Yoga for Sleep Disturbance


Only a Buddha would be comfortable sleeping while sitting up?  

In Yogic literature there are many observations of yogis who indeed remained in this position in mediation for days (even years!).

We're not aiming for that, but a calm mind and peaceful body would be a benefit to many of us suffering from sleep deprivation.

Following on from the June/July news on herbal remedies for insomnia, I've explored other ways of calming mind and body for a good night's rest.


People are often restless at night, the bed seems too hot or too cold, they have trouble falling asleep, or they feel sleepy too early in the evening then wake too early. Some can lie and ‘ponder’, but others find the effects build up into major health problems.


From "Yoga as Medicine" by Tim McCall

Chapter 23. Insomnia

Notes from Roger Cole PhD, research scientist in human physiology. He looked at blood pressure changes with different asana and effects on sleep. Found:

1.Reclining and inverted poses promote sleep,

2.Standing poses, sun salutes, rapid breathing (bastrika, kaplabhati) and active back bends inhibit sleep

3.Inability to maintain sleep is a symptom of hyper-arousal, a vatta condition, increasing movement and restlessness,

4.The sympathetic nervous system is too active, and the parasympathetic switched off in insomnia.

5.Cold feet switch on sympathetic system: Keep hands and feet warm (socks, gloves) in restorative poses


Yoga balances the need for active and calming practices: sedentary folk need both activity to promote circulation and calming to reduce muscle tension.

Roger Cole suggests that calming, restorative practices be done after work, as a transition from work to relaxing evening activities, with more active invigorating practice in the morning. Some asana examples are shown below.


Pranayama (breathing)  

Slow, deep breathing raises the levels of carbon dioxide in the blood, and imitates sleep breathing, thus promoting sleep.

Deep breathing also raises the levels of melatonin in the blood. This hormone increases at night and promotes sleep.  

Sleep on right side so that left nostril is open, stimulated the left side of brain (activates parasympathetic nerves) switches off right brain activity (planning, logic, lists).



Recorded versions of progressive relaxation techniques, such as Yoga Nidra, can be very useful: Shiva Rhea has an excellent version of Yoga Nidra available from Sounds True (http://www.soundstrue.com/shop/welcome)



There are a variety of yoga sequences for insomnia available on the www. Here are some samples for you to try:

1. From Integrative Health


Reset your body with a restful and relaxing yoga practice. Here is a short restorative yoga sequence to relax and renew and help you reconnect to your breath and body. Find a comfortable and quiet place so you can practice these poses with little to no distractions. Hold each pose for at least 3 minutes and feel free to choose just one pose or do the whole sequence.

These poses will use blankets, bolsters, blocks, chair and an eye pillow to place the body in positions that help restore the body and bring it back to balance. Don't worry if you do not have the specific props, get creative and use what you can find in your own home. (ie. blankets, pillows, couch cushions, books, etc.). Remember to keep your body comfortable so that you can relax completely.

Reclining Butterfly (Supta Baddha Konasana)

• Place your blanket or bolster in the middle of your mat

• Begin seated at the end of your blanket or bolster with your buttocks on the floor (do not sit on the blanket)

• Place the soles of your feet together and support your legs with blocks, pillows or books under your knees

• Gently recline yourself onto your blanket or bolster and be sure that your forehead is higher than your chin by placing a pillow or block under the head


1. If your low back in uncomfortable, remove the blankets or bolster and lie flat on the floor 

2. If one hip or knee in uncomfortable, straighten that leg out to the side

Supported Bridge Pose (Setu Bandha Sarvangasana)

• Place bolsters or pillows end to end lengthwise on your mat

• Sit in the middle of one bolster with your feet on the floor (leaving space at the end so your shoulders and head will be on the mat, but not the bolster)

• Gently recline yourself back with your shoulders and head on the mat and the end of the bolster hitting mid-shoulder blade region 

• Straighten your legs out on the bolsters

• Extend the arms out to the side or bend them like a cactus


1. If your lower back is uncomfortable, bend your knees with your feet on the bolsters 

2. If discomfort is felt in neck or upper back, use blankets instead of bolsters to decrease the height

Wide Leg Standing Forward Bend (Prasarita Padottanasana)

• Place a chair in front of you and stand with your feet 4 – 5 feet apart facing chair

• Make sure your feet are parallel and that you are standing evenly on the outer and inner edges of the feet (important for knee care)

• Bend forward at the hips, with minimal rounding of the spine, and place your hands on the chair

• You can either rest your forehead on a block, pillow or the chair


1. If there is discomfort in your back or legs, use a table or even the wall to lean against instead of the chair, making it higher and decreasing the forward bend

Reclined Twist (Supta Matsyendrasana)

• Begin lying on your back with your knees bent and feet on the floor

• Place your arms out to the side, palms face up, and bend your knees towards your chest

• Inhale deeply and Exhale twist your legs to the left


1. If your legs do not touch the floor and rest comfortably, place a blanket or bolster under your bottom leg 

2. If your legs do not rest together comfortably place a blanket or bolster between your knees 

3. If your right arm or shoulder has any discomfort, bend the elbow and place the hand on your right side

Supported Child's Pose (Balasana)

• Begin by stacking bolsters, pillows or couch cushions

• Sit at the short end of the pillows on your knees (use a blanket under your knees if you want padding)

• Pull a pillow or two on top of your thighs and then bend over the pillows

• Turn your head to one side, let your arms be comfortable and rest your body on the pillows

• After a few minutes, turn your head to the other side to stretch the neck evenly


1. If your feet/ankles are uncomfortable or cramp, roll a blanket and place it under your ankles

2. If your knees are uncomfortable or you do not sit all the way to your heels, place a folded or rolled blanket between your buttock and feet

Legs Up the Wall Pose (Viparita Karani)

• Begin by sitting off to the side of your mat with your right hip and shoulder towards the wall

• Lay on your left side on the edge of your mat

• Roll onto your back and place your feet on the wall

• Straighten your legs up the wall (if your knees bend, move yourself slightly away from the wall)

• Relax your arms by your side or over your head in a comfortable position


1. If it is difficult to relax here and uncomfortable in any way, lay flat on your back with a bolster or blanket under your knees

For more details on the Benefits and Cautions of these postures, see a book such as Relax and Renew: Restful Yoga for Stressful Times  by Judith Lasater.

