I am a restless sleeper.
This hasn't always been the case. I have fond memories of waking up refreshed after a long, undisturbed snooze. When I left my job to start my own company and embarked on a year-long trip, that totally changed.
The stresses of running a business, moving around month to month, adjusting to new cultures and sleeping in a slew of unfamiliar beds totally ruined me. I was only getting three or four hours of sleep each night, despite spending seven or eight hours in bed.
I started scouring the web for ways to get more sleep, where I found articles about how to fall asleep … but very little about how to stay asleep.
I considered drugging myself every night, but was hesitant to become chemically dependent and anyway, I struggled to even find something like a ZzzQuil alternative in the countries I was visiting.
Eventually, a friend of mine suggested doing yoga right before bed. I immediately pictured a strenuous workout that would lead me to feeling more awake and requiring an extra shower, so -- admittedly-- I wasn't sold. After some back and forth, she convinced me to try it for one night.
Spoiler alert: It totally changed my life.
The key to before-sleep yoga is limiting your practice to stretching instead of muscle-challenging poses designed to tone or a fast-paced vinyasa routine. After introducing the following four poses before bed, I found I was not only able to sleep through the night better, but I was also waking up more refreshed with a body that felt less stiff.
"When you prepare your body for sleep through [gently] stretching, you're helping your body recover and regenerate," Nikos Apostolopoulos, director of the Microstretching Clinic, recently told Best Health Magazine online.
The act of stretching your muscles literally releases the tension held there, meaning you're making huge strides in helping your physical body relax.
Beyond the obvious physical benefits, the meditative aspect of yoga helps put your mind to rest.
By clearing your mind in your practice, you're able to reduce anxiety, eradicate irrational/ emotional reactions to events that have happened in your day and empathize better with those around us (like your employees or your boyfriend), according to Psychology Today.
When your mind isn't calculating every bad thing that happened in your day or worrying about that annoying thing your best friend said, it's much more suited to sleeping without the tiny stressors that wake you up in the middle of the night.
Ready to give it a try? These are the four poses I do every night before bed.
1. The standing forward fold, or Uttanasana
To perform Uttanasana, stand with your feet about six inches apart, pointed forward. Bend from your waist, allowing your head to drop as far as it can toward the floor. Let your arms fall, holding onto your elbows, hanging above your head.
Hold this position for at least 15 seconds, breathing deeply and allowing your body to stretch further toward the ground on every exhale.
Tip: Try to keep your knees as straight as possible, but if you need to have a little bend, that's totally OK, too.
2. The sitting forward fold, or Paschimottanasana
To do a sitting forward fold, sit on the ground with your legs and back straight, and your feet flexed (pointed upwards). Slowly bend forward from your hips, letting your head fall forward into your thighs or knees.
The goal here isn't to touch your toes. Let your hands rest at your sides. When you're working to reach a certain point, you tend to bend with your back, but in this exercise, it's more important to try and keep your back straight and bring your stomach toward your knees.
Hold Paschimottanasana for at least 15 seconds.
3. Legs on the wall, or Viparita Karani
Bonus: You can totally do this pose lying in bed, if that's your jam. Shift your butt up as far as you can get it against a wall, placing your feet on the wall above with your knees bent.
Slowly straighten your legs until they're all the way vertical. If you need to push your butt back from the wall a little bit, that's OK. Rest your arms at your sides with your palms up, and close your eyes. Hold this pose for 15-30 seconds.
4. Happy baby, or Ananda Balasana
Happy baby may look ridiculous, but if feels incredible. Lie on your back and lift your legs up, bending your knees. With each hand, grab either your big toe or the arch of your foot, drawing your knees towards your armpits.
Gently rock from side to side and backward and forward, giving your back a tiny massage. Do this for 30 seconds or so.
Then, repeat each of these stretches one more time.
Bonus: Corpse pose, or Savasana
I like to call this pose “sleep." Climb into bed and lie face up, with your arms relaxed by your side and your legs straight, slightly spread apart. Close your eyes and focus on your breath, inhaling and exhaling as slowly as you can comfortably.
Hold this bad boy for 15 minutes, or until you start snoozing.