• Yoga Therapy and Sleep
  • Sleep Disorders and Health
  • Why Use Yoga As An Adjunct Therapy for Sleep Problems?

Yoga Therapy and Sleep

“Yoga isn’t just beneficial for improving core strength, flexibility, and stress levels; it can also help you sleep better—especially if you suffer from insomnia.”
The Sleep Foundation

Sleeplessness affects everyone from time to time, whether it’s caused by nerves before a job interview, the cries of a newborn or mulling over life’s big questions at 3am. But while burning the midnight oil is normal on occasion (and even for extended periods of time, in the case of new parenthood), research suggests that for huge amounts of people, experiencing sleep disturbance is not the exception, but the rule.

Using yoga for sleep can be a powerful and effective way to unwind and prepare ourselves for bed. The soothing effect yoga has on our bodies and emotional state can help us to drift off naturally, easing the hyper-arousal of our nervous system which can contribute to poor sleep. Moreover, unlike other sleep aids and actions people might take to achieve a good night’s sleep, such as taking medication or drinking alcohol (which actually downgrades sleep quality), yoga is sustainable, accessible and has no ill-effects.

Not all forms of yoga are appropriate for improving sleep quality (with the time of day people are practicing and what exactly they are doing at these times particularly relevant when trying to achieve better sleep), so trained yoga therapists are often the best placed to guide those living with issues such as insomnia. By discussing the feelings and circumstances of the individual, yoga therapists can tailor their practice towards their particular needs, and help people resolve the root causes of their sleeplessness.

Sleep Disorders and Health

According to Aviva’s Wellbeing Report, which surveyed 2,325 adults in the UK, sleep problems are extremely common. From the self-reported results of their surveyed participants, Aviva extrapolated that:

  • Two thirds (67%) of UK adults suffer from disrupted sleep and nearly a quarter (23%) manage no more than five hours a night.
  • Just under half (48%) of adults admit to not getting enough enough sleep, with women (51%) more likely to say so than men (41%).
  • A third (31%) of adults say they have insomnia.
  • More than one in ten take sleeping tablets (13%) or drink alcohol (13%) to aid sleep.
  • A quarter (26%) of UK adults report that improving their sleep is their biggest health ambition, but half (51%) don’t take any measures to help them sleep.

With sleep disruption so widespread as to impact two thirds of the population, it is clear that lack of sleep is perhaps one of the biggest health challenges in society, and one that can have a serious impact on people’s lives.

According to the National Sleep Foundation, insomnia can lead to excessive daytime sleepiness, a higher risk of auto accidents and widespread health effects from sleep deprivation. As stated in the NHS Live Well resource, “regular poor sleep puts you at risk of serious medical conditions, including obesity, heart disease and diabetes – and it shortens your life expectancy.”

The causes of poor sleep are often linked to other wellbeing factors. While issues such as chronic pain or sleep apnea are a physical source of interrupted sleep, mental health problems such as stress, anxiety and depression also play a role. Additionally, certain medications and neurological conditions can make getting a full night’s sleep difficult, and for many people, there will be a variety of factors which contribute to their sleeplessness.

Why use yoga as an adjunct therapy for sleep problems?

“Movement can revitalise and strengthen us, but we also need the other end of the spectrum: movement and exercise that enables us to rest and to get a sense of our bodies and what they need.”

Lisa Sanfilippo, yoga teacher and sleep recovery expert

There is a growing evidence base to suggest that yoga is an effective intervention in the treatment of sleep problems – both by increasing sleep quality and by resolving some of the underlying issues (such as stress and anxiety) which exacerbate sleep disturbances. Yoga for sleep is described by The National Sleep Foundation as “a gentle and restorative way to wind down your day”, pointing to research where 55% of people who did yoga said it improved their sleep, while 85% reported it reduced their stress (1).

Another systematic review of mind-body practices, including yoga and mindfulness, concluded that these techniques can be efficacious in improving sleep both for clinical patients and the general population. (2) When assessing the effectiveness of using yoga therapy for male insomnia patients, it was also found that yoga can be considered a viable treatment – and one that has no major side effects. (3)

Research suggests that sleeplessness that is associated with both illness and getting older can also be improved through the practice of yoga. One study which explored the use of yoga for cancer survivors who had developed insomnia showed promising results regarding the accessibility and efficacy of yoga in improving sleep. (4) Another from 2013 looked into the long-term effects of practicing yoga in older adults, who demonstrated a positive effect in both sleep and, more broadly, overall quality of life. (5)

Pregnant women, who often experience sleep problems (mainly due to discomfort), have also been found to benefit in one pilot study from a mindful yoga course (6). For those who live with chronic insomnia, which can have a profoundly detrimental effect on everyday life, yoga resulted in statistically significant self-reported improvements in a variety of indicators of sleep quality. (7)

A further meta analysis from 2019 concluded that, while more in depth studies were needed to confirm their findings, that practicing yoga regularly can help people manage symptoms of insomnia – helping them to fall asleep quicker, sleep for longer, and go back to sleep after waking up at night. (8)

In a situation where GPs have smaller allocations of time to treat their patients, and where poor sleep may be a lesser worry amongst wider health concerns, using yoga for sleep as an adjunct therapy could help people feel both listened to and supported as an individual. Whether it’s a physical issue that contributes to a lack of sleep, or problems such as anxiety and depression, trained yoga therapists have the knowledge and skills to adapt yogic techniques to best serve their clients, and help them recover the sleep quality they may have lost.