Can Yoga Help You Sleep?
Yoga, practised in its intended form, can definitely help! The practice of yoga calms the fluctuations of the mind "yogas chitta vritti nirodhah" (Patanjali's Yoga Sutras 1:2).
Maybe the first question should be "Why is it difficult for me to get a good night's sleep?" One thing that affects people when trying to get to sleep is that their mind is busy going over events, problems, and future plans. The busy monkey mind won't let you relax.
True yoga is about union of the mind, body and spirit. This is where we learn to calm the fluctuations of the mind. Effective yoga incorporates asana (postures), pranayama (breath control) and meditation (both sitting meditation and yoga nidra).
As well as the physical benefits gained from exercise, yoga asana prepares the body to be able to sit for a period of time to perform pranayama and meditation. While doing yoga postures, attention is focussed on the breath (using ujjayi) and focussed internally. Each person works at their own level of ability, without comparison to others.
Sleep is one of the most important bodily functions that operates at the level of instinct. We need yoga's "chitta vritti nirodah" to help us when sleep is elusive or ineffective.
During yoga nidra we use focussed attention to achieve relaxation and centering, allowing us to transcend states of physical and emotional stress. Our attention is directed elsewhere, we have something to occupy our mind. This allows our body to fall into restful sleep.
We all require relaxation and sleep. In the sleep state, we are disassociated from thoughts, feelings, emotions and expressions. These things may creep into our dreams, but most often in a way that allows us to process them.
According to yoga, deep and refreshing sleep has a very important function: it helps us to stay balanced. When we are stressed and suffer from sleepless nights the rest of our body suffers and we are out of balance. This shows up in our body as tension headaches, increased heart rate, anger and sickness. These effects take a serious toll on the body. When the body is out of balance it will try to rebalance itself by such things as craving for sweet foods to obtain energy. Then the sugar overload in the body pushes other functions out of balance, those imbalances affect our sleep - and a circular effect is happening. We sleep less, causing ourselves more anxiety.
During yoga nidra we are guided into a hypnagogic state, the stage between wakefulness and sleeping, where our mind is receptive to suggestion. Attention is directed to our physical senses, the senses which may become overwhelmed during prolonged periods of stress, and we return to feeling and inhabiting our body.
The alternative used by many people, prescription drugs, can be dangerous and doesn't lead to a state of balance in the body. Here is another cause and effect circle going on, and it isn't a good one! When we depend on pills to get to sleep we are masking our problems. Millions of dollars are spent on these drugs without any resolution to the underlying problem.
Yoga Nidra - Deep Body Relaxation
Yoga nidra trains your body and mind to let go and relax completely while in a waking state. We use the breath to bring attention to various parts of the body.
In the Deep Body Relaxation, you will be reminded to stay awake and aware while you are guided through the stages of yoga nidra. You will be led into a deeply relaxed state which will nourish your body and mind.
Using the Deep Body Relaxation practice you will find that the practice energises your body. While immediately afterwards you may feel "floaty" and maybe a bit vague, as you gradually return to full consciousness you will find yourself refreshed and energised.
It is a great practice to use at those times of the day when you feel sluggish, usually in the early afternoon after lunch, to provide a sense of renewal to complete your daily tasks. Also, in the early evening, if you have a social outing planned and feel too tired, try this practice to provide you with the energy to go out and enjoy yourself.
Please note: It is always a good idea to give yourself time to come fully back to the present after Yoga Nidra, before driving or performing any complex task.
Yoga Nidra - Relax into Sleep
Practising yoga nidra regularly will teach your body to switch off from the stresses that are affecting your sleep and inhibiting your ability to live fully.
During Relax into Sleep, you will be guided into a deeply relaxed state conducive to sleep. The instruction to remain awake is omitted and you are encouraged to let go and sleep.
It is well worth trying! Most people, even those who experience great difficulty in getting to sleep, find they have difficulty staying awake during a yoga nidra practice. All you have to do is listen to the instructions, and you will be guided into a deeply relaxed state. If you find you wake during the night and can't get back to sleep, just listen again to "Relax into Sleep".
The ultimate aim is to learn how to deal with situations with a witnessing attitude, so that we don't get caught up in so much stress! Regular yoga practice really can allow you to achieve this.
There are many aspects to yoga, it has been practised in India for thousands of years. Practised correctly, under the guidance of a good teacher, yoga is a healing modality not an exercise regime.
Many scientific research papers have been published about the effectiveness of yoga. Research is occurring around the World, including in Australia, the USA, India, the UK and many other countries. (See https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov for research articles.)
Obstacles and Victories
Obstacles! Always there are obstacles because we can be our own worst enemy, especially when it comes to making changes. Obstacles will arise when the conscious mind gets in the way, trying to thwart our best intentions.
It may be helpful to use a sankalpa during your yoga nidra practice, to help remind yourself that your yoga practices will lead to good changes. A sankalpa should always be framed in your own words, so don't take one of these word for word!
