Can Yoga Help you Sleep?

Let's talk about yoga, exercise, and sleep! We all know how important sleep is for our health and wellbeing, and we also know that there are some potential risks associated with not getting enough sleep. Anecdotally, I hear from people all the time that yoga and meditation have improved their sleep, and in this post, we'll talk about a couple of studies that back that up!

As always, we avoid attaching any sort of moral value to sleep. Sleeping from 9pm-5am is no more moral than sleeping 4am-12pm. The time, duration, and way you sleep has to be functional for you and your life, so there's no space for shame or guilt here. If you would like to improve the quality of your sleep or make it more functional for you, you might like to think about it as an act of self-compassion. Be curious, be kind, take what you need, and leave the rest ❤️

How does Yoga help?

Yoga has 8 components, and there are 3 that are particularly relevant when it comes to sleep: Asana (poses), Pranayama (breathing), and mindful meditation (which incorporates elements of Pratyahara, Dharana, and Dhyana). Each component provides a different type of benefit, which makes the combined practice a holistic approach to your wellbeing.

Here are some of the mechanisms that regular yoga practice may have a positive impact on sleep:

Practicing just before bed:

  1. Downregulates your nervous system - Particularly if you're coming from a stressful or emotionally heightened day, mindful awareness and movement can help to settle your sympathetic (fight or flight) nervous system, and engage the parasympathetic (rest and digest) system so your body is in the ideal state to rest and recover. If you've experienced trauma, you may want to work with an experienced teacher or therapist to find your "window of tolerance" with your body's arousal system.

  2. Can help to settle your thoughts - Overthinking is a huge contributor to poor sleep! Mindful awareness can help you take a step back from your thoughts, rather than getting caught up in them. Try to bring a gentle, patient, and non-judgemental attitude towards yourself, and remember that shoving the thoughts away isn't very effective!

  3. Mentally prepares you to transition away from activities - Especially if you work yoga or mindfulness into your nightly routine, this is a signal to your brain and body that it's time to wind down for bed, and over time this association will get stronger and you might start to feel that relaxation response kick in as soon as you get your mat out

Yoga and exercise during the day:

  1. Yoga or exercise in the morning can support your circadian rhythm (especially if you can get some sunlight!) - which can make it easier to fall asleep at night

  2. Activity increases your sleep drive - moving your body regularly (i.e. tiring yourself out in a healthy way) encourages the body to repair itself with sleep

  3. Overall stress management and self-compassion - learning the skill of non-judgemental and non-attached mindful awareness can be a catalyst for getting out of self-critical and shame-filled spirals!

The Science

There are hundreds of studies that look at yoga and sleep! Overall, the consensus is that yoga is generally beneficial for sleep, or at worse, does not have an adverse (negative) effect. Let's take a quick look at two recent papers:

This 2020 paper by Wang and colleagues is a meta-analysis, where they looked at data from 1,892 research participants across 19 different studies. They looked specifically at women who had sleep problems (primarily insomnia) and found that across the studies, yoga interventions provided a significant beneficial effect on sleep quality.

Yoga Nidra is a type of deep guided meditation, sometimes referred to as a "Yoga Sleep". There's a lot of research on Yoga Nidra as a trauma therapy approach (under professional guidance) and on general wellbeing, and there have been some promising results looking at sleep quality. This 2020 study by Mosziek, Oertzen, and Renner asked people to complete an 11 minute audio Nidra per day for 30 days and found a significant improvement in reported sleep quality (albeit with a small effect size, but they had a large sample with high statistical power).

If you're curious I'd definitely recommend giving Yoga Nidra a try! I found it to be quite a surreal experience, so just make sure you're taking care of your psychological safety.

Bedtime Yoga Asana

Here are some of my favourite yoga Asana for winding down at bedtime! Make a little nest for yourself with props or pillows, and take your time finding a slow and soothing practice. Holding each of these poses for 1-2 minutes will give you a practice that goes for around 10 minutes, but of course, you can mix and match to find what suits you! I'd usually finish this up with some slow belly breathing, a few minutes meditating with a body scan, and a moment to savor a few things about my day that I'm grateful for.

Give it a try and let us know how tou go with it!

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