Yoga for Sleep: Yoga Nidra 101 + Restorative Poses That Work

When you envision a soothing bedtime activity, yoga might not be the first thing that comes to mind. Images of handstands and hyper-flexibility might flash before your eyes—the exact opposite of the relaxation you’re seeking when it’s time to fall asleep. Contrary to the popularized images of yoga we see on social media, there are several different styles of yoga that can help lull a busy mind into a state of deep restfulness. Gentle practices such as yoga nidra are excellent tools for people with insomniatic tendencies because they use the natural power of deep diaphragmatic breathing, guided meditation, and relaxing postures to help you drift off to dreamland.

Forks Over Knives spoke with two yoga nidra experts about the wealth of benefits this meditation-oriented practice can offer people who experience poor sleep. And for those seeking a more familiar body-based practice, we’ve rounded up the best restorative poses you can use before bedtime to set yourself up for a solid eight hours. If you’re ready to stop tossing and turning, learn how to use yoga nidra for sleep and give this subtly powerful practice a try the next time you want to catch some quality Z’s.

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In this article, we’ll explore:

What Is Yoga Nidra?

Translated from Sanskrit, yoga nidra means “yogic sleep” or “divine sleep.” Unlike its movement-based counterparts, this yogic practice typically involves a single relaxing posture (such as lying on your back) so that you can focus on tapping into your breath and progressively relaxing your body.

“Yoga nidra is a meditative process that, through connecting with the deepest levels of rest, allows us to connect with our most natural state,” explains Jamie Marich, PhD, a clinical trauma specialist and founder of the Institute for Creative Mindfulness. “Yoga nidra is fundamentally about sinking into a place of non-doing and just being. We release the effort of poses to embrace a sense of total ease.”

While it’s common for new yoga nidra practitioners to fall asleep during the practice, entering a true state of yoga nidra requires you to remain conscious.

“In ordinary deep sleep, also known as dreamless sleep, we enter an unconscious state,” says Sadhana Pezet, a yoga therapist and co-founder of Shatarasa Yoga Darshana. “Yoga nidra trains a particular capacity to remain conscious [during deep relaxation]. This does not mean that the mind is active during your practice; in a genuine yoga nidra state, all activity and movement of the mind recedes. This is what makes yoga nidra such a deeply healing practice and a wonderful training for entering a meditative state.”

The ultimate goal of a yoga nidra practice is to fully relax your brain so your nervous system can rest, your mind can let go of stress, and your physical body can release tension.

What Does a Yoga Nidra Practice Involve?

While every yoga nidra session looks a little different, there are fundamental characteristics of this soothing practice that remain constant so the body and mind can grow accustomed to entering a state of deep relaxation.

“Yoga nidra is traditionally done lying down to allow for optimal comfort and release of the effort of doing,” says Marich. “However, since nidra is, above all, a state of being, it can be done sitting up or in another comfortable position.”

Once you’ve found a comfy posture to rest in, the instructor will gently lead you through a guided meditation that will help the mind slow down.

“A general relaxation of the body and mind is induced, along with full breath awareness, centered on deep belly breaths,” explains Pezet. “This is followed by guiding the practitioner’s consciousness throughout their body, usually pausing in the centers of subtle energy, also known as chakras.”

A yoga nidra practice can last anywhere from 15 to 45 minutes and is safe to do on a daily basis. While it’s possible to enter a yoga nidra state on your own, both Marich and Pezet recommend starting with a skilled teacher.

“The depth of experience that can surface during a session requires skillful guidance at first,” says Pezet. “The verbal guidance is minimal, as few softly spoken words as possible. No flowery or imaginary interjections that keep the mind engaged. The facilitator seeks to be as unobtrusive and as invisible as possible to enable the practitioner to enter a very deep state of stillness and yet also feel safe.”

If you can’t find a yoga nidra instructor near you, there’s a wealth of free recordings on YouTube that can introduce you to this practice (and we’ve included some further down in this article).

“Although practitioners can learn to bring themselves into this state, I find that listening to a facilitator really helps me to fully release and let go of any remaining effort by letting someone else guide me,” says Marich.

Yoga Nidra Benefits

A growing body of research shows that yoga nidra can be an effective tool for reducing stress and anxiety, balancing hormones, and managing pain, but the most common issue it’s sought to improve is insomnia. The deeply relaxed state of yoga nidra taps into the parasympathetic nervous system—the branch of your autonomic nervous system that helps you rest, digest, and heal—so that sleep, and relaxation in general, becomes easier to enter the more you practice.

“Yoga nidra can bring us into specific brain wave states, namely delta wave connection, that are associated with the deepest levels of rest and stress relief,” explains Marich, adding that yoga nidra is not so much about falling asleep but rather, coming to that ‘sweet spot’ just before sleep when stresses are released.

