Insomniac? Sleep Like You’re Doing Yoga

For much of my life, I woke up from a night of sleep in a pool of drool. And no, I was not drunk. I was a belly sleeper and a mouth breather and a pre-adolescent snorer. It wasn’t until I began practicing yoga as a pre-teen that I became aware that my sleeping habits were unhealthy (and gooey! Yoga, with its emphasis on body alignment, and its use of props to achieve that alignment, helped me learn how to establish a new perfect sleep posture that helped me sleep more soundly (and soundlessly) through the night.

The human body can fall asleep in almost any imaginable position. Just look around your fellow passengers while on a long flight to see the astonishing variety of sleep postures! As I write this blog, the young woman sitting next to me on my cross country flight from NYC to L.A. is out cold with her face on the tray table!

But you can tweak the ergonomics of your sleeping posture to be conducive to deeper sleep and to optimize an easy flow of breath through the nose. If your nose gets congested, mouth breathing and snoring are likely to ensue.

3 Sleeping Positions That Hurt!

Belly Sleepers: If your body chooses to sleep facing down, your face must turn to one side or the other in order to breathe. This places torque on the neck, and a lot of pressure on the delicate nerves running from the skull through the upper spine. Belly sleepers can often wake up in a pile of spittle and spastic neck muscles.

Flat Back Sleepers: Low back pain is the most common complaint with this posture, caused by the rigid holding of the limbs in this “corpse-like” shape. When the body lays for hours on end with the knees and hips “locked open,” the weight of the legs can actually pull the lower back bones and muscles out of alignment and put undue stress on the lower back vertebrae and discs.

Side Sleepers: Even though this is the safest choice out of the three for the back muscles and bones, the weight of the body collapsing the shoulders up and in towards the neck can be very painful and cause muscle spasms in the upper back, shoulders and neck.

3 Ways to Sleep More Comfortably On Your Side

By propping yourself up in bed you protect delicate nerves and may sleep more soundly.

By propping yourself up in bed you protect delicate nerves and may sleep more soundly.

By modifying the side sleeper position with a few simple household items, you can create a brand new supported side sleeping posture that prevents neck compression and ensures ideal symmetry throughout the night for all the joints of the body.

Properly placed pillows prop up your joints in just the right places for supportive sleep.

Roll up a beach towel (or use a buckwheat hull cylindrical pillow) so that it is about one foot long and 8 or 9 inches in diameter and place it on front of your favorite pillow. This will keep the cervical bones from collapsing and bending to the side, giving them support and keeping the neck long throughout the night.

Place two other pillows on either side for your arms to embrace as a “hug pillow.” This will keep the shoulder joints spacious throughout the night and prevent the weight of the arm bone from compressing the precious brachial nerves that stream underneath the collar bones.

Place a light blanket or towel between your knees and attempt to keep it in place throughout the night as you toss from side to side. This will keep the hips spaced apart enough to prevent the lower back or hip bones from slipping out of alignment. It also prevents bone bruising between the knees.

It may seem like a lot of extra “stuff” in bed, and you may have to practice for a few weeks until your body adapts to holding the hug pillow and hanging onto your knee blanket, but the sound sleep you’ll experience is worth the inconvenience of a crowded bed.

Try Yogic Breathing To Help You Sleep Better

Follow this Yoga Tune Up® breathing technique we call the “Nudge” breath:

Begin by watching how your body is naturally breathing, watching the behavior of your breath. Once you feel that the breath is “happening” and you are not controlling or manipulating it, then add an additional exhale after the body has finished its automatic exhale. This extra exhale is a little nudge, not aggressive at all.

After the nudge, watch for the natural inhale and exhale, then add the gentle “nudge.” Repeat until you drift off into slumber … Sweet dreams!

Watch our stress relief videos instantly.

Read how to breath away stress.

Learn about Yoga Tune Up at home.

About This Author

Jill Miller, E-RYT, has 27 years of corrective movement expertise that forges links between the worlds of yoga, massage, athletics, and pain management. Her signature classes and programs are taught at studios, clubs, and rehab clinics throughout the world including Equinox, Pure Yoga, Yoga Works, Cedars Sinai and more. She has presented case studies on pain at the Fascia Research Congress and the International Association of Yoga Therapists. Jill has been featured in Yoga Journal, Shape, Self, and on the Today Show and Good Morning America. She is creator of the DVDs Yoga Tune Up and Yoga Link. Jill is a contributing expert on the Oprah Winfrey Network's OWN Show and sits on the Advisory Board for Natural Health Magazine. She is the author of The Roll Model

Insomniac? Sleep Like You’re Doing Yoga

  1. Nina Kukar says:

    This is astonishing to me as in general, people are advised that sleeping on your back is the best position to avoid muscle strain and have the best breathing. I do appreciate the advice you have about the possible use of props as I have chronic upper back and neck spasms most likely from the way I sleep. Placing a medium firm pillow on top of a firm pillow seems to provide some relief for my neck pain and I will most certainly try the other props suggested.

