You know those times when life gets so full that it seems your mind and body is never just.. quiet?
Well the end of last year and the beginning of this year seems to have been this way for so many that I speak to, including myself. One way that my body tells me that I need to slow down, which never fails to get my attention, is that my sleep gets really scanty. I want that deep, peaceful, wake up truly rested kind of sleep, and I just haven’t been getting it. I know I’m not the only one.
So I was beyond thrilled when my beautiful Yoga teacher friend Ariadne from Yoga and Other Stories was happy to share her wisdom with me and all of you on how we can use yoga to help with stress and insomnia, or just improving the quality of our sleep. Thank you so much Ariadne!
~Yoga & Sleep~
How yoga can help with insomnia
I was totally delighted when the wonderful Ruth asked me to write about this topic because I have full and utter faith in yoga’s ability to help with sleep problems and stress. Sleep is to vital our well-being, our creativity, our relationships and our souls.
I’ve been reading Arianna Huffington’s new book Thrive and I am amazed to find out about the very real consequences of sleep deprivation. So although I consider myself a good sleeper, I do also consider myself an owner of a very, very busy mind.
Most of those who struggle to fall asleep at night, also report a difficulty switching off and calming down. Yoga helps us to do exactly this.
It is common knowledge now that exercise is one the best remedies for insomnia and stress. So tool numero 1 is move your body! But yoga is much more than physical exercise. Energetically, yoga helps us balance our internal systems and supports the healthy functioning of our internal compass. In an over-stimulating world, our internal alarm mechanism can get stuck flashing RED.
Many of us are functioning under high levels of physical and emotional stress, which eventually becomes the norm and we no longer notice we are “switched on”. This stress response is often referred to as ‘Fight or Flight’. When we lived in caves, the efficiency of our Fight or Flight mechanism was literally a matter of life or death. Thankfully no longer need to fight predators for our food, but we do need to meet deadlines, have uncomfortable conversations and pay a myriad of bills. Pressure has risen, but we have not compensated by evolving our ability to switch the alarm off when it is not needed.
When we are under a lot of pressure and suffer from stress and anxiety, our alarm mechanism becomes almost too sensitive, leading to physical exhaustion, insomnia and illness.
Yoga provides a space to slow down, breathe deeply and fully and focus on the body. It teaches us to recognise warning cues the body is sending and gives us access to that internal wisdom to deal with challenges with awareness.
When we are stressed, overworked and sleep deprived our ability to make decisions is compromised, we have trouble concentrating and calming down even when the problem has been worked through. When we’re agitated, it is hard to get ourselves to sit still and relax, even though that is probably what our bodies are craving: stillness
Psychologically, yoga teaches us to find the balance between effort and ease, learning to let go of attachment to a specific goal. We all know that obsessing over our sleeplessness, leads only to less sleep, so yoga can indirectly help us to develop acceptance and surrender. This does not mean accepting defeat; quite the opposite. Acceptance promotes a softness, a sense of self love that helps to let go of repetitive, unhelpful patterns of thinking and worrying which often lead to nothing.
Please note: if you have not done yoga before please only practice with a qualified teacher and always ensure the practice you do is safe for your body and health condition.
Restorative postures to help with sleep::
Legs up the wall/Viparita Karani (supported with a bolster or blankets)
Prepare by placing a bolster or a stack of blankets about a palm’s distance from the wall. Place your hips on the support and bring your legs to the wall. Have your legs straight up, heels touching and soles of the feet pointing towards the ceiling. Your hips should not be touching the wall. Have your hands on your belly, palms down or arms by your side, palms towards the sky.
Close your eyes and focus on your breath (you can use a lavender eye bag if you have one). Stay for as long as you like, but try for at least 10 minutes. This is a lovely practice to do at any point, and it is a personal favourite of mine to do straight before bed.
