If you're like any one of millions of Americans who have a problem getting to sleep at night, or getting back to sleep if you wake up in the middle of the night, yoga and pranayama can help with that!
I first discovered this when I was taking a Hypnobirthing class in preparation for the birth of my son. One of the exercises we were given by the instructor was a breathing exercise in which you inhaled to a count of 4, then exhaled slowly to a count of 7 or 8. I practiced this consistently every night as part of a CD of relaxation exercises I was given, but the problem was that I kept falling asleep about 20 minutes in.
I went back the following week and told the instructor what was happening - how I never made it past the 20 minute mark on the CD, because once I started lengthening my exhales to double the length of my inhales, I just zonked right out.
She looked at me for a moment, puzzled at what I was asking. "And this is a problem, you said?" she asked.
"Well, yeah," I replied. "Because I can't get to the rest of the relaxation exercises!"
"But if you can get yourself to fall completely asleep after just a few minutes of that breathing exercise, you're going to have no problem relaxing yourself during labor," was her reply.
Turns out, she was right. I was able to stay perfectly calm and relaxed through 3 days of labor - before the doctor decided that enough was enough, and that it might be time for a c-section.
These days, I still have nights when I need help falling asleep or staying asleep. My Vata mind is always active, and getting myself to unwind at the end of a busy day can be tough - really tough. On nights like that, I like to do a few yoga poses while resting in bed before I close my eyes for sleep, and here are five of my favorites for you to try, too!
1. Child's pose. Being facedown with your arms stretched in front of you is very soothing to the nervous system. The belly-down position stimulates the parasympathetic (rest and digest) nervous system, the hips are gently opened, and with the eyes closed, it encourages a restful state of mind. Try tucking a pillow under the forehead for a little extra support.
2. Reclined pigeon pose. This lovely reclined hip opener is a fabulous way for releasing tension in the hips and lower back. You can do it comfortably in bed with your head and upper back resting on a pillow, or even in the middle of the night if you wake up and can't fall asleep again.
3. Reclined bound angle pose. One of my favorites for stretching out in bed after a long day, just bring the soles of the feet together and move the feet upwards towards the body as close as is comfortable. Let the knees flop apart, resting on pillows if you want a little extra support, and for some extra relaxing goodness, extend the arms above the head, interlace the fingers, and take a looooooooong torso stretch as you inhale and exhale deeply.
4. Reclined twist. There's a reason I like to end my yoga classes with a reclined twist - it's a wonderful way to check in with the body and find any little hidden pockets of tension. Reclined twists are also lovely for the gentle massage they give the internal organs. Tuck a pillow under your knees or legs, settle back down into your pillows, and breathe deep.
5. Legs up the wall. Not always the easiest pose to do in bed, but you can get into this pose easily on the floor next to your bed! This gentle inversion will lower the blood pressure and switch on the parasympathetic nervous system. When paired with slow, deep belly breaths, this will get you ready for some seriously good sleep.
And my secret weapon for calming the mind and banishing insomnia? Pranayama. Yep, breath control exercises are fabulous for those of us who struggle with overactive minds and bodies that refuse to fall asleep.
The first pranayama you can try is the 1:2 breath I mentioned earlier in the post. Simply inhale deeply to a count of 2 (or 3 or 4), take a brief pause at the top, and exhale long and slow to double your inhale count. So if you inhale to 2, exhale to 4. Inhale to 3, exhale to 6. Easy. You can start with a 2:4 breath and gradually increase the lengths of the inhales and exhales, but if you're like me, you might be asleep before you make it up to a 4:8 breath.
Alternate nostril breathing is another wonderful bedtime pranayama practice. To do alternate nostril breathing, form a mudra with the right hand: curl the index and middle fingers in towards the center of the palm, extend the pink straight out, and allow the thumb and ring fingers to be soft. Press the thumb against the right nostril, the ring finger against the left nostril. Close off the right nostril with the thumb, and take a slow deep inhale to the count of 4 with the left nostril. Close off the left nostril and hold for just a brief second, then open the right nostril and exhale slowly and with control to a count of 4. Take a deep inhale to a count of 4 through the right nostril, close off the right nostril, pause, open the left nostril, and exhale slowly and with control to a count of 4. That's all there is to it! Repeat that for 4 or 5 minutes, and you'll feel calmer, more relaxed, and maybe even ready for a good night of sleep.