  2. Max Bayuk Max Bayuk says:

    As a side sleeper who has struggled to find a position that doesn’t leave me imbalanced in the morning, I can’t wait to try these.

  3. I am a side sleeper but have had the misconception that back sleeping was healthiest for the body, urging my massage clients to try it. After reading this article I will try all the propping techniques detailed in it – hopefully it will help relieve the numbness and tingling that often occurs in my bottom arm/hand from the compression of my brachial plexus while side sleeping. Once I integrate it into my own body, I can incorporate it into my initial appointment feedback with clients – I have a feeling it could really change their lives! After all, if sleep isn’t truly restful, the body doesn’t heal itself as easily.

  4. Elaine Cheong says:

    I am so going to try the towel pillow by the neck tonight. We spend so much time in our life sleeping that it would definitely be worthwhile to get a quality sleep instead of waking up feeling more tired than the night before. Thank you for the article.

  5. Carly says:

    Thanks for tips! I will be trying these soon, as I am now finding that as I am becoming more embodied, I will need to also include sleeping postures to continue to have health benefits throughout the night!

  6. Jen F. says:

    This is awesome and actually gives me a sigh of relief. I actually sleep like this and thought I was weird…on my side, pillow between the knees, hugging another, one behind me…gives me a sense of security :)

  7. […] insomnia, yin yoga, Yoga, Yoga Therapy Perhaps you’ve heard the claims from your neighbor, “yoga cured my insomnia.” Or maybe your co-worker boasts, “I practice three times a week and my back pain is gone.” […]

  8. […] Savasana, or “corpse pose,” can work wonders for those who are challenged with anxiety or have difficulty catching their zzz’s. […]

  9. Nicolette David Nicolette says:

    Considering its nearing bedtime I will be most assuredly applying the extra pillows to support my side sleeping tonight. I find it difficult however, even with the “props” to get comfortable on the shoulder that is contacting the bed. While still awake, I flip a few times side to side because the shoulder gets tender or I feel like its up in my neck/ear. With regards to the breath I find it much easier to sense what’s going on with my breathing when I’m on my back. I can really watch my breath that way and connect to a more full, complete breath. I’m hoping that with time and practice I can ease into more awareness and comfortability getting a nice “nudge” to my breath.

  10. Annie F. says:

    I started using the extra pillows, wow what a difference in lower back pain. I loved this article, since I’ve always wondered how to get better sleep quality. woohoo! Now, for the nudge breath..will keep you posted.

  11. Lloyd says:

    I’ve been using a pillow between my legs for a number for a number of years and my lower back rarely feels tight in the morning. Yesterday, I took Jill’s suggestion and rolled up a beach towel and placed it in front of my pillow. I was pleasantly surprised that the usual neck tightness that I wake uo with was lessened.

  12. Rebecca says:

    I can’t tell you how often I wake up and wonder if I’m undoing all the yoga benefits while I sleep. Much to the unhappiness of my husband, I have a zillion pillows in bed, but have trouble getting comfortable. As a side sleeper, I have a pillow for between my thighs which helps my hips, but because I have neck pain I wonder if the hip pillow is helping or hurting my alignment. My neck and jaw still feel tight and always feel like my neck is collapsing and it creates stress in my jaw so will try the towel/buckwheat pillow. Keeping muscles supported like a restorative class to allow the breath to come more easily through the nose while I sleep makes sense and look forward to trying out these tips! Thanks!

  13. Jennifer says:

    I have experienced a huge diffrence in the quality of my sleep by adding a body pillow to help support my spine as I sleep on my right side. I am going to try adding the nudge breath tonight.

  14. Diana says:

    I never realized how bad it is to be a back sleeper! I was told a few years ago that I had a hurinated disc in my lower lumbar and was NEVER told that being a back sleeper contributes to my pain. That explains why every morning my lower back muscles are so tight and almost debilitating.

  15. saharah ali says:

    I am a pillow girl, everyone has always laughed at me and all my pillows. I have about six diffierent size pillows that I use to help me sleep at night. Thanks you for comfirming my natural state of rest with support from our pillow friends. I find that the small blanket or pillow in between the legs are very helpful in a sound side sleeping position. I sometimes roll a medium size towel to place under my neck. Yes to good safe sleep!

