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Yoga for a Good Night’s Sleep
Do you ever toss and turn at night, waiting to fall asleep? Or maybe you fall asleep easily but wake several times during the night. If so, you’re not alone. It’s estimated that 60 million Americans a year experience frequent insomnia. A sleep disorder whose sufferers have difficulty falling or staying asleep, insomnia may lead to serious sleep deficits with significant long-term health consequences. Forty percent of women and 30 percent of men suffer from insomnia, and the rates increase with age. (1)
Many people choose to pop a pill to help them sleep. Unfortunately sleeping pills usually lose their efficacy after a few weeks of nightly use. They also can result in alarming side effects: a recent study showed that use of prescription sleep medications resulted in an increase in mortality and cancer risk. (2)
Fortunately, there are alternatives to sleep medication. One that is being increasingly examined as a non-pharmacological intervention for insomnia sufferers is the practice of yoga, and the results are encouraging. A 2004 Harvard study showed that a daily yoga practice resulted in statistically significant improvements in sleep in people suffering from insomnia (3).
Studies performed on specific populations have had similar results. Geriatric adults participating in a study in India took less time to fall asleep, slept longer, and felt more rested upon waking after taking up the practice of yoga.(4) Women partaking in a study on the effects of yoga on menopause symptoms showed improved sleep efficiency.(5) Cancer survivors experienced improved sleep after participating regularly in a gentle yoga practice.(6) Pregnant women who practiced just 15 minutes of yoga and Tai Chi per day experienced fewer sleep disturbances.(7)
One of the causes of insomnia is an inability to let go of thinking and ruminating. Obsessing over anxieties and worries, or rehashing and evaluating the events of the day can inhibit one’s ability to fall asleep. The yogic teachings of mindfulness and self-awareness counteract this tendency. Mindfulness is the ability to stay present with one’s experience from moment to moment, without judging or evaluating that experience and without lapsing backwards into the past or projecting forward into the future. Self-awareness is the ability to truly feel what’s happening in one’s body and mind without getting wrapped up in judgment, self-criticism, or the desire to change or control one’s experience.
Pratyahara (sensory withdrawal) and dhyana (meditation) are other essential aspects of yoga that promote healthy sleep. These practices encourage turning inward and stilling the mind, both of which are essential for overcoming sleep difficulties.
A practice incorporating gentle Hatha and Restorative poses, pranayama (breathing exercises) and meditation has been shown to be particularly effective at promoting healthy sleep.(6) Such practices help to shut down the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), which is our bodies’ “fight-or-flight” response to stress. It then induces the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), otherwise known as the “relaxation response.” When the PNS is induced, the heart rate slows, blood pressure lowers, and intestinal and gland activity increases, promoting digestion.
The vagus nerve is the key to turning off the SNS and turning on the PNS. This nerve originates in the brain and runs downwards to the tongue, vocal chords, heart, lungs and other internal organs. It signals the heart to slow down in moments when the body is calm, quiet and safe. Deep diaphragmatic breathing has been shown to stimulate the vagus nerve and thereby initiate the relaxation response. Incorporating this kind of breath control while resting in gentle, supported postures facilitates a gradual descent into relaxation that leads to better sleep.
The following sequence of poses is an ideal way to wind down from your day and prepare for bedtime. Turn off the television, laptop and phone and tune into your breath and the sensations in your body. In so doing you’ll create a quiet, nourishing environment that allows you to let go, relax, and gently transition to deep, restful sleep.
For this sequence you’ll need one bolster (or firm couch cushion) and several blankets. An eye pillow is optional but recommended as it may stimulate the vagus nerve by putting light pressure on the third eye point between the brows. It may also engage the oculocardiac reflex, which is another relaxation response trigger stimulated by gentle pressure on the eyes.
1. Supported Supta Baddha Konasana (Reclining Bound-Angle Pose)
Sit on the floor and set the bolster lengthwise behind you. Place a folded blanket crosswise along the top of the bolster. Bend your knees and place the soles of your feet on the floor. Put one folded or rolled blanket beside each of your hips. Open your knees out to the sides and rest your thighs on the blankets. Bring the soles of your feet together, placing them a comfortable distance from your pelvis. Pull the bolster towards you until the bottom edge is pressing against your sacrum. Tuck your chin toward your chest and support yourself by pressing your hands into the bolster or floor as you lie back over the bolster. Allow your head and neck to rest comfortably on the blanket at the top of the bolster. If you experience any discomfort in your lower back, scoot your pelvis a little further away from the bolster until you find a comfortable position. If you have an eye pillow place it over your eyes. Rest the backs of your hands on the floor with your arms a comfortable distance from the sides of your body.
