5 Simple Yoga Poses That Can Help Soothe Anxiety and Aid in Restful Sleep
For many of us, yoga has become a part of our regular exercise routine. A moderate to vigorous Vinyasa (flow) yoga class can boost your cardiovascular health, increase flexibility and mobility, and even support healthy bones, thanks to weight-bearing poses like Downward Facing Dog. But a "get-up-and-go flow" isn't the only type of yoga that can bring benefits.
If you find yourself anxious, antsy or unable to "turn it off" at bedtime, a gentle and restorative yoga practice could be just the thing you need. The key to a successful restorative yoga session is to do it in a soothing space. Avoid harsh lights and overly stimulating music—and definitely leave screens and media in a separate room. If you have a favorite candle or incense, make lighting it a part of your yoga ritual. Essential oil diffusers with calming scents, like lavender or vanilla, will help set the mood. We like these:
Unlike some other forms of yoga, restorative postures are not intended to create excess feeling or stretching in the body. If your physical sensation can be measured on a scale of 1 (least sensation) to 10 (most sensation), a successful restorative practice aims to be right around a 2.
The key for all of these poses is to breathe deeply and slowly. Lengthening the exhales will help you ease into your parasympathetic nervous system, getting you out of the all-too-common "fight or flight" mode. As you slow things down, become aware of your body, breath and maybe even the thoughts and emotions that surface. Can you notice everything that's happening inside of you without judging or shaming yourself? Just observe, release and keep on breathing. You'll be sleeping sweetly in no time.
Legs Up the Wall
This pose reverses and refreshes blood flow in the body. It feels amazing after a long day on your feet!
Find a clear space on the wall with no obstructions. Sit right next to the wall with one hip facing the wall. Come down onto one forearm as you swing the leg on the same side up the wall, with the sole of the foot facing the ceiling. Simultaneously lower yourself onto your second forearm as you bring the second leg up the wall. Scooch yourself a little closer, so that your two sitting bones are flush with the wall or baseboard. Slowly lower yourself onto your back. Relax your feet so they are not flexed. Place one hand on your heart and the other on your abdomen. Feel your body filling up with air and releasing. Stay here for 5-10 minutes. When you are ready to come out, gently push yourself away from the wall, let the legs slide down to the floor and turn onto one side. Rest for 1 minute in the fetal position before sitting up.
Optional props: If you have a blanket handy, you can fold it once or twice and slide it under your seat, so that it props your hips up above the floor. You may also choose to place a blanket or thin pillow underneath the head. A sandbag or small, heavy pillow, may feel fantastic if draped over the soles of the feet (which are facing up toward the ceiling).
This simple but powerful pose is also known as "wisdom pose" for good reason!
Come to your hands and knees on a blanket or yoga mat (we like this one from Lululemon, $78). Bring your big toes to touch and gently open the knees. Sink your seat back toward your heels as your belly lowers to the floor, between the thighs. If this creates too much sensation in the low back, you may bring the thighs and knees together and rest the abdomen on top of the legs. Bring your forehead toward the ground. If it does not touch, either stack your hands underneath or place a block or pillow underneath, so your head and neck are both supported. Breathe very slowly, noticing how you are providing your own support, comfort and protection in this pose. Stay here for 3-5 minutes, then sit up slowly.
Optional props: A rolled blanket between the backs of the ankles and the seat will help tight hips. A block or blanket under the forehead can release tension in the neck. If you have a bolster or firm pillow, you can place it lengthwise between the thighs, and let the abdomen rest on that, instead of the floor.
Supine Spinal Twist
This passive twist can help relieve feelings of compression in the abdomen that build up after a day spent hunched toward a computer screen.
Place a blanket on the floor (or use a yoga mat). Lay down on your back and hug your knees into your chest. Send the hips to the left an inch or two, and let both knees fall to the right. Your abdomen will be twisting gently; aim to bring both shoulder blades to the floor so your chest is expanding toward the ceiling. You may bring both arms down to your side, palms facing up, or place your left hand gently on the side body, the hip or the thigh. To increase sensation, wrap the left leg over the right hooking the left toes around the right calf. Let the weight of the left thigh pull you deeper toward the floor. Stay here for 3-5 minutes. Slowly come back to center, hug the knees in again, and repeat on the opposite side.
Optional props: A thin pillow or folded blanket between the knees may feel nice for a cranky low back.
Believe it or not, many yogis consider this to be the most important pose! Traditionally, savasana is taken after you finish your yoga practice. This allows your body to settle down and recalibrate after a period of physical, mental and emotional work.
Lay down on your back on a yoga mat or blanket. Bring your feet slightly wider than hip-width and allow the toes to flop to either side. Open your mouth and wiggle your jaw around to release any built-up tension from clenching and talking. Close your mouth lightly, keeping the two rows of teeth separated. Let the tongue feel heavy. Close your eyes, keeping the eyelids smooth and heavy. Remove all expression from your face. Bring your arms down by your hips, palms facing up. Take a deep, full breath in and release it out through your mouth with a big sigh. Do that once or twice more, then breathe normally and naturally.
Focus only on the breath, acknowledging and then releasing any thoughts that float by. If "emptying the mind" feels impossible today, you may silently repeat the words "in," and "out," with each inhalation and exhalation. Stay here for 10-20 minutes. It's okay if you fall asleep! While it's not traditional to nap during savasana, trust that your body knows what is best. When ready to come out of the pose, start by wiggling your fingers and toes, then moving your wrists and ankles. Take a big stretch, as if you were waking up in the morning, then squeeze your legs into your chest. Give yourself a hug! Turn over onto your favorite side and rest in the fetal position for a few moments before slowly sitting up.
Optional props: You can place a folded blanket or thin pillow under the head. A folded blanket over the abdomen can provide a sensation of grounding and protection. A rolled blanket, firm pillow or bolster under the knees can provide low back support. We like this one:
Alternate Nostril Breathing
This breathing technique may feel a little funny at first, but it becomes easier with practice. Yogis believe that alternate nostril breathing brings balance and calm to our equilibrium.
Sit in a comfortable position with your spine upright. If you are seated in a chair, be sure your feet are touching the ground. You may also sit on a blanket, yoga cushion or pillow with your legs crossed. Close your eyes and breathe in and out deeply a few times.
Bring your left hand to rest gently on your knee.
Close your right nostril with your right thumb and inhale through your left nostril for a count of four. Plug both nostrils with the thumb and ring finger of your right hand for a count of four. Lift the thumb (keeping the ring finger on the left nostril) and release the air through the right nostril for a count of eight.
Keep the thumb lifted and breathe in through the right nostril for a count of four. Plug both nostrils with the thumb and ring finger for a count of four. Lift the ring finger (keeping the thumb on the right nostril) and release the air through the left nostril for a count of eight. This completes one round of alternate nostril breathing. 5 minutes before bed helps to relieve anxiety and promote efficient sleep, but even a round or two can work wonders.