Yoga is a wonderful tool to help you ready your mind and body for sleep. There are specific postures, breathing styles and relaxation techniques which can make an enormous difference in your ability to get a refreshing night's sleep. Whether you have difficulty falling asleep, or you awaken too early and can't get back to sleep, yoga can help. If you suspect you have an underlying physical problem such as asthma, sleep apnea, or depression your physician can help you further.
Here are a few things to keep in mind before you begin:
1. Your brain produces a chemical called melatonin which helps to induce sleep. Exposure to sunlight or artificial light as early as possible within awakening will help set your body clock and decrease your brain's melatonin levels early in the day. In the evening keep the room lights low to increase your melatonin levels and help prepare your body for sleep. Avoid using the computer and watching television as these are bright light sources and will confuse your body clock by releasing chemicals in an attempt to keep you alert.
2. Avoid stimulating drugs, including caffeine and nicotine during the second half of your day. Stimulants can be hiding in pain medication, asthma inhalers and many other medications. You may need to speak to your doctor about this.
3. Many people make the mistake of using alcohol or marijuana as a means of helping to induce sleep. This will absolutely make things worse. While you may get sleepy you will only achieve a shallow non-restorative sleep that includes suppression of your normal dream sleep. About every 90 minutes we go through a full sleep cycle, approximately 25% of your total sleep time should be REM (dream sleep) and 20% in deep sleep (stage 3 and 4) in order to achieve a refreshing night's sleep. Lack of these vital sleep stages may lead to fatigue and depression creating a downward spiral.
4. Your body temperature declines slightly (about 1.5 degrees F) as a cue to start sleep. This means you want to avoid activities that will cause your body to heat up such as a hot bath or vigorous exercise just before bed. Keep the temperature of your room cool with fresh air circulating whenever possible.
5. At least 30 minutes of exercise 5 days a week has been proven to make a solid difference in one's ability to achieve a good night's sleep. Yoga's invigorating and strengthening postures, or whatever your favourite form of exercise is, should be done sometime during the day or early evening (at least 3 hours before bedtime). A regular exercise program has been proven to be one of the most important aids to help you sleep and feel more vigorous during the day.
Okay, now let's get to some postures and techniques to help you!
First you need to quiet your active mind by deliberately shutting out all the thoughts of your busy day and your busy life. Painful memories, concerns for the future and all the things you need to do, must be gently set aside. Easier said than done, right?! You begin by closing your eyes and focusing on your breath with singular concentration. Begin with Diaphragmatic Breathing for several minutes (lay comfortably in savasana with your hands resting on your belly - inhale deeply into the lower lungs and feel the belly rise like a wave - exhale slowly and feel the wave in the belly gently go down - breathe through your nose) then move into the 3 Part Yogic Breath (inhale feel the belly rise, deepen and feel the ribs expand, deepen and feel the collar bones rise - exhale slowly and feel the collar bones fall, the ribs contract and the belly fall - breathe through your nose). Continue the 3 Part Yogic Breath throughout your entire yoga routine. Sometimes in my studio classes we practice Ujjayi breathing (an invigorating style) which would not be the best way to settle yourself for sleep. If your mind begins to wander, gently bring it back again and again to your breathing. You may find it helpful to silently say to yourself "peace" as you inhale and "calm" as you exhale.
Perform a short and gentle yoga routine in your pajamas which primarily involves properly performed forward bends, twists and quadriceps stretches ending with legs up the wall pose, or shoulderstand for more advanced students to help prepare you for sleep.
Go to your bed, lay in savasana, and perform the tense and release method:
-Start by focusing on your breathing. Inhale gradually through your nose and exhale leisurely through your nose.
-Begin to systematically tense and release all the muscles of your body starting with your feet and working your way up; feet - calves - thighs - buttocks - abdominals, chest, shoulders and back - arms and hands (lift the arms slightly and ball the hands into fists) - neck and face (lift the head and neck slightly and scrunch the face) - then everything all at once. Inhale and tense the area while holding the breath for 5-10 seconds then exhale and completely relax for 10 seconds before you repeat with the next area. After you are finished the final tense of everything all at once, exhale and melt completely. Let all tension drain from your body.
Finally, perform a deeply relaxing breathing technique: Inhale slowly through the nose to the count of 6, hold the breath for 2, exhale slowly through the nose to the count of 8. Repeat until you drift off.
Namaste and Sweet Dreams, Carolyn Weatherson