If you have a hard time falling or staying asleep, yoga might be your ticket to dreamland. Insomnia has many causes, including stress, hormonal changes, chronic pain, etc. Lack of sleep can worsen these conditions, causing a discouraging cycle of sleep deprivation and daytime fatigue. Practicing yoga can help bring balance and peace to your life, which can result in deeper and more regular sleep.
There are three important steps to keep in mind when you’re trying to improve your sleep:
Stimulants aren’t just ingestible. Violent or noisy TV shows or movies can be unsettling. Nighttime phone calls can lead to disturbed sleep. Even checking your email one last time can keep your mind overstimulated and anxious. Turn off the gadgets and give yourself time to chill out before hitting the sack.
- See your doctor. Stress is a major cause of insomnia, but it’s a good idea to rule out any potential medical condition that may require attention. Be sure to ask your doctor if practicing yoga will be okay for you.
- Watch what you put in your body. This includes common stimulants like caffeine and nicotine, but also prescription medications and diet pills. Alcohol may make you feel drowsy at first, but it can prevent deep and restful sleep. Spicy and heavy food can also contribute to restless sleep.
- Reduce the amount of stress in your life. High levels of stress can lead to a constant state of hyperarousal, during which your body’s nervous system is turned on too high. This can cause you to feel jittery and anxious, even at the end of the day. You will be unable to relax enough to get some shut-eye.
When you’re stressed-out, your body creates a “fight-or-flight” response, preparing you for life-or-death situations. This response is governed by your sympathetic nervous system. It causes muscle tension, stalled digestion, accelerated heart rate, and shallow breathing. It’s appropriate if you’re being chased by a hungry lion, but not very helpful in everyday life!
Chill Out With Yoga
Practicing yoga, on the other hand, stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, also known as the "rest and digest" response. Learning to relax your nervous system and reduce muscle tension will positively affect your ability to sleep. Here are some ways yoga can help you get some quality shut-eye.
Yogic breathing techniques (pranayama) can help to relax and calm your body. Sometimes struggling to fall asleep makes it even harder to do so. Focusing on your breath can help you avoid or lessen repetitive thinking.
Ujjayi Pranayama (ooh-JAH-yee prah-nah-YAH-mah), also known as Ocean Breath, is one technique that helps to calm overactive minds. During Ujjayi, you completely fill your lungs while slightly contracting your throat and breathing through your nose. It is said to be highly beneficial to those suffering from insomnia and mental tension.
To practice Ujjayi Pranayama:
- Inhale deeply through your mouth. Feel the air of your inhalations passing down through your windpipe.
- Now slightly contract the back of the throat, as you do when you whisper, and exhale. Imagine your breath is fogging up a window.
- Keep this contraction of the throat as you inhale and exhale, then gently close your mouth and continue breathing through your nose.
- Concentrate on the sound of the breath, which will soothe your mind. It should be audible to you, but not so loud that someone standing several feet away can hear it.
- Let your inhalations fill your belly, ribs, and chest. Completely release the air during your exhalations.
Most people with insomnia need a calming practice. However, some might need a more active practice earlier in the day, to reduce extra tension. Overzealous practitioners can sometimes be too aggressive with their yoga. It’s important to find the right balance. If you have a very active yoga practice, seek harmony with restorative poses and pranayama.
Practice at home every day. The practice should include gentle forward bends, backbends, twists, and inversions. Try to avoid stimulating movements like Sun Salutations. Forward folds like Child’s Pose (Balasana) and inversions like Legs Up the Wall (Viparita Karani) can be very useful in relaxing your body and mind, and preparing yourself for sleep.
- Start on your hands and knees, then spread your knees wide while keeping your big toes touching.
- Exhale as you bow forward, letting your torso drape between your thighs.
- Keep your arms long and extended. Place your forehead on the floor or on a pillow. Then bring your arms to rest alongside your thighs, with your palms facing up.
- Hold for up to a minute or longer, breathing softly.
- Set a bolster or pillow on the floor against the wall.
- Place your low back next to the bolster. Sit sideways and gently bring your legs up onto the wall.
- Rest your shoulders and head on the floor.
- Hold for 5-10 minutes, breathing with awareness.
- To release, slowly push yourself away from the wall and slide your legs to the side.
The keys to deep sleep may be found in ancient texts like the "Yoga Sutras of Patanjali." The sutras describe specific ways of living, through which we can attain wisdom. The yogic principle of aparigraha teaches non-grasping and the ability to let go. As you’re lying in bed, trying to sleep, you can apply this principle to ease up on yourself. Grasping for sleep will not get you there. Practice some Ujjayi Pranayama, accept things as they are in the moment, and let it go.
The yogic principle of svadhyaya, or self-study, teaches you how to tune into your body and its subtle movements and reactions. This can help you become more attuned during the day, noticing how certain foods and drinks affect you. You might notice whether certain people or conversations adversely affect your sleep, or if you feel more stressed at certain times of the day.
It may take some experimenting to find out what works for you. Every person’s reaction to a yoga pose or breath technique will be different. Tune in to what feels best. If a pose helps you feel relaxed, then it’s working. If it makes you feel more awake, it’s probably not your best choice. Try different techniques that fit your lifestyle. You’ll beat stress, learn to breathe consciously, and in due time, sleep deeply!