We all know how good a proper night’s sleep feels, leaving us refreshed and ready to tackle the day. However, many people aren’t aware how big an impact a night of poor rest can have. After only one night of four or five hours sleep, the number of cells in our body used by our immune system to fight cancer, drops by 70%.
The effects aren’t just physical. Lack of sleep has a massive impact on our mental health too, with insomnia sufferers more likely to experience anxiety and depression. All of this becomes particularly problematic during the winter, when our bodies and minds can find it difficult to adjust to the changing seasons and darker days.
I’ve recently become interested in how yoga – and especially restorative yoga – can help our sleep. Not only does it help us sleep longer, it also makes the sleep we have deeper and more restful, giving us energy for when we need it most.
Put simply, restorative yoga is a very relaxing style of yoga. It’s a practice that aims to create a deeply restful state in the body without actually entering into sleep. Too often we think of yoga’s benefits as coming from pushing our bodies to their limits through high intensity practice, however it has been shown that gentle yoga can be just as beneficial – not only for general well-being but even for managing weight.
That relaxing practice can help manage weight might sound surprising, counter-intuitive even! But by relaxing, we’re able to reduce levels of cortisol in the body, a hormone the body releases under stress, and for which there is scientific evidence to suggest a link with obesity.
Furthermore, because there’s no muscular contraction involved, restorative practice is able to soften and relax tight areas of our body, releasing tension slowly with support.
Winter is a great time to incorporate a restorative yoga practice into our routine. We may not be able to hibernate like lots of animals do during the winter months, but as the days get shorter and nights become colder, taking time for yourself and prioritising rest allows us to take life a little bit slower and makes us more resilient to the change of the seasons.
Why not try this restful restorative yoga practice before bedtime to ease yourself into a peaceful, gentle sleep.
1. Sukhasana (easy pose)
Sit comfortably in a cross-legged position. Straighten the spine and engage the abdomen slightly. Begin to bring awareness to the inflow and outflow of breath, breathing normally and comfortably. Hands can be placed on the knees in Gyan Mudra by touching your index fingertip to the tip of your thumb, while holding your other three fingers straight.
Sit in this position for around five minutes watching the flow of your breath. You can sit on a rolled up blanket or cushion if it feels more comfortable.
Come onto your hands and knees into a tabletop position. Your knees need to be directly below your hips and your hands spread wide, in line with your shoulders. Lift your knees from the floor, pushing your sitting bones towards the ceiling and straighten your legs. Rest your forehead on a bolster (or rolled up blanket), adjusting the height so there is no straining in the neck.
Breathe deeply here for one minute, allowing your legs and back to stretch and straighten.
This asana can be done with your legs resting against a wall or raised into the air. Either way, make sure you have a blanket or bolster to place underneath your pelvis, allowing your head and shoulders to rest on the floor. Raise your legs into the air and allow your arms to fall out to the side.
Stay in this position for around three minutes watching the flow of your breath. To come out of the pose, bend your knees and allow yourself to gently roll off your bolster.
Lie down on the mat and bend your knees. Pushing your pelvis into the sky, place a block or blanket under your lower back. Make sure your knees are at a 90 degree angle and your feet are spread on the floor. Your sacrum (lower back) should feel comfortable and supported.
Breathe and relax in this pose for around three minutes.
Place a bolster (or rolled blanket) on your mat and come to a comfortable seated position. Making sure the bolster is directly behind you, gently lower yourself into position so your back is fully supported by the length of the bolster. Bring the soles of your feet together and allow your knees to fall out to the side. If there is any discomfort around the pelvis, bring cushions underneath your knees for extra support. Make sure there is no tension in the neck by adding a cushion or blanket.
Closing your eyes, allow yourself to relax in the pose for around three minutes.
Place a bolster (or rolled blanket) between your legs as you sit on the floor. Keeping your back straight, bend from your hips and rest the front of your body on the bolster so that you feel supported with no straining in the lower back.
Allow your body to relax in the pose, breathing here for around three minutes.
Come to a kneeling position and place a bolster (or rolled blanket) between your thighs. Slowly drop your bottom toward your heels as you stretch the rest of your body down and forward. Rest your stomach and forehead comfortably on the bolster with your arms by your side and gently stretched out.
Breathe comfortably here for around three minutes.
This is a balancing and relaxing pranayama (or breathing practice). Come to a comfortable kneeling position, placing a blanket underneath your bottom to allow your torso to lengthen. Using your right hand, bring your peace fingers to rest on your forehead, and your thumb and ring finger to sit on either nostril.
As you inhale and exhale, take it in turns to close and open either side of the nostrils e.g. inhale with the right nostril and close the left nostril, close the right nostril and exhale with the left nostril. Repeat on the other side.
Repeat this sequence around five times before allowing the breath to return to a natural rhythm.
Lay down on the floor with a bolster directly beneath your knees. You can bring a blanket or cushion underneath your head if it feels more comfortable. Allow the body to completely let go of any tension.
Relax here for up to ten or fifteen minutes.
Restorative Yoga for a Restful Winter
Author Natalie Morton
Nat is a yoga teacher and graphic designer based in Leeds. She is particularly interested in how yoga can be used as a force for good in the world and benefit people of all ages, fitness and backgrounds. She’s also the co-founder of Let’s Dance, a design agency that works with charities, social enterprises and independents. @natleeds
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