Study: For Insomnia Relief, Try Yoga, Not Pills

It’s a feedback-loop at its worst: you lie in bed at night worrying about how you are unable to sleep—which only keeps you all the more awake. But before you head down to the clinic to get a prescription for sleeping pills, consider trying one of science’s more alternative approaches: yoga.

A study published in 2004’s Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback found that participants who practiced yoga experienced not only improved total sleep time, but sleep efficiency, resulting in increased total wake time. Participants also demonstrated improved sleep onset latency—falling asleep more quickly, and wake time after sleep onset—waking up earlier. 

The study, conducted by S.B. Khalsa at the Division of Sleep Medicine in Brigham and Women's Hospital, examined 20 participants for two weeks prior to the implementation of yoga practice and then 8 weeks following. The yoga practice consisted of a single, in-person training session followed by independent practice with brief follow-ups.

The study’s findings (that regular yoga practice can effect statistically significant improvements in sleep habits) back up a growing number of medical professionals’ emphasis on altering our routines, as opposed to taking pills, to correct disturbed sleep patterns. For example, Ramadevi Gourineni, MD, director of the Comprehensive Insomnia Clinic at Northwestern Memorial Hospital advises patients to adopt simple lifestyle changes, which “can replace the need for medications,” in order to obtain a better night of sleep.

Gourineni’s clinic emphasizes improving habits, such as eliminating caffeine before bed, making the bedroom a place for sleep as opposed to work or TV, and practicing techniques to relieve insomnia-causing anxiety and stress.

Yoga offers a great way to help unwind from the day’s tensions, mentally as well as physically. Moreover, practicing yoga to help attain a better night’s rest won’t have any of the negative side-effects that prescription drugs all-too-often do; conversely, yoga offers a variety of positive side effects ranging from weight loss to helping prevent heart disease. The American Yoga Association elaborates: “If you suffer from insomnia, whether often or occasionally, yoga can help. Through relaxing physical exercise, breathing techniques and complete relaxation, you can promote more regular and restful sleeping patterns without resorting to sleep-inducing drugs. Such drugs interfere with your body’s natural sleep cycle and can create psychological dependence and undesirable side effects.”