Friday, May 8, 2020

To Improve Nighttime Sleep, Plan Your Day

Glad Day by William Blake
by Nina Zolotow

If you have chronic insomnia and you don’t already practice yoga at home, for the sake of improving your sleep, consider finding some time in the day or evening to practice yoga for stress management. What you do during the day has an effect on the quality of your sleep at night and keeping your overall stress levels as low as possible during waking hours can really make a difference in your sleep.

And for those of you who do have a regular yoga practice during the day or evening—or who take yoga classes or practice with yoga videos—I suggest that you plan which yoga practices to do when. That’s because while yoga in general is considered to be relaxing, some poses are more relaxing than others. And some poses and sequences, such as standing poses, backbends, and active flow sequences, are actually quite stimulating. Although I have helpful suggestions in my post When You Can't Sleep: Yoga Solutions for Insomnia for yoga you can do in bed to help you sleep, if you jump into bed right after doing a stimulating yoga practice—or for that matter any stimulating form of exercise, such running, power walking, or aerobics—it’s sort of like drinking an espresso just before bed time. So, this could make your in-bed insomnia practices less effective.

I know about the overstimulating effects of some evening yoga sessions both from my own experience (I used to go to a challenging yoga class that ended at 10:00 pm) and from several other people who have complained to me about having insomnia after evening classes that included backbends.

However, stimulating poses and practices can help keep you strong, flexible, and agile, as well as release physical tension from your body, so you wouldn’t want to eliminate those poses entirely from your practice, especially if they are the main way you exercise or because they lift your spirits. Exercise is important for better sleep, after all. So, it’s just a matter of planning your day and your night to practice at the best times those things that will help you improve your sleep.

Yoga versus Sleep. Another choice to consider is that if you have the chance to take a nap, for example, when your children are napping, you might want to practice yoga instead of sleeping. That seems counterintuitive, I realize, but sleep, although necessary for your health, isn’t necessarily relaxing. Dreams can actually cause stress, as you probably have observed after waking up from a nightmare. And while conscious relaxation—relaxing while you’re awake—reduces your stress hormone levels, including your cortisol levels, that affect your sleep, a nap doesn’t have the same effects. Because high levels of cortisol actually cause insomnia, lowering your cortisol levels with conscious relaxation or calming yoga poses could help prevent the busy mind and over-stimulated nervous system that is keeping you awake at night.

Here are some suggestions for how you might plan your 24-hour day to improve your sleep. Obviously, everyone’s circumstances are different. Some people work away from home during the day, while others are at home during the daytime. Some people are caring for small children during the day, while others have more free time. And, for everyone, days off are different than workdays. So, if any suggestions in here don’t work for your particular schedule, just skip over them.

Day Time

Getting exercise is helpful for improving your sleep. So, if you have time during the day to exercise, do the exercise that works best for you: walk, run, swim, cycle, do aerobics, do a strong yoga practice that includes forceful, stimulating poses, including standing poses, backbends, twists, and/or Sun Salutations and vinyasa flows, or take an active yoga class from your favorite teacher. If you’re practicing yoga, however, try to end with a relaxing pose, whether that’s Legs Up the Wall pose or a good Savasana (see 8 Ways to Practice Savasana and Achieving Deep Relaxation with Savasana) so you quiet down after all the stimulation.

During particularly stressful times, like the one we’re all going through now, rather than doing yoga for exercise it may be better to get your exercise by going outside because fresh air, interacting with the natural world, and sunshine—if the sun is shining—might help reduce stress more than staying inside all the time. And if you’re at work all day, you might see if you can manage a walk during your lunch break.

If you are at home during the day, such as on a weekend, if you work from home, or if you’re currently not working, and you have a sinking spell in the afternoon, try to avoid napping. Sleep experts recommend no daytime naps for those with nighttime insomnia. Instead, see if you can figure out a way to practice conscious relaxation that won’t put you to sleep. Try seated meditation or seated breath practices. And see if there are any restorative postures, such as Legs Up the Wall pose, that you can do without falling sleep. Just be sure to set a timer, perhaps one that chimes at intervals (I have one on my phone), in case you do fall asleep. Another possibility is some gentle stretching, which is something you can do in the same room with kids and pets—maybe they’ll even join in.

Late Afternoon/Early Evening

After work or the early evening is time for you to start winding down and avoid stimulating poses and practices. You know how you stop with the caffeinated drinks after three? It’s like that. Additionally, your stress hormones typically peak at this time of day, so focusing on relaxing is especially beneficial. For people who practice asana at this time, I suggest poses and practices that calm your nervous system, such as gentle stretches, forward bends, inverted poses, and/or restorative yoga. If this is a time when you take a yoga class, look for either a restorative yoga class or a gentle one.

Some people like meditating at this time of day because it helps reset them after a stressful day and make their evenings more peaceful, so doing that, or a calming breath practice, is also a good option. See Stress Management for When You're Stressed for practices you can do to reduce your stress levels at this time of day.

Before Bed

Sleep experts recommend going to bed at the same time each night. But before you go to bed, if it is at all possible, consider turning off the TV early or putting your book down, and practicing a short yoga session to reduce your stress levels. Switching your nervous system to the rest and digest state before getting into bed may help you fall asleep more quickly and sleep more deeply. See Stress Management for When You're Stressed for practices you can do at this time to reduce your stress levels at this time of day.

It may even be that postponing bedtime by 15 minutes in order to do a stress management pose or practice would beneficial. You will not only be more relaxed when you get into bed, having a pre-bedtime routine might in itself be helpful, the same way that small children go to sleep more easily with a special routine that settles them down before bed. And if this is the only time in the day when you can do stress management practices, foregoing 15 or 20 minutes of sleep to practice will also help keep your baseline stress levels lower overall.

By the way, this is one suggestion that I made to the people who complained to me about having insomnia after stimulating night-time yoga classes. I suggested that they do a relaxing counterpose when they arrived home before going into bed. They reported back that this was helpful!

In Bed

For people suffering from insomnia, just getting into bed can trigger a new bout of stress. Practicing conscious relaxation in bed before falling asleep can help you fall asleep more quickly and/or help you sleep more deeply. So, I suggest trying out the practices in my post When You Can't Sleep: Yoga Solutions for Insomnia . 

In the Middle of the Night

All of us insomniacs are familiar with the terrible moment in the middle of the night when we realize we’re wide awake and the possibility of returning to sleep feels hopeless. However, the worst thing you can do is lie there and worry about not falling back to sleep because that just makes you more stressed out. Instead, return to the same practices you do before falling asleep. Although it takes some discipline to focus on these practices (for some reason, worrying seems like the easiest and most productive thing to do the middle of the night), many people, including me, find that 10 to 20 minutes of practice allows us to fall back to sleep. Sometimes it takes longer than that, I admit, but at the very least practicing yoga in bed gives you something more positive to do while you’re awake than simply stressing out.


Good morning! I hope you slept better last night. Now, if you have the time for it and you feel like gently stimulating your nervous system, try a few gentle stretches, moving with your breath, doing a few standing poses, or even doing a full yoga practice. Or, if you like meditating at this time of day, meditation may help you start out the day in a calmer frame of mind.

This post was edited by Patrice Priya Wagner, Managing Editor of Accessible Yoga blog and member of the Board of Directors.

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