It Depends: Yoga for Insomnia
What is the most effective Yoga practice for insomnia?
There is no one-size fits all in Yoga, particularly when working with a specific condition, disease or illness. Insomnia affects 30% of the population and all those individuals could be experiencing it in very different ways and having it affect their lives in very different ways.
What’s the cause?
Firstly, it’s important to establish what is the main cause of the insomnia you’re experiencing.
Is it physical, emotion or mental?
Is it situational, due to current disturbances to your ‘norm’?
Answers to these questions will give you an idea of what to focus your attention on.
Two Main Types of Insomnia:
Type 1: Trouble Falling Asleep
Create a sleep routine involving the following components:
In choosing helpful physical movements to help with your insomnia, it depends on your lifestyle and circumstances:
Are you very physically active?
If you are active during the day and already physically exhausted, then it’s important to keep asana (movement) to a minimum.
Try Practice One
- Sit in a comfortable position with upright spine
- Take left hand to right shoulder, gaze at fingertips
- Inhale take left arm out left to shoulder height, gaze goes follows fingertips
- Exhale move hand back to right shoulder, gaze follows fingertips
3 repetitions on each side
Each movement, breathe starts just before and finishes just after each movement
Are you physically inactive and/or mentally very active?
If you are inactive or mentally very active, then movement could be important. Perhaps a mindful walk in nature or if using asana, remember:
- We INHALE oxygen to create ENERGY = energising
- We EXHALE to RELEASE waste = relaxation
So really, it’s all about forward folding postures which encourage longer exhales, amplifying qualities of an exhale. In Yoga we call this a langhana effect.
Try Practice Two
- Stand with feet together, take a few natural breaths to ‘check in’, take your attention inward
- Turn right foot out, step one big step forward with left foot, hips facing forward
- Inhale bend left knee, moving hips forward (Warrior 1)
- Exhale folding forward over front leg, hands to leg, straighten knee
- Inhale raising hands and body back up, bend left knee
- 3 repetitions of this forward folding movement
- Step feet together at back of mat and repeat on the other side
- Step feet together at back of mat, inhale raise arms overhead
- Exhale bend forward, knees bent
- 3 repetitions
- Lay down on your back, bend knees, take arms out wide, palms down. Inhale here.
- Exhale drop knees to the right in a twist, gaze can go left
- 2 repetitions on each side, then hold for 3 breaths on the 3rd round on each side
- Exhale both knees to chest (apanasana)
- Inhale guide knees away to arms length (without pushing with arms), belly softens
- 3 repetitions
2. Breath – similarly with breath, increasing the exhale will increase the relaxation effect. Try these techniques:
Sheetali breathing – click here for instructions
Anuloma Ujjayi – click here for instructions
3. Meditative practice – there are hundreds of possibilities which help to calm and focus the mind so experiment which one works bets for you. Try:
- Counting back from 100
- Guided relaxation practice
- Progressive muscle relaxation technique
- Mantra – silently repeat “I inhale calm” on inhale; “I release tension” on exhale
Type 2: Trouble Staying Asleep
Establish these practices which can help break the cycle of extended periods of being awake during the night.
1. Pay attention & stay calm. Notice the content of your thoughts. Seperate yourself from your thoughts and the sensations in your body. Observe.
2. Make relaxation your goal, not sleep. Relaxation can still help rejuvenate your mind and body. Practice for up to 15-20 minutes. Try these practices:
- Counting back from 100
- Active relaxation technique
- Progressive muscle relaxation
- Belly breathing
- Listening to guided meditation
3. Get out of bed. Tossing and turning only amps up the anxiety. Get up, leave the bedroom, and do something relaxing. Try:
- Reading a book
- Writing a list of concerns
- Taking a bath drink
- Drinking a cup of herbal tea
- Listening to a guided meditation
- The above pranayama techniques Sheetali or Anuloma Ujjayi
Once you feel sleepy, go back to bed.
Things to Avoid
Research shows, avoiding these key culprits can, in many cases, reduce insomnia:
- Reduce noise & light
- Remove bedroom clocks
- Remove all technology from bedroom
- Caffeine at least 10-12 hours prior to sleep
- Sugary food and drinks
- Vigorous exercise or intense asana close to bedtime
- Technology before bedtime – at least 1 hour before bed
- Big heavy or rich meals before bed – allow your body time to digest
- Drinking too many liquids in the evening – last drink at least an our before bed
- Alcohol before bed – can interfere with sleep patterns and cause you to wake up during the night
In all situations, it’s important to regularly check in to see what is working and what is not. It depends on severity and cause, but perseverance and a willingness to try different techniques is essential.
These are for general advice only, we always recommend seeking a qualified teacher to help fine tune and guide you through a personalised practice, just for you.
Qualified yoga teachers who want to learn specific techniques and skills for working one on one in a therapeutic setting may be interested in our upcoming Foundations of Yoga Therapy course or our registered Yoga Therapy Training Course.