It's not usually that we don't enjoy the practice, or don't think it is doing us good - it is that little negative imp on our shoulder telling us that we don't deserve the change we want, or won't be able to maintain good health, or that we shouldn't be spending so much time on ourselves.
Sometimes others discourage us as they are jealous of the improvements they see, or maybe scared that the changes will cause us to find new friends.
When you feel discouraged, try telling yourself that you will do just one short practice. Once you have got yourself started, you will often find that you want to continue. If not, just go with the flow. Congratulate yourself on what you have achieved so far.
It's good to start the day with gratitude. Over your morning beverage, think of one thing you are grateful for and acknowledge it to yourself.
To listen to a sample and download the Yoga Nidra tracks mentioned here, click the link below.
When you lie down at the end of a yoga class, what is going on in your mind? Do you manage to get into a state of total relaxation? An eye pillow can assist to get to that place, and become a trigger to remind your body to return to that relaxed state.
Whether in the relaxation pose at the end of a general yoga class, or in a restorative yoga class, when you lie down in shavasana is the time you get to absorb the benefits of the poses done during class and it is your chance to really relax and work towards pratyahara, or withdrawal of the senses.
What does that mean? Simply to let go of busy thoughts, worries, plans, stories about the past and future - and go within to a still place of calm. Usually this is achieved by keeping attention on the breath, often after being led on a journey through the body to relax each part, and perhaps paying attention to your different physical senses. These are things we know how to do, but in our busy lives we don’t have the time or get the opportunity to do so.
Research abounds that shows that relaxation practices like yoga have tangible benefits such as lowering cortisol, promoting good digestion, helping to support the immune system. This leads to better stress management, better health, more even moods and responses to everyday events.
Using an eye pillow can enhance these benefits. The light pressure from an eye pillow stimulates the vagus nerve, which regulates heart rate and our digestive system.
The vagus nerve is the longest cranial nerve in the body; it originates in the brainstem and travels down the body, through the neck and into the chest, lungs and heart before moving down to the abdomen and digestive organs. The vagus nerve has several important functions, including the regulation of the nervous system. It forms part of the involuntary nervous system and keeps our heart rate constant, controls food digestion and it is the pathway by which our “gut feelings” travel to our brain. It is the communicator to our rest and digest system, which needs to kick in to action to take us out of fight or flight mode. Activation of the rest and digest system allows us to relax and also helps us to connect to other people.
Using an eye pillow during shavasana will deepen your relaxation. Just allow your eye pillow to rest lightly over your forehead and eyes down to your upper cheeks.
You can also use an eye pillow when you go to bed to help you get to sleep more quickly. If you wake during the night, use your eye pillow to help you get back to sleep.
Everybody needs to unplug from everyday worries, plans and stresses and take time to restore a sense of equilibrium. Give ourselves time to simply breathe!
Our attention is too often on the past or future, not the present. The present is the only moment we can control and guarantee – the most precious moment of all for ourselves and for those around us. We should savour it, value it, use it!
Any time you are feeling stressed, anxious or depressed, lie down and put your eye pillow in place and take some deep breaths to help you relax and feel more grounded.
Just as stress can be triggered by a small reminder of a previous stressful experience, relaxation can be triggered by a small reminder of a relaxing experience, such as by putting your eye pillow in place.
Please note, if you are purchasing an eye pillow, make sure it has a good filling and the filling hasn't been skimped on. It needs to have flaxseeds or other seeds along with your favourite herbs to give it substance and it should be approximately half full of the filling. To get the effects mentioned, there needs to be some gentle pressure from the pillow.
The table below is sourced from:
The International Association of Yoga Therapists, "Health Benefits of Yoga" by Trisha Lamb
Yoga Compared to Conventional Exercise:
Other Conventional Exercise
Parasympathetic nervous system dominates
Subcortical regions of brain dominate
Slow dynamic and static movements
Normalization of muscle tone
Low risk of injuring muscles and ligaments
Low caloric consumption
Effort is minimized, relaxed
Energizing (breathing is natural or controlled)
Balanced activity of opposing muscle groups
Awareness is internal
Limitless possibilities for growth in self-awareness
Sympathetic nervous system dominates
Cortical regions of brain dominate
Rapid forceful movements
Increased muscle tension
Higher risk of injury
Moderate to high caloric consumption
Effort is maximized
Fatiguing (breathing is taxed)
Imbalanced activity of opposing muscle groups
Awareness is external(focus is on reaching the toes, reaching the finish line, etc.)
Some of this is generalisation, of course! Not all other exercise activities will, for example, have "imbalanced activity of opposing muscle groups", or be "competitive, goal-oriented", nor will all yoga classes offer "slow dynamic and static movements".
Please read with this in mind. The qualities shown are what will generally be experienced with these types of exercises.
Yoga for the Relief of Back Pain
What Causes Back Pain?