Apart from relaxing the nervous system and ushering in healing brain wave states, the spiritual component of yoga nidra can also be beneficial for improving sleep. Pezet explains that in yogic philosophy, humans are viewed as having several different “bodies” or layers of self: The physical body is associated with the waking state of consciousness, the energetic body (which encompasses thoughts and emotions) is connected to the dream state of sleep, and the causal body (which is related to your subconscious and true spirit) is paired with the dreamless state of deep sleep. Yoga nidra is said to access this third “body,” allowing all the stressors, traumas, and fears that can become embedded in our mind to be gently examined and released.

“The practice is refreshing to the psyche and rejuvenating to the body as all your systems are rested and restored for optimal functioning,” Pezet says. “Because the buildup of stress in the body is released, yoga nidra gives us the ability to meet life’s challenges with a more skillful presence.”

Are There Any Risks of Practicing Yoga Nidra?

Yoga nidra is a safe and gentle practice that has very few contraindications. However, if you have a mental illness or suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, experts strongly recommend practicing under the guidance of a skilled instructor, as you may need guidance to navigate emotions that arise during the practice. Pezet adds that people who experience seizures should only engage in yoga nidra with the help of a guide because certain exercises, such as progressively tensing and releasing muscles, can be problematic. Lastly, people who are 16 weeks or more into pregnancy would want to find a different position than lying flat on their back to do the practice.

Yoga Nidra for Sleep: 3 Guided Meditations to Try

Curious to give yoga nidra a try? Play one of these meditations as you’re winding down for the evening and notice whether you drift off to dreamland a little bit easier.

25-Minute Trauma-Informed Yoga Nidra Practice

This recording from Marich takes you through a bite-size version of a general yoga nidra practice so you can experience deep peace no matter what challenges might be present in your life.

30-Minute Yoga Nidra Journey Through the Chakras

This soothing practice is guided by Kamini Desai, who has over 30 years of experience teaching yoga and lecturing on ancient wisdoms and whom Marich cites as one of her most influential teachers. In this recording, you’ll take a progressive journey through your body to relax deeper and deeper until you feel fully at peace.

45-Minute Yoga Nidra for Expression and Creativity

Marich leads this meditation, which she says is ideal for anyone who feels stuck in their creative expression or sense of identity, but it can be nourishing regardless of wherever you are in life.

The Best Yoga Poses for Better Sleep

While yoga nidra typically requires the expertise of an instructor, a simple restorative yoga pose can be practiced solo to help you prepare for sleep. Restorative yoga emphasizes physical poses rather than guided visualizations, and each posture is held for 10 to 25 minutes and usually includes the support of soft props to help nudge you toward a state of deep relaxation. The primary purpose of these poses is to support your tired body instead of stretching it, so flexibility or strength won’t be your focus when you’re trying to wind down for the night. The next time you can’t sleep, try one of these relaxing postures to help you drift off to dreamland.

Legs Up the Wall (Viparita Karani)

If you’ve ever taken a yoga class, it’s highly likely you’ve heard the teacher recommend this pose for improving your sleep. Elevating your feet above your heart improves circulation in the torso and head so your heart rate can slow down, your muscles can relax, and your digestive system can function with more ease.

Illustration of a woman in Legs Up the Wall pose (Viparita Karani)

1. Lay down on your back so that your legs are parallel to a wall or the edge of your bed.

2. Using your hands to help, rotate your upper body until you are perpendicular to the bed or the wall and your legs can stretch vertically up the wall or hook over the top of your bed. Allow your arms to rest anywhere that feels comfortable.

3. You may need to scoot your butt closer toward the wall or bed once your legs are elevated so that they are as straight as possible, but only go as far as feels comfortable for you.

4. If you feel any pressure in your low back, you can place a pillow or folded blanket underneath your tailbone/low back for added support.

Child’s Pose (Balasana)

This classic seed-like shape is a gentle and effective yoga pose for mellowing out a busy mind so you can catch some Z’s. While you’re welcome to do child’s pose without any props, using pillows or a bolster underneath the torso is extra supportive and can feel incredibly soothing when sleep isn’t coming easily.

Illustration of a woman in Child's Pose (Balasana)

1. Kneel on the floor or your bed. Bring your big toes to touch and open your knees out as wide as feels comfortable.

2. Lower your torso down between your thighs until your head touches the floor or can rest on a prop, such as a pillow. Extend your arms overhead or stack one palm on top of the other to create a pillow for your forehead to rest on.

3. Alternatively, place a yoga bolster or pillow in between your legs so that one end is wedged between your thighs. Keeping knees wide, lower your torso down onto the prop so that your belly, chest, and head are supported by the cushion. You can wrap your arms around the top of the prop or underneath it.

Supine Twist (Supta Matsyendrasana)

This gentle twist is a treat for your body, mind, and spirit. There are many ways to approach the shape of your legs depending on the mobility of your hips, so find a position that’s comfortable but still encourages a lengthening sensation down the spine and legs. Gently rotating throughout the torso helps loosen tight muscles that could be preventing your nervous system from entering a relaxed state where deep sleep is possible.