2. From Yoga Art and Science


Ardha Halasana (Half Plough Pose)

This is one for more experienced yoga practioners. Be careful to avoid too much stress on the neck and shoulders. Fiddle with the props to get comfortable in the pose.

• Fold up a mat and stack up three blankets on top. Make the stack neat, with all the folded edges in a clean line. This will be going under the shoulders to act as a lift to protect the neck.

• Either place a bolster across the seat of the chair, or use a folded up blanket or two instead.

• Lie back on the blanket so that the shoulders are on, but the head and neck are not. 

• Lift the hips and swing the legs overhead to bring the feet to the chair.

• Thread the feet through the chair back and rest the thighs on the bolster/blankets.

• Release the arms overhead.

• Rest here for 3 to 5 minutes.

• Roll down and take Wide Leg Standing Forward Bend (see above)  with the head on the chair.

3. From Yoga for Healthy Aging 


This is a terrific website!

The yoga is quite challenging and again more for excerienced yoga practitioners if attempting this alone. For this shoulder stand sequence, be careful to get the props in the right place and mind out  for pressure on your neck and lower back. Once in it, stay as long as comfortable, then come out slowly. The final 'legs on chair ' pose is also great to do on its own if you don't want to do the full shoulder stand. Try it out!

Chair Shoulderstand (Salamba Sarvangasana) by Nina

To be honest, when you first learn how to do this pose, it is one of the most challenging to get in and out of. So I normally teach people how to do Chair Shoulderstand in person. But I think it's worth having the instructions and photographs showing the process for those of you who may have seen a demonstration once and forgotten the steps, as well as for any brave souls who are willing just to give it a try. 

This variation of Shoulderstand will allow you experience the legendary "soothing" quality of Shoulderstand. Because you are completely inverted in this pose, the relaxation response will take effect quite quickly. Your neck is also flexed in the pose, which enhance the relaxation   

Instructions: To do this pose, you just need a sturdy chair with four legs. It's okay if the chair has a bar between the front legs or a back panel.   

1. Start by placing a folded yoga mat on the chair seat, letting part of the mat extend over the front edge of the chair. (If you're tall, you may need to place a folded blanket or two on the chair seat to support your pelvis.) Then place two yoga blankets, folded lengthwise into long rectangles, (or use bolsters if you are short), in front of the chair legs with the folded edges away from the chair. All the props should be on the floor, not on a yoga mat because when you come out of the pose, you'll need to slide the props. If you're nervous about doing the pose on your own, you could have a friend hold the chair steady for you just for psychological reassurance.

2. Next, sit sideways on the chair seat.  

3. Steadying yourself with your hands, swing your legs over the chair back, keeping your knees bent.   

4. Now comes the tricky part. Leaving your legs bent over the chair back (that part is really important as it prevents you from pulling the chair over), place your hands on the chair legs as you scoot your head and shoulders down toward the blanket. Keeping your legs over the chair back, allow your shoulders to come to rest on the edge of the folded blanket (they must actually touch the blanket, not hang in the air above it, so no cheating!) while the back of your head comes to rest on the floor (your neck should be free).  

5. Once your shoulders are resting fully on the blanket stack, one at a time thread your arms underneath the chair seat and grab onto the back legs of the chair (while still keeping your legs on the chair back!). If you can't do this because your shoulders are tight or if you have broad shoulders, take your arms outside the chair legs and grab onto back legs of the chair from the outside. 

6. Once you are holding onto the back chair legs with your hands—and only then!—you can bring one leg at a time off the chair seat into a vertical position.


Congratulations you've made it into a Chair Shoulderstand! If you're comfortable, stay in the pose for several minutes, as long or longer than you would in full Shoulderstand. I like to stay at least six minutes because after five minutes something magical happens, as I can actually feel my body and mind switch into relaxation mode. However, if the pose is uncomfortable or causes you any pain, come out of it. 

Think about what kind of changes you might make to your propping, such as adding another blanket under your shoulders (for example, if your neck feels uncomfortable) or on top of the chair seat (if your pelvis isn't well supported). Chair Shoulderstand is a pose in which most everyone can find a way to get comfortable, so it's worth taking your time to figure out the best way for you to do it. If you can't make it work on your own, consider asking your teacher to look at you in the pose and make some suggestions.

8. To come out of the pose, first bring your feet down onto the chair back.   

9. Next, bring your hands onto the front chair legs. Then drop your feet onto the chair seat as you slide away from the chair (or push the chair away from you).    

10. Keeping scooting until you are back far enough so you can drop your pelvis onto the floor. Then shift the blankets under your head so you can rest for a few breaths in a comfortable position.  

11. Finally, roll over onto your side and rest there for a couple of breaths. When you're ready, use your hands to slowly push yourself up to a seated position, only raising your head when you are fully upright. Taking your time coming out of the pose helps you retain the quietness you cultivated while you were in the pose. 




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