  16. Carole says:

    I have been experiencing insomnia for several years now with short periods of relief interspersed between chronic episodes of sleeplessness. Most recently, my problem has been waking up after no more than 4-5 hours and not being able to drift back into sleep. I’ve always imagined that my problem is psychosomatic but have not yet been able to really pinpoint the cause (or get any relief, for that matter). It makes sense that compression of certain nerves and misalignment of bones can contribute to stress in the body, thereby contributing to or exacerbating the stress response in the body. I will be trying these modifications tonight!

  17. Alexa Kim alexa says:

    OMG. But where do the dogs and the hubby sleep? Seriously, its a wonderful set up. My mother started making her own dried grain/grain husk pillows decades ago when she couldn’t find any to buy in the U.S. I looked askance at them for a long time, but they’re really like an eco-friendly version of memory foam pillows and the perfect size for the neck. Thank you for the detailed breakdown in how to position the body for sleep in ways that respect the joints.

  18. Andrea Penagos says:

    I really appreciate this post because I was treated for tendonitis in my right shoulder years ago and I love sleeping on my right side. Whether the pain came about gradually as a result of my sleeping patterns, I’m not sure, but surely poor sleeping alignment aggravates the situation as I continue to have twinges in that area when I practice yoga – particularly asanas that require internal rotation of the shoulder. I’ll try using a “hug pillow” to allow for space in my shoulder joint and decrease crunchiness of sleeping on my side.

  19. Roselea says:

    Your suggestions are so helpful from the positions to aid an aligned and supported sleep to rolling out the muscles that may cause the hands to go numb or tingle, this is an amazing resource. Thank-you YTU

  20. Janet Berkowitz says:

    Great article, Jill!
    I’m sure the way I sleep on my left side all the time is aggravating my shoulder. I will at the minimum try putting a rolled towel in front of my pillow to help support my cervical spine. (then I’ll try adding the other props!)
    Interesting – I always thought sleeping on your back was the optimum position, but it makes sense that this position will compromise the low back. What if one were to put a rolled towel under the knees as this would alieviate the pressure in the low back?

    Also, if your mind is racing when you go to sleep, this yogic breath would seem to work!
    I’ll try it tonight!

  21. Gari Kylberg says:

    In my Indonesian culture it is common to sleep with additional pillows; however, I’ve not heard of using a rolled towel for additional neck support. This might address a problem I’ve been having with neck pain after sleeping on my right side. I’ll have to give this a try.

  22. laura mcintire says:

    I’ve landed in all of those positions at one time or another, sought a better mattress, a better pillow and these items helped some. I still on occasion wake to a soundly sleeping arm from side sleeping. The arm heavy and completely without sensation–the first time it happened I was terrified–then the extreme pins and needles set in.
    Is the purpose of the second hug-pillow for the roll-over?
    If you have a cat, you can be sure that they’ll want to be part of the prop pile.

  23. Peggy Sue Honeyman-Scott says:

    I used a pillow between my knees when I was a kid and during my pregnancy because of my boney knees, not knowing the wonderful effects of sleep it was giving me. After reading the article I will start using it again. An added benefit to a “hug pillow” is that you keep away unsightly chest lines that we tend to get as we get older. Spooning another works as well : )))

  24. Caroline M says:

    Being a side sleeper my whole life, I instinctively have used a pillow (or a lot of extra blankets) between my knees but I’ve never tried the body pillow on the side to keep the shoulder joint in line nor have I tried the extra cervical neck pillow. I’ve tried neck pillows that are great if you’re on your back but I’ve tossed them aside since I mainly sleep on my back. Now I’m thinking a combination of the two plus the ‘hug’ pillow will make at least 1/3 of my life more awesome. Thanks for the article!

  25. Haley says:

    I’m a side sleeper and have very tight shoulders, I’m excited to try this tonight to support the body to relieve the stress on my neck and back. It was also interesting to me that sleeping flat on the back was actually very unhealthy, I assumed that because this is similar to corpse pose (shavasana), which is at the end of a yoga class to release everything and relax the body, it would be a good pose for the body to be in during delta.

  26. Eve S says:

    For most of my life I have slept in what could be described as an elevated version of the corpse position. I can see how this has most likely contributed to some of the tightness in my neck and upper body. I do sometimes begin on my side but when my alarm goes off or I awake on my own; I am back on my back. In the photo the model is on their right so I am assuming this is preferable. These suggestions also would work well for many pregnant women but they want to be on their left side if they can I believe.