Illustration of a woman in a Supine Twist (Supta Matsyendrasana)

1. Lie flat on your back on the floor or on your bed with legs extended out long. Pull your left knee into your chest and gently draw it toward the right side of your body until your knee touches the floor or bed. If that’s difficult, you can also prop a pillow under the knee to raise the height of the floor.

2. Keep your right hand on your bent knee as an anchor and extend your left arm out to the side. If it is hovering in the air, place a pillow underneath it so you can fully relax into the twist. Gently turn your neck so you’re looking out over your left palm.

3. When you’re ready for the other side, unwind from the twist and return to a flat back. This time, keep the left leg long and pull your right knee up and over your body. Your left hand will remain on the bent knee as your right arm extends out to the side.

Seated Forward Fold (Paschimottanasana)

In yogic philosophy, forward folds are believed to be calming for the mind and spirit. Physiologically, placing your head below your heart uses gravity to deliver blood to your brain, which takes some pressure off the heart and improves circulation. (If you have high or erratic blood pressure, exercise caution with this one.) This yoga pose will gently stretch the back of your legs and low back to help relieve sleep-disturbing tightness that can build up in those areas.

Illustration of a woman in a Seated Forward Fold (Paschimottanasana)

1. Sit on the floor or your bed with legs stretched out long, keeping as much of a bend in your knees as you need to feel comfortable.

2. Hinge forward from your hips and allow your arms to drape alongside your legs. (There’s no need to grab your feet and pull yourself deeper, just allow gravity to do the work with this stretch.)

3. If you have a tight low back, sit up on a pillow or bolster to give your pelvis more room to hinge forward. You can also place soft props across the top of your legs to rest your torso, arms, and forehead on.

Crocodile Pose (Makarasana)

While this yoga pose for sleep might not look like anything fancy, it’s a great way to ground jittery energy and reconnect to the power of deep, intentional breaths. If you’re a belly sleeper then you’re probably used to a similar position, but try doing this position on the floor instead of the bed so that your spine stays in better alignment.

Illustration of a woman in Crocodile Pose (Makarasana)

1. Lie flat on your belly. Stack one hand on top of the other while the elbows flare out to the sides. Rest your forehead on your stacked hands like a pillow.

2. If your low back gets sore at any point, bend your knees so your toes point up toward the ceiling and gently sway your shins through the air from side to side.

Pigeon Pose (Kapotasana)

Also known as “sleeping swan” in the yin tradition, this classic posture is great for opening up tight hips, releasing stagnant emotions, and loosening the body to prepare it for restful sleep. This involves a little bit more active stretching than some of the other postures, so only choose it if you feel like you can comfortably relax into it and maintain a steady, slow breathing pattern. If it requires excessive effort or causes agitation, it’s likely not the best pose to help you feel drowsy.

Illustration of a woman in Pigeon Pose (Kapotasana)

1. Start on your hands and knees on either the bed or the floor. Gently slide your left knee up toward your left wrist until your shin is positioned under your chest at a diagonal. Your ankle will likely be near your right hip joint. Extend your left leg behind you, keeping the top of your foot facing the floor.

2. Keeping your pelvis squared, sink your weight down into your hips without rolling off onto your left glute.

3. Slowly lower your torso over your bent left leg so that you come down to your forearms. If you’re quite flexible, you might even lower your chest and forehead down to the floor and fully extend your arms forward on the floor or bed. For a more supported version of the pose, place a yoga bolster or a pillow underneath your torso to rest on and wedge a folded blanket underneath the hip of your bent leg to support your pelvis.

4. To switch to the other side, press into your hands to lift your torso and slowly make your way back to hands and knees. Repeat on the other side by sliding your right knee toward your right wrist and extending your left leg long behind you.

Supported Bridge (Setu Bandha Sarvangasana)

While an active bridge pose is known as a glute and hamstring buster, the supported version is a beautiful restorative posture that alleviates tight hips and gently lulls the body into a more tranquil state. This is another great pose to do directly in bed so that once you feel snoozy you can simply move the props out from underneath you and go straight to sleep.

Illustration of a woman in Supported Bridge pose (Setu Bandha Sarvangasana)

1. Lie on your back on the floor or in bed. Bend your knees so your feet are flat. Pick up your hips so you can slide a pillow or a yoga bolster underneath. It should be supporting your entire pelvis and low back.

2. Allow your arms to rest on the ground with fingers pointing toward your feet.

3. Gently tuck your chin toward your chest so you maintain a long neck and anchor down gently through your shoulders and back of the head.

4. Your knees can stay bent or you can extend legs out long if that feels comfortable in your low back.

Feel free to create a mini sequence using several of the poses listed above, or pick just one that helps lull you to sleep. A calming bedtime routine might even involve a few restorative poses before a short yoga nidra meditation to really ensure your body and mind are ready for rest. Relaxation is a practice, so it’s time to get started!

Young woman with headphones in lying in bed peacefully

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