Loren Fishman, MD, assistant clinical professor, at Columbia Medical School, medical director at Manhattan Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation, both in New York City, and author of several books on yoga for health including Healing Yoga: Proven Postures to Treat Twenty Common Ailments—from Backache to Bone Loss, Shoulder Pain to Bunions, and More.
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Losing a good night’s sleep is a bummer, isn’t it? You walk around in a groggy fog the next day and run the risk of getting snippy with coworkers, friends and loved ones because sleep deprivation has made you grumpy. So many factors in modern daily life can make it tough for us to fall asleep, stay asleep and rest peacefully. Gentle stretching and certain breathing techniques, such as long deep breathing, are good to do right before bedtime. So it is great to learn that the trick to de-stress and set the stage for a good night’s sleep, recommended by Loren Fishman, MD, assistant clinical professor of rehabilitation and regenerative medicine at Columbia Medical School in New York City, is a quick set of simple yoga poses.
“Yoga is a powerful tool to relieve stress and help your body relax and prepare for sleep,” Dr. Fishman said. “By stretching muscles, yoga poses trigger mechanisms in the body that send powerful relaxing signals to the brain. When performed daily, yoga can make us into better sleepers.”
Dr. Fishman instructs his patients to do the following yoga routine nightly at bedtime. Poses can even be done while in bed. Otherwise, do them on a cushioned surface on the floor. A plush blanket or towel will do if you don’t have carpeting or a yoga mat.
Seated forward bend.
This will give a great stretch to your legs and back muscles. To prepare for the forward bend, sit with your legs straight in front of you. First, stretch one leg and then the other by extending from the hip through the heel to elongate the leg. Then relax your legs and stretch your arms straight upward to feel your torso and back extend long and lean. Now you are ready to bend forward from the hips and reach out with your hands to grasp your ankles or feet (or as far down your legs as you comfortably can—you should be stretching, but not straining). Let gentle, deep breaths help you relax into the stretch. Hold this pose for one to three minutes.
Revolved abdomen pose.
This pose massages the abdominal organs, gives a nice stretch to the lower back and muscles across the rib cage and opens the chest so you can breathe more deeply. To do it, lie on your back, bend your knees to your chest and stretch your arms out to your sides. With bent knees pressed together, inhale. Then, while exhaling, twist from your hips to lower your legs to the right while turning your face to the left. Again, give yourself a nice stretch, but do not strain or force yourself to go deeper into the pose than you comfortably can. Hold the pose for five breaths, then bring your knees and head back to center. Repeat the pose on the opposite side by dropping your knees to the left while turning your head to the right. Hold the pose for five breaths.
Reclining big toe pose.
This is a leg lift that gives a good stretch to the muscles all down the back of the leg. Unless you are very limber, you will need a prop to help you get the most stretch. The prop can be a long belt, scarf, cord or necktie that you can brace against the arch or ball of your foot and use as a lever to stretch your leg until your foot faces the ceiling. To do this posture, lie on your back, take a deep breath, and, while gently exhaling, bend your right knee to your chest and loop the prop around the arch or ball of the right foot, holding the ends of the prop in both hands. Inhale while straightening your knee so that your right heel is turned toward the ceiling. Guide the prop to comfortably increase the stretch. Hold this pose for a minute or two and then repeat with the other leg.
This restorative yoga pose helps get more blood flowing in the head and can be so deeply relaxing that when you roll out of it, you may just nod off to sleep like a baby. Begin by kneeling so that you are sitting on your heels, and take a nice, deep, relaxing breath. Bend forward while exhaling and place your forehead on the floor (or on your bed if that’s where you are doing the exercise). Place your arms at your sides so that the hands, palms turned up, are near your feet. As you breathe, especially focus on relaxing your back and shoulders. Hold this pose for five to seven long, slow deep breaths.
This is an easy and deeply relaxing breathing technique that strengthens the respiratory system. While lying down on your back in bed, exhale completely through the nose. Then inhale a little bit of air—just enough for a count of two or three seconds. Hold that little bit of breath for two or three seconds and, without exhaling, take another two or three seconds of breath, hold, and keep on taking those little sips of air, inhaling and pausing, until your lungs are full as if you’ve just taken only one big breath instead of a series of small ones. Hold for a second or two. Then slowly exhale in the same manner, exhaling a little bit for two or three seconds, pausing with breath held for two or three seconds and continuing like this until you’ve completely exhaled air from the lungs. Do four or five rounds of this breathing technique, taking a normal breath between each round of the stop-action breaths.
If you’re not in your bed yet, it’s time to crawl into it and get into this pose—you’re going to be asleep soon! Lie on your back with your legs stretched out and your arms comfortably at your sides, palms turned up. Slowly inhale and exhale through the nose, feeling your abdomen expand and contract. While you do so, start mentally scanning your body, beginning at your toes and working your way up to the top of your head, assessing whether you are holding tension anywhere. Mentally release muscular tension as you go, allowing your body, inch by inch, to comfortably sink into the surface it is lying on. You may fall asleep in the process or you might simply hold the pose for five breaths and then slowly transition into your favorite sleeping posture to fall asleep.