In theory, yoga’s supposed to improve your sleep… but if that’s the case, then why can’t you fall asleep after many of your yoga sessions?
It’s not the yoga per se that’s to blame. The practice is meant to leave you uber-relaxed and ready for bed… BUT you have to choose the right style of yoga.
In order to understand this a little better, yoga’s sister — science of ayurveda — sheds light on the connection between yoga and sleep and how to use this knowledge to get a good night’s rest:
Which yoga styles to avoid
Modern yoga comes in many forms: hatha, power, restorative, kundalini… the list goes on and on. Each “school” has its own rhythm and style.
Some classes will be an unending flow of strong postures like Warrior 1 and 2, while others barely cover 5 reclining poses in total. Some require loads of strength and energy, while others require nothing but muscular surrender.
Simply speaking, each style of yoga has a different energetic effect on the body and not all of it is appropriate in the evening. This is the most basic explanation as to why some yoga sessions may be preventing your sleep — but let’s dig a little deeper…
Ayurveda & The Three Doshas
Ayurveda is a sister science of yoga, and one is very much meant to be layered with the other. Ayurveda means “the science of life”. It teaches how to live a happy and healthy life based on the understanding that every individual is unique.
Its wisdom can be combined with yoga so that the practice becomes perfectly suited for the individual, their current state of health, the time of day, and the season. It allows yoga to be used like medicine, which is why it’s so helpful to understand when dealing with insomnia or sleep troubles.
At the core of Ayurvedic philosophy are the three doshas: vital energetic forces that exist within all of us as well as in nature. The doshas are made up of combinations of the five elements (earth, air, space, water and fire) and reside within us in unique proportions that grant us our mental, emotional and physical differences.
It’s the doshas that determine how we feel energetically and even how we sleep — so yes indeed, you will suffer insomnia, if you get them out of balance.
These three forces are called Vata, Pitta and Kapha:
Vata is a combination of air and space. It’s light, mobile, dry, cold and subtle. It’s responsible for the nervous system and all movement in the body, such as blinking of the eyelids and circulation of blood. Vata is a very mobile energy that when balanced gives the positive trait of adaptability.
When out of balance, it can cause anxiety, insomnia, weight loss, constipation, hypertension, arthritis, weakness, restlessness, hand tremor and digestive challenges.
Pitta is a combination of fire and water. It’s hot, fluid, light, viscous and sharp. Pitta is responsible for all transformation in the body, such as the transformation of food to body tissues. When in balance, Pitta grants motivation and leadership.
When out of balance, Pitta can cause aggressiveness, anger, eczema, skin rashes, burning sensations, peptic ulcers, excessive body heat, heartburn and diarrhea.
Kapha is a combination of water and earth. It’s stable, heavy, cold, soft and slow. Kapha is responsible for all stability in the body, such as solidity and lubrication of the joints. Those who are predominantly Kapha are very patient, sleep soundly and have regular digestion. But when Kapha builds to excess, weight gain, fluid retention, and allergies manifest in the body.
When they’re out of balance, Kapha types may become overweight, sleep excessively, and suffer from asthma, phlegm, diabetes, and lack of motivation… or even depression.
Yoga & the Doshas
Everything you do affects the doshas within — yoga included. Ayurveda uses the principle of like increases like to explain this effect. It’s such a simple concept that it feels intuitive:
Let’s take heavy and cold Kapha as an example. If you eat something heavy and cold, such as ice cream, the Kapha dosha is increased. Your body may be able to maintain its Kapha balance if you only eat ice cream every now and then, but eat it nightly and Kapha’s likely to go out of whack.
Imbalanced Kapha typically presents itself as excess mucus and sluggishness, which you’ve likely felt before after over indulging on a tub of Ben & Jerry’s.
When it comes to yoga, we can also apply the same principle. A vigorous, flowing practice with a lot of movement and jumping is going to imbalance which dosha? Vata.
Vata is already characterized by movement and lightness, so a style like vinyasa only increases Vata further. Add to that excessive sweating which creates internal dryness — another inherent trait of Vata — and you can see why this kind of yoga can lead you to insomnia.
Vinyasa — to do or not to do?
Most yoga in the modern western world is vinyasa-based. There’s a whole lot of moving, flowing, standing, and jumping from downdog to forward folds. Plus, vinyasa classes are sometimes layered with music like electronic or fun rock or hip-hop that’s meant to match the class’s physical intensity.
The problem is that Vata cannot withstand loudness or dissonance, especially when paired with a whole lot of movement.
Vinyasa classes are fun and they make you feel as though you’ve had a good workout, but they’re not necessarily great before bed. They can definitely imbalance Vata that’s already teetering on an imbalance, during the Vata season of fall, or even just during the Vata time of day (2 pm to 6 pm).
This isn’t meant to be a bashing of vinyasa yoga. Vinyasa can have a rhythmic flow, and rhythm helps to balance Vata. Classes often wind down with grounding seated postures and gentle inversions, which also mitigate imbalanced Vata. And if class is tied up with a long rest in savasana, any increased Vata receives a chance to settle down.
But this isn’t how all vinyasa yoga classes are practiced. Many cut savasana short. Others play loud music that layered with movement is just too much for someone who already has a lot of Vata. And lastly, there can be too many strenuous standing poses that aren’t balanced with cooling seated poses.
Other yoga styles like power flow, kundalini and hot yoga can have a similar effect on Vata. They jolt the nervous system awake, which will most probably not put you to sleep.
