If you suffer from insomnia, anxiety, or some combination of both, the right yin yoga poses can help bring about some much-needed relief. Although yin yoga, in general, activates the parasympathetic nervous system (our body’s natural rest and relaxation response), there are certain poses that can be more effective than others for soothing the nerves and promoting healthy sleep. For this, it can be helpful to know a bit more about the connection of yin yoga to the Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) system of meridians.
Just as hatha yoga is associated with the chakra system, yin yoga is based on the TCM concept of meridians which are considered to be energy pathways that run throughout the body, allowing the flow of “qi” or life force. In hatha yoga, you may have heard of this as “prana.”
There are 12 principal meridians each correlating to a different body part, organ, and function in the body. When these meridians become unbalanced it can manifest in the body through pain, discomfort, illness, and dysfunction.
Yin yoga can stimulate the meridians, unblock stuck qi and restore balance in the body. For treating insomnia and anxiety we want to look specifically at poses that activate the heart meridian. The heart meridian is associated with distributing blood to organs and housing our thoughts and emotions. A balanced heart meridian will express itself through joy, compassion, pleasure, passion, contentment, intimacy and social harmony. When unbalanced it is believed to cause sleep problems, heart palpitations, chest pain, anxiety, and depression. You may also experience pain in the inner arm or armpit, swollen glands, red or swollen eyes, weak wrists, poor long-term memory, and several other ailments.
The heart meridian is considered a “yin” meridian and is paired with its yang counterpart the Small Intestine. Balancing the distribution of yin and yang is vital in TCM theory for experiencing harmony in the body and mind. The Heart and Small Intestine meridians, along with the Pericardium and Triple Burner pair are all associated with the element of Fire (one of the 5 elements that are said to govern the order of qi in our bodies). All four of the Fire element meridians are located in the upper body, so many of the yoga poses that target the Heart meridian will likely also stimulate the Small Intestine, Pericardium, and Triple Burner which are mainly associated with emotional stability, mental clarity, sexuality, digestion, and appetite.
The heart meridian begins at the center of the chest, crossing the pericardium and traveling down the diaphragm to connect with the small intestine. Another branch travels up through the throat, tongue, and eye, and lastly up and out of the heart to the center of the armpit and down the inner arm through the center of the internal elbow crease and continues to the tip of the pinky finger.
The following yoga poses can stimulate the heart meridian and restore balance within the Fire element. Keep in mind that whenever the natural order of qi or energy is pulled into deficiency or excess, it can take some time to come back to equilibrium. Practicing these poses on a regular basis can bring about more prominent changes. It is also important to note that when practicing yin yoga poses, rather than coming into your deepest stretch, it is more effective to find your edge at a sensation around 40-60%. You also want to relax your muscles and hold these poses passively, breathe naturally, and observe sensations in your body.
For this pose, you can take any seated position that works best for you (i.e. crosslegged, kneeling or Gomukasana, where one knee is stacked on top of the other and heels are in towards your outer hips). Extend one arm up towards the ceiling and wrap the other behind your back, bending your elbow. Bend the elbow of your top arm and connect your hands. If your hands don’t reach you can close the gap by holding onto a yoga strap, belt or scarf. Hold for approximately 2 minutes on each side. If it feels too intense adjust the distance between your hands along the strap or come out of the pose and work up towards a longer hold over time.
Lie down on your belly and come onto your forearms, stacking your shoulders over your elbows. Let your shoulders come down your back, away from your ears. You might also support your forehead on a block. Relax your glutes and the back of your legs and soften your belly. Hold for 3-4 minutes.
Lie down on your belly and extend your right arm out to your side in line with your shoulder, placing your palm down on the ground. Roll your left hip on top of your right, bending your knees. Either keep your left arm in front or wrap it behind your back letting it dangle to wherever feels comfortable or clasping your other hand if that does not take you beyond your edge. You can keep your knees bent or extend your right leg and keeping your left knee bent come onto the sole of that foot behind your right leg. Hold for approximately 2 to 3 minutes and then switch sides.
Another variation of this pose is Lying Chest Opener, where you bend the extended arm at the elbow taking it into a goal post position.
Take your knees out as wide as you would like, bring your big toes to touch. Lower your hips down towards your heels and your chest and forehead down towards the mat, extending your arms out in front of you. Hold this pose for 3-5 minutes.
Thread the Kneedle
Come into a tabletop position stacking your hips over your knees and your shoulders over your wrists. Extend your right arm up towards the ceiling and then thread it underneath your left armpit, resting your right shoulder and cheek on the mat. Extend your left arm in front of you or wrap it around your back for a half bind. Hold for 2-4 minutes and then switch sides.
From your tabletop position keep your hips above your knees and walk your hands out in front of you lowering your chest and forehead towards the mat. Hold for 2-3 minutes. If you feel any tingling sensation adjust the position of your arms or come out of the pose for a moment.
Lying on your back, draw your knees into your chest. Extend your right leg out in front of you and place it on the mat. Guide your left knee across your body for a supine twist. Extend your left arm out to your side letting your gaze follow if that’s okay on your neck. Your right hand can come onto your thigh or extend out to the side. Try to keep both shoulders on your mat. Hold for 2-4 minutes and then switch sides.
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