: Most yogis will agree that this is the No. 1 variety of yoga for improving your sleep. Also known as “yogic sleep,” yoga nidra is a guided meditation done while lying in shavasana. It invites practitioners into the place between waking and sleeping to ease physical and mental tensions.
- Yin yoga: This slow-paced and more meditative form of yoga is a contrast to the more rigorous “yang” styles of yoga. With yin yoga, you’ll hold postures for a longer period of time, and learn how to relax through periods of discomfort. Working through a few archetypal yin postures can be helpful as a before-bedtime practice.
Yoga poses for better sleep
As for certain yoga poses that can be done to encourage rest and relaxation, there are some that may be more helpful than others. John Hopkins recommends trying these three to get relaxed before sleep:
- Legs-up-the-wall pose or viparita karani: It looks much the way it sounds: Simply lift your legs up to rest against the wall, keeping your back on the floor and your sitting bones close to the wall. Hold for five to 15 minutes.
- Lying butterfly pose or supta baddha konasana:Lie on your back, allowing your knees to drop out to the sides while pressing the soles of your feet together. You can choose to support your knees or back with pillows if that’s more comfortable.
- Corpse pose or shavasana:Lie flat on your back with your arms and legs straight. Keep your hands open, palms up. Allow your ankles to roll open. You should feel completely relaxed from head to toe.
Ashley Danford, a Nashville-based yoga teacher, and owner of Current Yoga, says if bedtime is near, you’ll want to steer clear of big heart-opening postures, as they are more energizing. “For better sleep, it’s not so much which postures you do, but how you do them,” she says. “Move through them slowly and hold them longer.”
Whichever restorative pose you choose, when you’re in it try to take your mind off your worries—past, present, future—and redirect it to the body. Be conscious of everything from your upper lip crease to the balls of your feet, how your hips and shoulders feel against the floor, whether or not your teeth are parted, how your eyes flutter open and shut. Simply, concentrate on the sensations that arise from being mindfully in your body—even if that body is weathering the many stresses of living through a global pandemic.
“Yoga can be a powerful tool to deal with the lockdown’s uncertainty and isolation, as well as to maintain physical well-being,” urges the United Nations, which has offered free yoga resources to all its personnel. “During lockdown and in its aftermath, an increasing number of practitioners have turned to online yoga classes to regain balance and strength. It shows the growing importance of yoga to post-COVID-19 wellbeing.”
What the world needs now? More yoga and more good sleep. Namaste.