  27. Erika O says:

    I cant wait to try this tonight. LIttle nervous about kicking pillows out, but excited to see how it goes!

  28. Amy Sosne says:

    I have always found that the more tense I am, the more my shoulders remain hunched at my ears and my muscles and my mind have difficulty relaxing. I am usually a belly sleeper, but often find myself feeling claustrophobic with my head into the pillow and then if I try to rotate my head sideways so I can breath, I get a crink in my neck. The nights that I sleep best, I practice calming, soothing techniques, such as the yogi breathing that you describe. I become aware of my breath and am often shocked at how little I’m breathing. When I correct myself and breath deep from the belly and thoracic region, I relax and am able to sleep.

  29. Jessica Cetrangelo says:

    I’m really looking forward to trying this sleeping technique. I have neck and hip pain because I tend to sleep on one side of my body, Even Tempurpedic pillows don’t work for me. It sounds like, from the other comments, this will really bring relief. I am also looking forward to trying the “Nudge” breath.

  30. tracy rooks says:

    For years I had cronic neck and shoulder pain. It wasnt until I began to practice yoga tune up and sleep supported did I feel any relief. A contured neck support pillow and a pillow between my knees has been a life saver As my body got stronger and imbalances corrected over time I became pain free all night and have no difficulty sleeping in beds when I travel when I prop and ease joint compression.

  31. Terry Ford says:

    As an aside to interesting sleeping positions – So You Think You Can Dance Canada’s show tonight revealed one of the dancers sleeping quirks. She sleeps in front splits! Can’t imagine what that posture will eventually do to her over time.

  32. Eva Berswick says:

    I have been placed on my tummy as a baby, and decades of belly sleeping with one knee pulled up, left me with a horrible posture, and infused lower back. Through huge efforts I’ve trained myself to sleep on my back, but it’s not corpse like, more like tree pose. Not always comfortable, depends on the matress. I’ve also made a mistake of having a too high pillow between my knees. What a mess. I’m glad to see the picture, I’ll try the position tonight. You be the judge tomorrow when you see me :)

  33. Luisa says:

    I have tried the pillow between the knees and have found great relief. The extra cushion in the cervical spine with the beach towel rolled up is new, definitely worth a try. I am also intrigued by the extra nudge with the additional exhale after the exhale. My only wish was that I read this article last night instead of this morning.

  34. Terry Ford says:

    Several years ago I had heard that chiropractors recommended, during sleep, right side sleeping as a more correct body position. As a belly sleeper for most of my life, I can relate to the slobbery stuff , improper propping of pillows and sometimes low back discomfort associated with this position. Progressively I became a side sleeper – could have been 3 pregnancies related and that kind of stuck. A couple of years ago it became uncomfortable lying on my left side, I could feel my heart pounding almost resulting in shallow breath. Being forced to sleep on my right side, there are nights where my shoulder will ache, hips will ache and the morning may bring a stiff back. Could have something to do with night activity (evening fitness classes). I am going to try the prop approach and recommend it to my husband, who is a “bring down the house” snore machine!!

  35. Last night I had the special privilege of Jill demonstrating her sleep system for me in person-after which she had me hop in to bed to try it out for myself! (She was no longer in the bed lol). I have had chronic neck/trap/levator scap spasms over the last 6 years and it seems no matter how much strengthening and stretching I do of both the front and back of my body, the problem has persisted. I have not yet bought the neck pillow Jill recommends, but I am using a rolled up towel and am hoping this change in my sleep position will help my situation improve. I am also going to begin a regular regimen of self massage with the Yoga Tune Up balls!

  36. Becca says:

    I see all my other fellow yogis responded to this article as well because with a tagline like “Sleep like your doing yoga” who wouldn’t be interested?! I love the idea of the pillow props but I have to share what I learned in a recent Anusara class. One of the students was in savasana with a bolster under his knees to help support his lower back and the teacher asked if she could do an adjustment on him in lieu of the bolster (which was to place the hand under the buttock and the inner thigh and internally rotate the upper-outer thigh while externally rotating the inner thigh). I was observing the class and asked her about the adjustment and she told me that the new science of thought was that the bolster under the knees in savasana or in bed was overtime actually weakening the lower back. Interesting….

  37. Heather says:

    Jill, thank you for this post! I sleep on my side and have recently found in my own sleeping practice that the pillow encasing and supporting of the body/limbs makes for a more ergonomical sleeping position. I will be adding a few pillows to my set up after reading this post. Deeper sleep here I come…

  38. cindy says:

    My husband would love the set up of pillows… we have a no touch rule when he is sleeping! lol Now I can create a barrier. I used to always sleep on my back and when i became pregnant with my 1st child..i had to stop and now I’m a reformed side sleeper but I do notice sometimes I wake up restless and achy.