Bring your awareness to your breath. For the first few minutes, inhale deeply and feel the abdomen rise, then exhale fully and feel the abdomen fall. For the next several minutes, breathe naturally.
Stay in the pose for 5-10 minutes. To come out, slowly bring your knees together then carefully roll off the bolster onto your side. Press your hands into the floor to come up, allowing the head to arrive last.
This pose is contraindicated if you have disc disease, spondylolisthesis, spondylosis, groin pulls, or have had recent abdominal surgery.
2. Prasarita Padottanasana (Wide-Legged Forward Bend) with Head Support
Stand with the feet spread wide (about four feet apart). Place the bolster on the floor in front of you. Take a deep breath in, lift and expand the chest, then lead with the sternum to fold over the legs and bring the hands to the floor. Let the top of the head press gently into the bolster without compressing your neck or bending your knees. If the head doesn’t easily reach the bolster, stack one or two blankets onto the bolster until you find the right height. If the stack still isn’t high enough, try the same pose with your head resting on a bed or the seat of a chair (in this variation, cross one forearm on top of the other and rest your forehead on your arms).
Stay for one minute. To come up, bring your hands to your hips and inhale as you slowly lift the torso to an upright position.
Use caution in this pose if you have low blood pressure: if you feel dizzy when you fold forward, it’s better to skip this one. If you have lower back problems, come into the variation with your head resting on a bed or chair to avoid a deep forward bend.
3. Supported Balasana (Child’s Pose)
Kneel on a blanket and place a bolster lengthwise in front of you. Open your knees, bringing one knee to either side of the bolster while keeping your feet close together and your hips resting on your heels. Inhale as you lengthen your spine, then exhale and lay your torso over the bolster, turning your head to one side and resting your hands to either side of the bolster. If you’re not comfortable turning your head, bring one hand on top of the other on the bolster and rest your forehead on your hands. If you feel the support under your torso needs to be higher, stack one or more folded blankets on the bolster until you find a height that allows your body to relax.
Stay for 1-2 minutes with your head turned one way, then the same amount of time with it turned in the opposite direction. To come out, slide your hands under your shoulders and press them into the floor. Keeping your head heavy, roll up to sit one vertebra at a time and allow your head to arrive last.
If you experience sharp pain or discomfort in your knees, it’s best to skip Balasana. Use caution during the last two trimesters of pregnancy, after recent chest or breast surgery, or if you’ve experienced heart failure or disc disease.
4. Savasana (Corpse Pose) with Bolster
Sit on the floor with your knees bent and the soles of your feet on the floor. Place a folded blanket behind you, approximating where your head will rest when you lie down. Place the bolster horizontally under your knees. Tuck your chin towards your chest and support yourself with your hands on the floor as you lie back. Rest your head and neck on the folded blanket, or make a small roll to support the curve of your neck. If you feel more comfortable without your head and neck supported then remove the blanket and rest the head on the floor. Separate your feet and legs a comfortable distance apart and be sure your heels are resting on the floor. If you have an eye pillow, place it over your eyes.
Stay for 5-10 minutes. During the first few minutes in the pose, practice an extended exhalation: breathe in and out in a 1:2 ratio (for example, inhaling for 4 counts, exhaling for 8). If this feels like a strain, allow the exhalation to be just slightly longer than the inhalation. After a few minutes, return to your natural pace of breathing.
If you’re more than three months pregnant, do not lie flat on your back. Place a bolster and perhaps blankets under your torso so your head and heart are higher than your hips.
Christine Malossi, RYT is based in New York City, where she offers a mindful, alignment-focused Vinyasa practice that cultivates balance, awareness and equanimity. In addition to teaching private clients and group classes at studios throughout Manhattan, she also teaches at the Spencer Cox Center for Health at Mount Sinai Hospital’s Institute for Advanced Medicine whereshe designs a practice specifically tailored to patients diagnosed with HIV and other chronic illnesses. Christine is honored to be teaching yoga and to have the opportunity to pass on to others the joy and freedom that she has found in her own practice. Find her at www.christinemalossi.com.