A yoga therapy client of mine who comes to me for back pain recently arrived for a session saying, “we need to take it really easy today. I haven’t slept much and am pretty woozy.” He then told me that he has chronic insomnia and he thinks it “runs in the family.” When I suggested that I show him some yoga techniques for sleep, he told me he had no idea that yoga could help with sleep issues. This comes up so often – many people have the misperception that yoga’s benefits are limited to stretching and strengthening of muscles and joints. But yoga is much more than that. There are many aspects of yoga – all directed towards easing suffering and promoting general well-being, comprising movement practices but also breathing, meditation, and guided relaxation, as well as lifestyle modifications, and sometimes chanting and/or ritual. In Viniyoga, we always offer practices tailored to the individual, but there are some general principles and practices that everyone can try.
If you’ve done any inquiry into sleep issues, you have probably heard the term “sleep hygiene.” This includes ideas like controlling the sleep environment (making sure your bedroom is dark, cool and quiet, turning off all electronic devices well before bedtime and in fact getting those devices out of the bedroom), limiting your caffeine intake to early in the day, and limiting alcohol intake. You also might consider doing vigorous exercise in the early part of the day, and doing more relaxing stretching exercise before bed. Also consider journaling in the evening – noting down unfinished business (the stuff that runs around and around in your mind in the middle of the night because you’re afraid you’ll forget it in the morning!).
Breathing techniques can be especially helpful to get you to sleep, or to fall back asleep after midnight waking. Extending the exhale helps to engage the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the component of the autonomic nervous system that allows you to relax. Here’s something you can try if you wake up in the middle of the night – I call it the “bowtie practice.”
Lying on your back, focus on a spot in the center of your chest (you might think of it as your “heart center”) – take a deep inhale, keeping that focus, and a longer exhale. Now move your focus to the right shoulder – repeat the breath. Continue in this manner, moving your awareness, in turn, to the right thigh, the navel, the left thigh, and the left shoulder. Repeat all six points with two breaths at each point, then three breaths. I came up with the name “bowtie” because the movement of your focus draws the shape of a bowtie – and thinking of it this way may help you remember the sequence more easily.
There are many more techniques and ideas to try for sleep issues. If you are interested in learning some of these, I am currently holding a yoga for sleep series at WESTMED in Rye, and drop-ins are still welcome at the last class coming up this Thursday. I expect to offer it again in the spring. I can also offer private yoga therapy sessions for sleep and many other issues.