    Im going to try those pillows out tomorrow night

  39. Celine says:

    I’m a side sleeper but my neck is sometimes suffering from it. I love the set up of the pillows, it looks so cozy. I will definitely try it.

  40. frank says:

    Great article!
    I’m a reformed stomach sleeper ..I still sleep that way sometimes,but mostly I am a fan of the body support cushion a super long pillow that you can rest 1 leg and ! arm on side lying sleeping. This is an important article because many people still believe lying on their back is the best way to sleep , yet, are unconsciously locking their lumbers and creating rigidity in the spine.
    Plus the gentle extension of exhalation in the nudge breath is very calming to the nervous system

  41. Dianna says:

    What a helpful blog – yes if you don’t get the quality or length of sleep the body needs, it starts affecting your well being, mentally emotionally and physically. Since doing yoga, especially half tortoise, my sleep patterns have become much more regular.
    I find a really good quality supportive mattress and pillow a must too !

  42. Nancy says:

    Tried the breathing pattern last night. Slept like a rock. Think it clears the stale air out of the lungs.

  43. Marina Blokhin says:

    Great tips! I work really hard to remember and practice them. Thought sometimes it is difficult to perform something when you are unconscious, so every once in a while I wake up and notice myself in a wrong position.

  44. Nicole Pamukov says:

    Breathing is so key to relaxing enough to fall asleep. The abdominal breathing techniques taught at the YTU workshop I attended where you inhale fully into the belly and then let the exhale happen passively really help to facilitate relaxation.

  45. Kristin I. J. says:

    As someone who’s had lower back pain for years I had to grow accustomed to sleeping with a big puffy pillow between my knees. I however did not think of the hug pillow. That’s a fantastic idea! My shoulders are VERY internally rotated. My upper back is overstretched and my upper chest is very tight. I am a side sleeper and often have trouble falling asleep in any other position than laying on my right side and a hug pillow would really help my shoulders from feeling like their collapsing in on themselves.

    The nudge breathing is something I am going to try TONIGHT! Anything that gives me better sleep is something I’m up for.

  46. Lynn M says:

    Very helpful! I often wake up feeling pain in my lower back. I usually wake up on my belly with one leg in a frog position. I’ll try the supportive pillows and see if I get some relief!
    I don’t like using a thick pillow to support my head. I use my arm to support my head with a very squishy pillow on top. How thick should I pillow be? Is my current set up wrong if I don’t have pain in my neck or shoulders?

  47. Ciara says:

    I currently have trouble sleeping through the night. I am a back and side sleeper. I also have night sweats.

    When I lay down for sleep on my side, my shoulders are often hunched up. After my YTT class last night, I have a hunch that part of my sweating my be caused from the way I breathe, thoracic breathing.

    My father sleeps in the more comfortable side position listed above with all the pillows. He mentioned that I should try it, but I never did. I believe this article will inspire me to finally get a good nights sleep.

  48. Bella Moon says:

    I need to say that when I was a child, my mom would prop me onto my side with a body pillow and some other ones…I always thought it was to keep my comfortable and it worked because I always slept like a “baby”….although I’m not sure if she knew all the physical, muscular, skeletal benefits of sleeping with props.

    Now as an adult, I’ve turned over and have become a belly sleeper and have almost all of the troubles that are mentioned in the article. Ugh.

    With that said, I think I’m going to go back to basics and do what my Mama did for me, for myself. Let’s see how that works out! ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ. 😉

  49. Mary says:

    I tried out the pillow setup and it really helped,my cervical spine was not as tight and sore as it normally is when i get up,also my lumbar spine had a good amount of support so i did not wake up hurting. I am definitley going to make this a daily practice,thanks!

  50. Charity Baker says:

    I always thought there must be a sensical way to align your body during sleep, but never came across a methodical analysis. This will be very helpful for me. As I’m not a stomach sleeper, or completely flat back sleeper I do wonder about the crushing weight of my body while sleeping on my side. I’m going to try propping my body points (especially the towel under my neck) and see if it yield a more gentle slumber by supporting my cervical spine and supporting/elongating my neck. Breathing is something i’ve become aware of thanks to YTU anatomy classes. It’s a whole new world of information and i’m sure it will hep relax me, as i tend to get restless through the night. I know that the extra nudge of exhale is very healthy in emptying the lungs beyond our automatic functions. All in good health! Thank you so much

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