Modifying evening vinyasa classes
If you can’t imagine giving up your evening vinayasa yoga class — perhaps your favorite teacher only teaches at night or you can’t fit in a yoga workout any other time of the day — then you’ll need to make a few modifications in class so that you can still get a good night’s rest.
The first is to take intermittent breaks throughout your practice in child’s pose or savasana. Whenever you find yourself huffing and puffing or having to wipe sweat from your brow, take a little rest. Just one minute or even 30 seconds can be enough time to allow the nervous system to calm down.
Sometimes it’s hard for the ego to admit that the body needs a rest. But yoga is all about overcoming the ego.
It’s not about competing with others in the class, nor about competing with yourself. Set aside your pride and give the body what it really needs: time to relax.
The second way to modify a vinyasa class is to ease into savasana early, or stay in savasana even when the class is out (depending which is appropriate). Your teacher won’t mind; they’ll only respect you more for honoring your body. Savasana can mitigate any tendency for yoga to rile up the nervous system.
Choosing a bedtime yoga class
So if vinyasa isn’t ideal before bed, which styles are?
Perhaps the most obvious are restorative and yin classes. Even their names sound relaxing.
Restorative yoga makes use of props like blankets, bolsters and blocks so that the body is completely supported. Postures become effortless and allow the muscles to relax. Poses may even be held for 10 or 15 minutes at a time, allowing both body and mind to find stillness.
Because Vata is characterized by movement, the stillness of restorative yoga helps to bring its balance.
Yin yoga is quite similar to restorative yoga except that it aims to work on the body’s deeper tissues. Props are often used, and poses are again held for longer periods of time. Yin is a great choice for bedtime yoga.
Hatha yoga is another grounding style for Vata. Poses aren’t held quite as long as in restorative or yin, but they still give the mind a chance to find stillness. There’s much less flow and movement than vinyasa, making hatha classes more suitable for bedtime yoga.
Simple bedtime yoga at home
The best way to control your yoga practice, however, is to practice at home. You can set the pace, choose your poses, and spend as much time as needed resting. Although many students are intimidated by the thought of switching to a home yoga practice, the postures suggested here are so gentle that they almost feel intuitive.
You don’t need to worry much about alignment; just make the position is comfortable and then hold it for a minute or two. You can even practice these postures in bed.
1. Neck rolls
Because we tend to hold a lot of stress in the neck and upper shoulders, this pose is great for releasing our physical and emotional tight spots.
Sit with your legs crossed or folded underneath you. Sit tall and close your eyes. Rotate your head in slow, gentle clockwise circles 6 times. Change directions.
2. Gentle seated twist
Twists are naturally destressing; perfect for practicing just before bed.
Sit with your legs crossed. Place your left fingertips on the floor just behind your tailbone and gently press into the ground to straighten your spine. Place your right hand on your left knee. Exhale and gently twist to the left, gazing over your left shoulder. Take slow, rhythmic, full breaths. Hold the pose for some time. Exhale and unwind, then change sides.
3. Legs up the wall
This gentler variation of shoulderstand is restorative, relaxing, and calming for the mind.
Sit with your left side body and torso against a wall, feet flat on the ground. Exhale as you lie down and pivot yourself so that your legs move up the wall, wiggling yourself as needed to find the right position. Your body should form an L shape. Rest your hands a foot or two away from your torso, palms facing up. Take slow, rhythmic, full breaths. Hold the pose for some time. To come out of the pose push your feet against the wall, lift your hips and gently roll onto one side.
4. Passive seated forward bend
Forward bends are natural stress-relievers, especially this passive, effortless version of seated forward bend.
Sit with your legs outstretched. Exhale and fold forward from your hips, resting your hands on your thighs, shins, or the outsides of your feet. Find length in your spine and then settle in. Don’t pull yourself forward but instead allow your spine to gently round as you relax your neck. Take slow, rhythmic, full breaths. Hold the pose for some time.
5. Square breathing
This pranayama practice quiets looping, excessive thinking.
Sit comfortably and lengthen your spine. You may want to place a cushion or folded blanket under your hips to take make the pose more comfortable. Close your eyes and take a few natural breaths. Then inhale for a count of 4. Hold your breath for a count of 4. Exhale for a count of 4. Hold your breath for a count of 4. Repeat this at least 5 more times, then lie down and settle in for bed.
6. Yoga nidra
This is perhaps the best yogic practice to do before bed. Yoga nidra actually means “yogic sleep.” Although you’re meant to remain awake throughout the practice, it deeply relaxes the body and is the perfect prelude for bed itself.
Lie down on your back in savasana with your feet wide, arms by your sides, palms facing up. You can do this on the floor or in bed. Close your eyes and relax your jaw. Now bring your focus to your toes. Relax all ten toes.
Next, bring your focus to the soles of your feet, relaxing all the muscles in the soles of your feet. Next move on to the ankles, completely relaxing your ankle joints. Slowly work your way up the body, consciously relaxing each individual body part. Move all the way up to your eyes, forehead, and hair. Allow sleep to come when it may. If you still have trouble sleeping, work your way back down your body.
Don’t dismiss yoga altogether if it seems to prevent your sleep. A little Ayurvedic insight will help you to understand exactly what’s not working for you. Opt for more grounding evening classes like yin, restorative or hatha. Even better, gently move through the poses given here and soon enough you’ll be sleeping like a baby.
If you’d like to discover more useful tips to improve your physical and mental health, then check out Zenward — a unique platform designed to help you build a lively, fun yoga practice, no matter your age, fitness level, body type, or current mindset.
Now it’s your turn — share with the Zenward community what’s YOUR take on fighting insomnia. You never know how many people it might help.