Why yoga is your best ally for a good night's sleep


Yoga has long been celebrated as the ultimate drug-free sleep aid, but still, the positive impact that this mindful exercise can have on your sleeping pattern needs to be experienced to be believed. Whether you're signing up for a course of yoga classes to tone up or simply get some me-time in the midst of a hectic working week, improved sleep is almost always an added bonus, and for some people, the benefits are instant.

Keen to delve a little deeper into the subject of yoga and sleep, we recruited the expert knowledge of Yoga Dublin instructor Caroline Downey, whose 'Gentle & Meditative Classes' in Dundrum, are less so about stimulating the nervous system and more so about soothing sleep's best friend; the parasympathetic nervous system (think long, deep breaths, slow calming poses, lowered heart rates, physical and mental de-stress).

The reason, Caroline explains, that we experience this positive side effect is simply because yoga, in general, helps to balance the central nervous system and when that highly sought after 'balance' is reached, our sleep patterns balance out too, as do our moods, our stress levels and lots more. When asked if it's an instant improvement, Downey explains: "Everyone is different, but most people notice a difference in sleep patterns almost immediately after taking up a yoga practice." But to maximise yoga's impact on your sleep long term, Caroline says that practicing yoga 2 - 3 times per week is ideal to feel long-lasting, positive changes. In an ideal world, "a daily practice, even just a couple of poses, would be wonderful."

If sleep is a major concern, be mindful of the kind of yoga you practice at night. Something energising would be best earlier in the day, while Caroline says a calming sequence before bed - such as the classes she teaches - would be most beneficial for sleep. "More energetic practices need to be finished several hours before bedtime to allow the stimulation of the central nervous system to calm down enough for rest."

While many of us will enjoy a better night's slumber after a yoga class or two, for some severe insomniacs, it's said to have made an immeasurable difference.

According to The Yoga Journal, those suffering from ongoing insomnia or poor sleep have possibly triggered their sympathetic nervous system into a permanent state of arousal, where your mind is racing, your heart rate is elevated, and your body produces stress hormones such as cortisol at a time when they're really not needed. Anxiety may also feature. When considered in terms of the central nervous system, a practice that helps to calm this down and allows the parasympathetic nervous system to take over the wheel makes sense. “Treating the arousal should treat the insomnia.”

If you're giving it a go tonight before bed, be sure to go slow and focus on some nice restorative poses with props - don't push yourself too hard - perhaps along with a breath meditation as this will help relax the body and mind and allow sleep to come more easily.

Some particularly beneficial poses for improving sleep include the locust pose (Salabhasana), a standing forward bend (Uttanasana) and 'legs up the wall pose' (Viparita Karani).

Salabhasana - Locust Pose

Standing Forward Fold
Uttanasana - Standing Forward Fold

viparita karni (legs up the wall pose)
Viparita Karani - Legs Up The Wall

Some small behavioural changes will make a big difference too. Remove all stimulants from your room, avoid the mobile phone or laptop at least an hour before bed and whatever you do, ease off the caffeine and sugar. At least cut yourself off after 3pm, and yes, this includes tea too. Prepare a calming, caffeine-free herbal tea to enjoy after your yoga and be sure to indulge in plenty of Shavasana. Mindfulness apps such as Headspace or Calm.com or 'Stop Breathe, Think' have some really fantastic guided meditations specifically tailored to improve sleep, and never underestimate the power of a good book in a hot bath to prepare you for some satisfying slumber.



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