Using Yoga to Battle Restless Legs Syndrome

When restless legs syndrome keeps you up all night, yoga is a treatment option that helps both your mind and body relax. Find out how nightly poses helps one woman tame her symptoms and sleep soundly.

Is restless legs syndrome (RLS) keeping you up all night and leaving you sleepy all day? The ancient art of yoga might be just the answer you’re looking for. The gentle stretches and deep breaths of yoga, so great for soothing anxiety and strengthening your body, may help the nerves in your legs relax, too.

Restless legs syndrome, Willis-Ekbom Disease, is a neurological condition, but experts don’t know exactly what causes it. RLS is thought to be triggered by an abnormality in the way the brain uses chemical messengers known as neurotransmitters. When functioning normally, the neurotransmitter dopamine helps the muscles move in a fluid, controlled manner. When these neurotransmitter pathways are interrupted, however, movements may be uncontrolled. So when you try to snuggle up in bed, you experience tingling sensations in your legs that may range from uncomfortable to downright painful.

Turning to Yoga for Restless Legs Syndrome Relief

When Sherry Shortt, 44, of Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, first noticed these “creepy-crawly” sensations that kept her awake at night about four years ago, she knew that she had restless legs syndrome. Luckily, she already knew a good way to keep those symptoms in check.

Shortt is a cardiac technologist and also teaches therapeutic yoga for seniors as part of their cardiac rehabilitation.

“I did some research on my own on certain poses that would help restless legs syndrome and I do those at night after working all day,” says Shortt. “I find that doing them at bedtime helps me sleep — if I can’t sleep, I get out of bed and do those poses.”

Short does about 30 minutes of yoga each night, with a variety of poses designed to help stretch the legs. Her regular routine includes a standing forward bend, a seated forward bend, runner’s lunge, reclining big toe pose, and a butterfly pose.

Short strongly believes in the pose called “legs up the wall.” She lies on her back with her legs resting up against the wall at a 90-degree angle. She closes her eyes, breathes deeply, and focuses on relaxing for about 15 to 20 minutes. Afterward, she can usually go to bed and rest comfortably.

How Yoga Works

The reason “legs up the wall” is a particularly effective yoga pose for restless legs syndrome is because it helps your nervous system to relax. This yoga pose allows the lymphatic system and circulatory system to drain out of the legs, says Benjamin Snider, ND, a naturopathic doctor and co-founder of the Serona Centre in Ontario.

“Legs up the wall is a restorative, relaxing posture,” Dr. Snider notes. “When you’re in that 90- degree position, there’s less nervous stimulation.” This allows the nerves in the legs to relax, helping to diminish the uncomfortable sensations caused by restless legs syndrome. Plus, as a restorative pose, it helps you unwind, ease stress, and prime you for sound sleep.

“I think restless legs syndrome brings a little bit of anxiety, especially if you’re trying to sleep,” says Shortt. “Legs up the wall calms your mind and your heart down. There’s absolutely a calming effect on the mind as well as body,” she says.

The research concurs with Shortt. One small pilot study found that women with restless legs syndrome who practiced yoga regularly for eight weeks experienced better sleep and lower stress levels.

“There are many yoga postures and movements that will be helpful in reducing insomnia and RLS symptoms,” says Jyoti Solanki, RMT, RYT, registered massage therapist and certified yoga instructor at the Serona Centre in Ontario. “Yoga postures that are cooling to the nervous system will also help stretch the legs, hips, and back.”

Shortt recently found out just how essential yoga is as part of her overall healthy lifestyle and treatment for restless legs syndrome symptoms (she also walks for 30 minutes each day, sticks to a very healthy diet, and takes a nightly magnesium supplement). “I was on a trip and on the plane ride home I really noticed them for the first time in a while,” Shortt recalls. She had enjoyed a week of vacation and hadn’t been able to follow her normal nightly yoga routine, and definitely paid the price. “There are still nights that I find it bothersome, but it’s definitely better than it used to be,” says Shortt. “And I can tell a big difference if I don’t do my yoga.”

By Diana Rodriguez