Getting Your ZZZs: The Brain, Sleep and Yoga
March typically comes in like a lion, but it also marks the shift back to Daylight Savings Time. While most of us can handle the weather, time change, on the other hand (and I think I speak for the majority of us), makes us grumpy. That may well be the reason why the National Sleep Foundation (NSF) celebrates National Sleep Awareness in March to educate the people about the importance of sleep for optimal quality of life and good health.
We spend about one-third of our lives asleep. And yet sleep is one of the things people complain about not getting enough of. In fact, 30% of adults report they experience insomnia on a regular basis. But quality sleep is as essential to our health and survival as food and water. Further, sleep affects the functioning of our brains in a number of ways:
- Sleep helps maintain communication between the prefrontal cortex and amygdala to keep emotions in check. This, in turn, affects our mental health, reducing irritability, depression, mood swings, and motivation;
- Sleep removes toxins in the brain that build up when we’re awake;
- It affects how neurons communicate with each other;
- Sleep affects our cognitive and intellectual abilities including memory, concentration and attentiveness; and
- It impacts hormone levels, immune function, the heart, and almost every type of tissue and system in the body.
Yoga and Sleep
Many studies have linked yoga’s benefits to improved sleep. For example, a recent Johns Hopkins study found that patients who participated in an eight-week yoga program slept better. Yoga’s combination of mindful movement, meditation and particularly breathing has a therapeutic effect on our nervous system which makes for more restful sleep.
The National Sleep Foundation recommends that besides practicing good ‘sleep hygiene’, adding yoga to to your daily routine can help you cope with insomnia. Why? Yoga lowers cortisol levels, stabilizes our nervous system, eases pain and discomfort and quiets the brain.
What Kind of Yoga is Best for Sleep?
Not all yoga is created equal, when it comes to sleep. To promote relaxation and quality sleep, choose calming, grounding poses such as forward bends, twists and restorative poses. Poses like Legs Up the Wall (Viparita Karani) or Supported Spinal Twist (Supta Matsyendrasana) allow your body to unwind and let go of tension. Holding each pose for several minutes ensures that you will receive the maximum benefit.
The practice of Yoga Nidra is especially beneficial for individuals who experience sleep disturbances. Yoga Nidra is a form of guided meditation also known as “yogic sleep” or “effortless relaxation.” It’s usually practiced lying down with a teacher guiding you through a series of visualizations. The practice draws your attention inward as you learn to surf between wakefulness and sleep. Through yoga nidra, the body finds its natural state of equilibrium or homeostasis. Not only does the breath balance and become quiet, but the unconscious and conscious aspects of the mind can also reveal themselves.
Short Yoga Sequence for Sleep
Anxious to give it a try? The following four (4) pose sequence is one you can use nightly right before going to sleep. Be sure to dim the lights and create an atmosphere conducive to sleep before you begin.
Standing Forward Bend (Arhda Uttanasana)
Standing facing the side of the bed. Rest your hands on the bed and slowly walk your feet away until your torso is parallel to the floor. Stack one forearm on top of the other and rest your forehead on your arms. Alternatively, allow your hands to rest on your thighs, shins, or the floor. Keep a slight bend in your knees as you stay here for about 10 breaths.
To come out of the pose, slowly lift your head and walk your feet back in towards the bed.
Reclined Butterfly Pose (Supta Baddha Konasana)
Lie flat on your back in the center of your bed with your knees bent and feet flat. Position a bed pillow on either side of your legs. On exhale, open your knees out to the sides while bringing the soles of the feet together. Adjust the pillows to support your knees so you can relax the inner thighs. Rest your arms by your sides or bend your elbows so the backs of your hands rest by your head. Breathe here for several minutes allowing your body to relax a bit more with each exhale.
To come out of the pose, bring your hands to the outside of each knee and gently guide the knees back together. Rest here for 3-4 breaths before continuing on to the next pose.
Supported Spinal Twist (Supta Matsyendrasana)
Extend both arms out in a T-position, palms up. Press into your feet to lift your hips slightly and shift them about an inch to the left. Using your abdominal muscles, draw both knees towards your chest. On an exhale, drop both knees to the right, using the pillow for support. Your legs should be relaxed and the belly soft. You can either keep your head centered or turn it to the left. Close your eyes and take about 10 breaths.
When you’re ready to come out of the twist, engage your abs to bring the knees back to center. Press your feet into the bed to realign your hips with your torso. Pause here for 3-4 breaths before repeating the twist to the left.
Legs Up the Wall (Viparita Karani)
Still lying on the bed, position two pillows lengthwise under knees and shins. Your legs should be slightly higher than your torso. Keep your feet relaxed and your arms comfortably resting at your sides, palms up. You may want to cover yourself with a blanket or place a small cloth over your eyes. Relax here for about 10-15 breaths. Focus your attention on the gentle rhythm of your unhurried breath. If you like, mentally repeat the mantra “SO” on each inhale, and “HUM” on each exhale. Don’t be surprised if you fall asleep! Sweet dreams!