The benefits of yoga are widely touted in magazines and articles as a method of losing weight and gaining flexibility. More than creating a slim waistline, however, many studies and personal testimonies claim sleep and yoga can work together to improve sleep and aid in the natural regulation of sleep and circadian rhythms in the body. In our fast-paced, on the go, modern society sleep disorders such as insomnia and sleep apnea are linked to high levels of stress, overactive minds, disrupted natural routines and improper functioning of our digestive and endocrine systems. Sleep and yoga can work together to improve the functioning of the systems and the body, reduces stress, and improve overall quality of sleep.The National Foundation for sleep even states how sleep and yoga can work together for the elderly population explaining, “Those who are 60 and older experience better sleep quality, sleep for longer, and feel better during the day when they perform regular yoga.”
A wide variety of physical and psychological yoga methods can be used to improve quality and length of sleep at night. A rigorous vinyasa flow yoga class stimulates muscles, increases cardiovascular health, and reduces high stress levels by releasing excess toxins built up over time in the body. Naturally, a vigorous physical yoga practice activates the nervous system, digestive system, endocrine system. A strenuous physical practices paired with meditation and pranayama taps into the parasympathetic nervous system, which naturally calms the fight or flight response and in return lowers the stress hormones or cortisol levels in the body. When the body and brain become calm as a result of a yoga practice yoga works together with sleep to naturally allow the body to feel calm and ready to rest at the end of the day. Practicing an intense or powerful form of yoga is recommended earlier in the day or at least 4-5 hours before one is ready for bed. An earlier yoga practice allows the nervous system and melatonin levels to have time to relax the body and prepare to lower the heart rate to prepare for sleep at the close of the day.
In contrast to a rigorous yoga practice a calming restorative practice is also advised at the close of the day to prepare the body and brain for sleep. A gentle or restorative yoga practice lowers the heart rate, increases mind body awareness, and allows the body and the brain ample time to relax and rest to prepare for sleep. Performing this yoga practice or at least a few simple yoga postures, meditation and breathing techniques an hour before bedtime or after work is suggested to prepare the body for optimum sleep.
Finally, the ultimate way to allow yoga to work together with sleep is through a technique call Yoga Nidra. Oftentimes a teacher can lead students through a guided meditation for sleep, which tends to focus on deep meditation lying down, scanning the body, and taking long pauses to allow the mind to release deeper and deeper into a state of calm and undisturbed awareness. Many guided and yoga nidra meditations exist online and are specifically designed to aid in the process of falling asleep and going into a deeper level of sleep than superficial sleep cycles.
Yoga poses to work together with sleep:
Legs up the wall (Viparita Karani):
To perform this yoga posture lie on your back and draw your sitting bones as close as you can to the wall or allow for a few inches of space if that feels more comfortable for your spine. If you like more support you can place a blanket under your sitting bones or loop a strap around the legs to keep them from splaying out to the side. This yoga posture works together to help the sleep cycle by lowering blood pressure, aiding in the drainage of lymph from the feet, and calming the nervous system to prepare the body and mind for rest.
Yoga recliner with Bound angle (Baddha Konasana):
To build a yoga recliner you will need a bolster or pillow and two yoga blocks. Place two blocks in front of one another at different levels to create a natural incline. Next, place the bolster or pillow on top of the blocks to create an incline and adjust the blocks to a suitable level for your own level of comfort. Lie down on the recliner with your lower back at the lower end of the slope and head elevated. Either place a second bolster under the legs or draw the soles of the feet together letting the knees gently lengthen towards the earth in bound angle pose. The yoga recliner is a completely supported position for the spine and hips. It allows the body to naturally feel safe and supported while lowering the heart rate and enhancing comfort to aid in drifting off to sleep.
Corpse pose (Savasana):
If a student is able to lie down on the ground in the yoga posture called savasana, then they will naturally be able to go to sleep at night. Corpse pose is one of the most important postures in yoga as it allows one to lie in a completely supported position on the ground. Savasana performed after a yoga practice lets the body come back to homeostasis lowering blood pressure, reduces anxiety, and allows the body to come into a meditative state. Performing this before going to bed or as one is falling asleep is a method in yoga to symbolically allow the body and mind to perform a spiritual death and return to a deeper more meditative sleep.