While the best time to do more vigorous exercise is unique to your chronotype, practicing yoga at night can lead to better sleep for virtually everyone. Going through a few postures before bed is extremely effective at inducing slumber, not only by getting you in a more relaxed mindset but by physiologically impacting your autonomic nervous system, explains Lara Benusis, a yoga instructor at Equinox locations in New York City and a graduate student researcher in the biobehavioral program at Columbia University.
To explain requires a quick bio lesson: The autonomic nervous system is comprised of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The SNS, in concert with stress hormones like cortisol, increases blood pressure, heart rate, and blood sugar levels. There’s more energy, blood flow, and oxygen rushing to your muscles and it’s the state created to help us cope with crisis.
On the other hand, the PNS slows the heart and lowers blood pressure, making you feel more relaxed. The magic of yoga, quite simply, is that it often puts you in this state.
“When we are in yoga positions that require less attention to immediate action or reaction, we evoke the parasympathetic response,” says Benusis.
Specific poses are more effective at eliciting this reaction. Bee Bosnak, a yoga instructor at Equinox locations in New York City, developed the following sequence of five moves to help you wind down to prepare for sleep. “All these poses stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system and get out of the sympathetic nervous system, where there is no room for growth and repair,” says Bosnak. “They will help quiet the mind and allow you to enter a state of full and deep relaxation.” They will also slow down your brain activity and encourage the alpha and theta waves that occur during sleep, she says.
This sequence can be done right in your bed or on the floor. Before you begin, Bosnak recommends creating optimal pre-sleep conditions. “Keep rest-disrupting technology out of the bedroom,” she says. Then hold each of these poses for about three minutes—and prepare for a great night’s sleep. —Caroline Schaefer
Begin on your hands and knees. With your knees open as wide as your hips, bring belly to a bolster (you can also use a pillow) and look to one side, then reach arms forward in front of you and relax them. Allowing gravity to pull you down into the earth without any force will help calm you down. Inhale deeply, slowly exhale, and begin to let your thoughts slow down.
Sit with knees deeply bent and your feet slightly wider than hip-width apart. Inhale deeply. Exhale and extend your torso forward and over your legs to elongate your spine. Reach your arms out and down to grab the outer edges of your feet, with armpits fit perfectly into your knee joints. “This forward bend allows you to relax your neck tension and gently stretches your hamstrings, calves, and hips,” Bosnak notes.
Lie down on a bolster with your entire spine supported. (You can also use a pillow). Letting your arms release beside you, take the soles of the feet together and allow your knees to open wide. “This will stretch your inner thighs, a place where we tend to hold a lot of grief and unresolved stress,” says Bosnak. “The gentle hip opener also helps open the front and the back of the heart and releases tension in the groin.”
Lie face-up and place a bolster under your knees to support the lower back. (You can also use a pillow.) “This is what we call the ultimate surrender in yoga, where we process everything and let things settle, especially the rational mind,” says Bosnak.