Published on: 19 March 2021. Written by: Georgie Lane-Godfrey.
Feel like lockdown is affecting your sleep? You’re not alone. Sleep Recovery author and psychotherapist Lisa Sanfilippo reveals the best stretches to try before bed.
While we all knew lockdown was going to rob us of our freedom, one thing we didn’t expect it to steal – our sleep. Last year, a study from University of Southampton found that the number of us struggling with poor slumber rose from one in six to one in four – a phenomenon attributed to anxiety about the pandemic. It has even been given its own name: ‘coronasomnia’.
But there are things you can do to help you reach the Land of Nod, including a 10-15 minute gentle stretch routine before you hit the hay. A 2015 analysis of several studies found a link between meditative movements, such as yoga and tai chi, and better sleep.
Here, psychotherapist, yogi and Sleep Recovery author Lisa Sanfilippo gives us seven stretches that are designed to help you catch those zzzs, whatever pressure the pandemic brings. Consult your GP if you are pregnant or have any injuries before starting any type of exercise.
Stretch 1: Cat/cow
‘Not only does cat/cow stretch the muscles between your ribs, making space for you to breathe, but it is also said to tone the vagus nerve, which runs from the back of your skull down into your torso, passing through the major internal organs,’ explains Lisa.
‘Breathing releases muscular tension, while increasing vagal tone over time helps recondition our ability to sleep well. Good vagal tone is also associated with positive, resilient mental states.’
How to do it: Gently come onto all fours, with your wrists under shoulders and knees under hips. Take a slow, deep breath in, arching your back and opening the front of your chest. This is cow pose. With a long steady exhale, draw your belly in and down, rounding the back and stretching between your shoulder blades. This is cat pose. Repeat for 5 slow breaths.
Stretch 2: Downward dog
‘Placing your head below your heart calms your mind and aids circulation,’ explains Lisa. ‘Releasing tightness slowly also sends feedback to the brain which supports the neurochemistry of relaxation, reducing the stress hormone cortisol and increasing levels of dopamine and serotonin, which can help to regulate sleep.’
How to do it: From all fours, create an inverted V-shape with your body by lifting your knees off the floor and walking your feet back behind your pelvis. Press your hips upwards and back, so that your bottom forms the angle of the inverted V, pressing your chest back towards your legs. Keep your arms straight and fingers spread evenly, and relax your neck, remembering to breathe and release any tension that’s held in your jaw. Repeat for 5 breaths.
Stretch 3: Child’s pose
‘This pose releases the frontalis muscle in your forehead, which feeds back a calm signal to your nervous system. Child’s pose also lengthens your back muscles and can feel very calming and soothing. Perfect if you’re feeling overwhelmed as the position protects the front of your body and turns attention inward.’
How to do it: Kneeling on all fours, bring your big toes together and widen your knees apart. Bring your bottom down towards your heels. Let your arms rest by your sides, press the flesh of your forehead down onto the floor, slowly breathing in and exhaling. Hold for 5-10 breaths.
Stretch 4: Outer hip stretch
‘As well as helping to relieve sciatica pressure, hip stretches concentrate attention and circulation in your lower body, bringing blood flow into your lower digestive tract area,’ says Lisa. ‘When the muscles around your digestive tract are tense and tight, this may decrease blood flow and cause constriction that affects the gut’s ability to absorb nutrients and move our food along properly,’ she adds. ‘We now know that a great deal of the essential neurochemicals needed for mental health and balanced sleep originate here, in the gut.’
How to do it: Lying on your back, flex one foot to engage the calf muscle and bend the opposite knee, crossing your ankle over the top of the thigh. Draw in the lower knee towards your chest to intensify the stretch, and breathe. Hold for 1-2 minutes on each side.
Stretch 5: Simple spinal twist
‘This pose releases your shoulders, neck and upper back, and the long muscles that line your spine,’ says Lisa. ‘It’s particularly effective on the muscles along your thoracic spine, in the middle back, which relaxes the upper back/shoulders. Releasing tension here and in the middle rib cage can alleviate anxiety and counters the painful hunched-forward position from sitting at a computer all day.’
How to do it: Roll onto your left side and bend your knees, stacking your right leg evenly on top of the left. Keeping your lower body stable in this position, twist from your middle and upper back so that your right shoulder comes closer to the floor. Come out of the pose by bringing your knees up to your chest and hugging them, then roll on to the other side and repeat. Hold for 1-2 minutes on each side.
Stretch 6: Little bridge
‘When you breathe out for longer than you breathe in, it slows your heart rate naturally, so that your brainwave patterns move from active beta waves into the relaxed alpha waves we need to initiate sleep,’ says Lisa. ‘This bridge position also increases circulation to your throat, where the thyroid and parathyroid reside. These two glands relate to the hormones that regulate digestion and sleep.’
How to do it: Lie on your back with your knees bent and pointing to the ceiling, the soles of your feet on the floor and your ankles under your knees. Gently engage your abdominal muscles, thighs and bottom to lift your hips upwards. Draw your shoulder blades towards one another on your back to expand your chest. Rest the base of your lower spine on a yoga block, keeping your hips lower than your knees, and hold there, breathing in and out slowly. Hold for 5 breaths.
Stretch 7: Knees to chest
‘All of these sleep preparation practices reduce physical tension, lower your heart rate, and decrease the stress hormones in your body, aiding relaxation,’ Lisa explains. ‘Do them together, and you’ll have the best chance of resting easy tonight and slowly repairing your ability to ease into sleep. This final stretch helps to release tension in the muscle-to-bone connections along the sacrum.’
How to do it: Lying on your back on the floor, draw your knees inward towards your chest and take several breaths to lengthen your lower back. Roll in small circles for 5 breaths.
Sleep Recovery by Lisa Sanfilippo (£12.99, Bloomsbury Green Tree) is available now.
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