Supported Head to Knee/Janu Sirsasana (using a bolster)
Sit on the mat, having your right leg extended. Bend the left leg, letting the knee open to the side, the outside of your left thigh and calf rest on the floor and bring the sole of the left foot to the inside of your right thigh. Place a folded blanket or block underneath your left knee to support it.
Lengthen your spine upwards and keep your torso forward. Place a bolster (or two) over your right shin (creating a T shape with your leg). Inhale to lengthen the spine and as you exhale fold over your right leg, keeping the right side of the body long, resting your forehead and arms on the bolster. Keep your feet active.
Stay in this pose for a few breaths adjusting every now and then, as your breath creates space in the spine. Inhale to come out and practice on the other side.
Supported Downward Facing Dog/Adho Mukha Svanasana (with a bolster)
Come on to all fours (hands and knees). Have your palms slightly forward of your shoulders and your knees directly under your hips. Tuck your toes under. As you exhale press into the hands and feet, taking your hips back and up and straightening your legs (not completely, keep a gentle bend in the knees and don’t worry about your heels touching the ground). Let the spine lengthen, keeping your hips high.
Take the bolster (and the stack of blankets if you need more height) and place it directly under your head, so you can rest your forehead on it. The back of the neck should be long and your head relaxed, so take your time to adjust the position of the bolster/blankets. With time, as you relax into the pose, more weight will drop towards the bolster, so allow that to happen. Stay there taking 10 long, slow breaths into the back of the body.
When you are ready to come out, exhale and gently place your knees down to rest into balasana/child’s pose with your torso over the bolster and your head turned to one side (another great restorative posture).
Lie on your back with the legs bent or place your knees over a bolster. Place your hands on your belly, palms down, elbows resting by your sides. Have the back of the neck long. Close the eyes. Take a few slow breaths, letting your body settle, scanning the muscles to release any remaining tension. Guide the inhalation towards the belly and sides of the body, noticing the belly expand softly when the breath comes in, drawing in when you exhale.
Breathing in and out through the nose, start by equalising the length of the inhalation and exhalation (if it helps you can count 1,2,3 while you breathe). Gradually, as the breath flows comfortably, keeping the inhalation stable, gradually increase the length of the exhalation. Do not struggle or force the breath. Take your time and don’t worry if you get distracted, just go back to lengthening the exhalation. When you find a ratio that feels comfortable, continue practicing for a while.
End your practice with a long relaxation in Savasana or a yoga nidra practice.
// Because sleep is such an individual matter and can be affected by so many different factors including diet, lifestyle, mood, environment, etc., I fully believe in tailoring your yoga practice to match your needs. However, there are certain elements of a yoga practice that have been found to help with insomnia.
:: Try making your practice as fully rounded as possible. Often people overdo the flow, vinyasa-style practices and don’t focus enough on restorative postures. The opposite is also true. For insomnia, I’d recommend creating a practice that includes an active component with all major asana groups (forward and back bends, twists and inversions), as well as restorative postures.
:: Include at least three restorative postures. I’ve described some ideas of my favourites above.
:: Practice breathwork/pranayama, which focuses on lengthening the exhalation. This is meant to help the body relax by activating the parasympathetic nervous system.
:: Experiment with what time works best for your practice and avoid doing an active yoga class at least 2 hours before bed.
:: Try yoga nidra (yogic sleep): a set of practices leading to a deep, conscious state of sleep, which is meant to be healing, deeply relaxing and empowering. There are plenty of podcasts you can find and more and more teachers incorporate yoga nidra in their classes.
Ariadne is a yoga teacher, blogger, self love warrior, and meditation lover. She is the creator and owner of Yoga + other stories, a space for connecting, exploring + creating an inspiring life. Ariadne works with curious, beautiful souls who want to shape their lives into something conscious, whole and true. Her mission is to inspire you to take responsibility for your happiness, connect with yourself and your body, find balance, and live an authentic, fulfilling life. Hop on over and connect with her on her website on Facebook or Instagram.