11 Yoga-Inspired Stretches to Get a Good Night’s Sleep
If you're losing sleep over losing sleep, we've got the news to help you snooze. Try these stretches tonight to wake up refreshed tomorrow.
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Stretch your way to better sleep
We're a sleep-deprived nation, but you probably already know that since one in every three adults in this country doesn't get enough shut-eye, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Logging less than seven hours per night is associated with obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and even problems on the job. It's no surprise we're always scoping out new sleep tricks and tips, and there are plenty of reasons why sleep is proving to be so elusive.
But here's a solution that could help: "Stretching before bed resets ourselves and wipes the slate clean from the stresses of the day, which we carry in our bodies," says Susanna Harwood Rubin, author of the comprehensive lifestyle guide, Yoga 365 and an international yoga teacher with a home base in New York City. Additionally, making stretching part of your nighttime routine can automatically set the scene for these better bedtime habits.
In creating this sequence of stretches for sleep, Susanna kept the focus on the pelvis, spine, and hamstrings because "they don't get enough movement throughout the day, whether we spend it sitting or standing. The tightness makes it difficult to relax and release, which is necessary for turning our time in bed into a restful time."
Rising Crescent Moon
With all that in mind, Susanna's sequence begins with what she calls the "Rising Crescent Moon," which can be done beside the bed. It is essentially a lunge with the back knee on the ground, the torso fully upright (perpendicular to the ground), and the toes flexed. Having the toes flexed is an added bonus for releasing the soles of your feet (you're welcome, aching feet). Susanna's using blocks in the photo, but you can support your hands by reaching out and holding onto the edge of your bed. Hold the pose for a slow count of ten on each side, Susanna says—plan to hold every stretch for that long. "It's a wonderful release of the hip flexors, the fronts of the thighs and the sole of the foot." (Keep from slipping and sliding with one of the best yoga mats on Amazon.)
Resting Crescent Moon
After you've done Rising Crescent Moon on each side, it will be time for you to climb into, or rather, onto, your bed. After doing this a few nights in a row, it will come to signify the transition into bed in a gentler and more pleasant way than simply putting on pajamas and brushing your teeth (although bedtime routines are crucial to sound sleep). Once on your bed, you should gather your pillows and have one under each hand as you get into your Rising Crescent Moon position. Now, instead of holding the torso upright, however you can let your torso sink down, slowly, gently, to come to rest on your front thigh. If your torso doesn't reach your thigh, that could indicate lower back tightness or hip-flexor tightness, which will ease in time. For now, use another pillow or a folded up blanket on top of your thigh to bridge the gap to your torso. The important thing is to feel supported.
From here on in, every stretch will be done on the bed, supporting a gentle transition into the bed, under the covers and out of wakefulness. (If wakefulness is what you're after, check out these morning stretches that'll help you start the day right.)
After you're finished with your second side of Resting Crescent Moon, tuck your feet under you and sit on your calves. If this feels pinchy on your knees or thighs, then place a pillow between your rear and your calves. Place your palms on your knees, and keep your torso upright as you breathe 10, slow, victorious breaths, because, as Susanna says, "You've already conquered your day. Now take a moment and reflect on it quietly, without judgment, regret, or worrying about tomorrow."
The Hero's Rest focuses on releasing your front-thighs. Your feet are stretched out behind you. Your hands brace your upper body. This stretch should calm the mind, lightly stretch the front thighs, and continue the stretch of the feet begun in the Crescent Moons.
Stretch your legs out in front of you and lightly jiggle them. For this stretch, you'll want to keep the pillow under your rear (or even add another pillow—"let comfort be your guide," Susanna says). Bend your knees up in front of you as you slide your feet toward you; let your knees fall gently out to either side so that the soles of your feet are facing each other. Susanna says you can let them touch if you're flexible enough to do so. Remember, the point is to relax, so stick to what feels comfortable.
The Floating Star stretches out the muscles, joints and tendons in the thighs and pelvis. "We store so much tension in the thighs and pelvis," Susanna notes. "If we can just let the legs fall open and away from the pelvis, we can really get the relaxation process moving to the places it's needed, which ultimately leads to better sleep." (Here are some other ways to manage tension and stress.)
