Bedtime Namaste: How Yoga Improves Sleep

September 13, 2016 All posts Reverie Reverie

Whether you love yoga, hate yoga, or just don’t understand what all the fuss is about, chances are there’s one pose you love. We’re talking about the pose we all know is coming after an hour or so of twisting, balancing and stretching your body. It’s the well-deserved rest that is the culmination of each class: savasana.

For those who don’t know, savasana is also called corpse pose, and it involves, well, lying still like a corpse. On your back, with your eyes shut, arms at your side with palms up, and muscles relaxed. And it feels amazing. So utterly relaxing and luxurious that it’s not unheard of for yogis to drift off to sleep right there in class.

And this is no accident—the relationship between yoga and sleep is well-documented. The findings can help you improve the quality of your shut-eye—in the bedroom, not the yoga studio (though no judgment).

Yoga with women

Rest assured, yoga is good for sleep

Numerous researchers have looked at the relationship between yoga and sleep from various different angles. The basic conclusion of all of them is this: yoga improves sleep. Here are some of the subtler and more specific takeaways:

  • Insomnia relief. Insomnia is a real issue—one that affects 10-15% of American adults. Yoga may offer some real relief. In one study of insomnia sufferers, the subjects were trained in and then performed a simple daily yoga practice for eight weeks. At the end of the clinical intervention, they reported improved quality of sleep, shorter time to fall asleep, and longer duration of sleep overall.
  • Heat it up to sleep it off. If you’re a fan of heated yoga, good news: the practice could help you chill out more easily come bedtime. In a study of Bikram practitioners, subjects reported fewer sleep disturbances on days they practiced yoga as compared with non-yoga days.
  • Benefits for cancer patients. A study of 39 patients with lymphoma compared a control group with a group who practiced Tibetan yoga daily for three months. The results showed that those in the yoga group reported significantly better subjective sleep quality, faster sleep latency, longer sleep duration, and less use of sleep medications.
  • Not just for the young'uns. Mindfulness meditation, a practice of its own right but one that is closely tied to yoga, has been shown to improve sleep quality in older adults with moderate sleep disturbances.

Young woman doing yoga by the lake

Why sun salutations help you snooze

There are a number of ways in which yoga is known to improve sleep (and likely more that haven’t been studied yet). One of the biggest factors is also the most obvious: stress reduction. The physical release caused by stretching and twisting muscles, coupled with a focus on deep breathing, makes yoga the perfect exercise for chilling out—not to mention the fact that yoga studios are specifically designed to be serene environments. Over the long-term, regular yoga practitioners can even lower their level of the stress hormone cortisol, but the short-term relaxation effects can be felt immediately. Plus, the mindfulness your instructor encourages throughout class can significantly reduce psychological stress.

Calming the racing mind

Mindfulness has also been shown to target a particularly insidious (and insomnia-inducing) brand of stress: rumination. Think of rumination as that brain-on-a-hamster-wheel phenomenon that keeps you awake at night. Perhaps because of overall stress reduction, or because it improves the brain’s ability to focus on one thing, mindfulness helps put the kibosh on these unproductive patterns of thought so that you can get to sleep.

Besides relaxing the mind, yoga can also help bring about physiological changes that promote sleep. This is because yoga and meditation initiate the parasympathetic response—the “rest and digest” nervous system, which is responsible for the body’s unconscious actions like digestion and sleep. You can increase this effect by focusing on poses like forward bends and spinal twists that promote blood flow to the abdomen.

For those whose sleep is impeded by physical pain, yoga can also provide a solution. Targeted poses help relax tight muscles and work out knots. And the mental benefits of yoga can alleviate physical pains you can’t work out. By increasing cognitive and emotional control, yoga reduces pain perception and allows you to more easily stop fixating on negative sensations.

And then there’s the fact that yoga is, well, exercise. Exercise is an essential part of good sleep hygiene, as it helps promote healthy sleep-wake cycles (as long as you’re not working up a sweat right before bedtime). The physical fatigue also makes it easier to fall asleep when you crawl into bed at the end of the day.

Step up to the mat

Yoga can seem intimidating to those who don’t have a regular practice. But it shouldn’t be. In fact, yoga is one of the most equalizing types of exercise. You can do it anywhere, with no equipment. At its core, yoga teaches us that there is no “perfect” version of a pose—whatever version your body can do is perfect for you.

If you’d like to get started on your own, check out some of the best sleep-promoting poses you can do right in your own bedroom. Add some simple meditations for good measure.

And if you’re already deep into your practice, feel good about choosing a fitness path that improves your mind, body…and bedtime.