You'll go a step further here: From Floating Star, simply focus your eyes on your feet ("A nice, soft gaze," suggests Susanna), and let your torso bend forward. Ideally the bend initiates from the front of your hip. If you're not up to that level of flexibility just yet, focus on allowing your spine to curve. For extra softness in this stretch, hug a pillow into your chest as you fold forward.
"The lower back carries so much tension," Susanna observes, "and it's the place people identify as painful even when the pain may originate in the backs of the legs. We will get to those hamstrings in the next stretch. But for now, the Falling Star allows us to gently begin releasing that lower back." (If you battle persistent lower back pain, you may want to consider these surprising sources of lower back ache.)
Sit upright and straighten one leg out in front of you, keep the other bent to the side. Shake out the straightened leg and recognize if it feels stiff (it probably will). Does it feel warm, as if blood is returning? This body awareness is a way of staying mindful and in the moment, which helps calm the nervous system. (Take a breather, and find other ways to stay calm.) Now, reach forward toward the toes of the outstretched leg, allowing your hands to rest where ever it is comfortable on the outstretched leg. Lower your torso down and out along the length of that leg.
Susanna points out that all well-structured yoga sequences move from more active poses to more restful forward bends because the yogis believe that moving gently into forward bends is calming to the nervous system. Stretch on each side and try to stay awake! It won't be much longer. (For those times when you really need to, here are some ways to stay awake on less than five hours of sleep.)
After your second side of Bent Knee Stretch, bring your torso back up, tuck your legs under as you lean your torso and arms froward into what yoga calls "child's pose" (named so for the way babies sleep in their crib). For the Sleepy Child stretch, you'll begin with your knees apart and your toes drawing together. Your torso will stretch out in the space between your thighs and your fingers will reach out as far as they can you. You'll be stretching all the muscles of the back, the ribs, the sides of your torso, your shoulders and even your fingers. Feel free to turn the head from one side and then to the other, slowly.
Snug Bug Preparation
Now it's time to get as "snug as a bug in a rug," Susanna jokes. Roll over onto your back, stretch out one leg and hug the other knee into your chest. "It's like a lying-down lunge," explains Susanna, but your bed carries your weight and helps soften the lower back even more. You're massaging the internal organs of your abdomen, and your beginning the process of embracing yourself. (These yoga chair stretches feel just as relaxing.)
Wrap your arms around both of your knees and draw them into your chest. Give yourself the deepest hug you can while breathing slowly and gently. Roll gently side to side if you'd like, to massage your back and stretch your spine. Stay here for at least a count of 10 before stretching the legs back out in front of you.
Release your knees and place one of your pillows between your knees (Susanna is using a block in the photo, but stick with the pillow.) Bend your elbows up at shoulder height so they look like saguaro cactus arms, instructs Susanna. With a deep breath, gently let your legs sink to one side, the pillow still between the knees.
Do this for one last slow count of 10 on each side, and you will have stretched all of the areas of the body that get twisted up during the day, including the connective tissue between the muscles and bones. But don't drift off yet...
Body at rest
There's no photo for your body at rest because that's up to you. (Just make sure you pick the best sleeping position.) Sleep still not coming? Try lying on your back with your legs slightly apart and your arms stretched out slightly away from your body. Close your eyes and listen to yourself breathe. Try to slow your breath so that each inhale and each exhale take a count of five to complete. Continue breathing and counting, and as you do so, Susanna suggests using the inhale to focus on any body parts that's not fully relaxed, followed by exhaling with a focus on loosening up. For example, if your fingers are restless, let them wiggle as you inhale. As you exhale, let them sink into the mattress beside you. If tension remains in your body, you will find it and release it. If better sleep doesn't convince you to lay out your mat, check out these other benefits of yoga.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "1 in 3 adults don’t get enough sleep"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Participant Guide: Get Enough Sleep"
- Susanna Harwood Rubin, author of the comprehensive lifestyle guide, Yoga 365 and an international yoga teacher with a home base in New York City