Back pain can have many causes including bad posture, muscle or ligament strain, arthritis and skeletal irregularities. Back pain often develops without a cause that is able to be identified, even by a doctor using tests and imaging. Does this sound familiar to you? Many people these days work at jobs where they are either sitting for long periods in a car or at a desk, or performing heavy lifting, spending much of their day in confined spaces, or just with performing a repetitive movement with less than optimal posture. This leads to muscles (particularly the psoas, which plays a big role in supporting and moving the lower back) becoming shorter and weaker.
At home we may sit in our favourite armchair for long periods without proper support for our backs, or we spend hours on a home computer, hunched forward and rounding our back. As well as damage to your lower back, the rounded posture stretches muscles in your upper back and neck, leading to the head sitting forward of the neck, causing imbalance and further problems and pain.
Exercise may even be the cause. Sports that build up your muscles may make them tight and pull other muscles (often ones that affect your back) out of alignment. Sports that use one side of your body differently to the other (think golf, tennis, bowls) may cause the muscles to develop unevenly leading to stress.
How Can Yoga Help in Relief of Back Pain?
There are many yoga postures that can assist to gently strengthen the muscles in your back, as well as building up the abdominal muscles to support your back. It is important to get a balance in the muscular network of the spine, to help your body maintain a proper upright posture. When this is achieved, back pain can be greatly reduced or avoided.
In a yoga class we incorporate stretching and relaxing the muscles, to reduce tension in stress-carrying muscles. Yoga is a very ancient form of exercise, having been used and developed over thousands of years. Yoga poses may be held for anything from 10 seconds to a minute or more, incorporating stretching and relaxation. Within the pose certain muscles will flex, others will stretch, promoting relaxation and flexibility in your muscles and joints. In yoga we aim for "effortless effort" - you should always feel reasonably comfortable in each pose, otherwise you are overdoing it!
When you are suffering from lower back pain, stretching is very important. Equally important is strengthening the supporting muscles and creating balance in the two sides of your body. Your back relies on the support of many muscles throughout your body and, in turn, your back supports your body, upper limbs and head. So if your back muscles are painful, you may find you become limited in many activities.
Stretching muscles and joints also increases blood flow to the area being stretched. This allows nutrients to flow in and toxins to flow out, leading to healthier and stronger tissues to continue to support you as you grow older. Arthritis is caused by lack of cushioning between joints. Keeping blood flowing into those areas keeps the cushioning healthy, supple and protective.
Paying attention to your breath is also very important while doing yoga. There is often a tendency to hold your breath while holding a position. The intention in yoga is to remind you to keep breathing with a deep, free and rhythmic breath. It is preferable to breathe through your nose for both the inhale and exhale, as long as this is possible. Keeping the breath smooth and strong emphasises a relaxed body and strong circulation.
Yoga poses are meant to train your body to become healthy and supple. To achieve this requires consistent practice. Each time you do yoga, you will pick up another adjustment that will improve your understanding of a posture, you will find you have a better sense of balance, your body will move into proper alignment more easily, and you will find your body becoming equally strengthened on both sides.
Proper alignment and good posture will help maintain the natural curve of your spine. Keeping that curvature is an important part of maintaining spine health and reducing pain.
As you practice yoga, your body awareness will also increase. Understanding the limitations of your own body is very important, we each gain the most advantage from a pose by doing it to our own body's ability. Getting a gentle stretch in the right position for you will give you much more benefit than trying to prove you can stretch further than another person in the room. Awareness allows you to use your body as your own meter, telling you what to avoid and what to put a little more effort into.
Every yoga class includes some form of relaxation at the end. Sometimes it is simply lying flat on the floor and allowing your muscles to relax, other times it is a full guided relaxation. I prefer to use the second option, guiding you to a deeper feeling of relaxation in your whole body.
I’ll make a bold claim: if you really give it a chance, for almost anybody, particularly those with back pain, a regular gentle yoga practice with an experienced teacher or yoga therapist will make your life better.
N.B. It is important that you discuss your back problem with the yoga teacher before any yoga class and ensure that they can provide suitable adjustments where necessary. The rule to follow is not to do any pose that causes you pain. A gentle stretch is great, pain is not! Learn "pose of the child" and if anything causes you pain, go to this pose - it's a universally recognised message to your teacher that you just need to rest.
Balasana - pose of the child
(arms may be placed alongside the body with palms facing up, and knees may be together or apart. This is one of many yoga poses that can be adjusted for your comfort and ease).
Research into Yoga for the Relief of Back Pain
To finish, there has been a lot of research into the effects of yoga for many specific ailments. Remember to always look for research and reports from reputable sources. Please see the links below; there are many other studies available, I recommend you search on PubMed.
Harvard Health Publications:
Yoga can help ease low back pain http://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/yoga-can-help-ease-low-back-pain-201110313718
Yoga for Chronic Low Back Pain: a randomized trial http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22041945
A systematic review and meta-analysis of yoga for low back pain: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23246998
Seven Benefits of Yoga
To understand the benefits of yoga, we first need to look at what yoga is. Yoga is a Sanskrit word meaning union, and yoga is the union of body, mind and spirit. Yoga is not just exercises, that is actually just one component of yoga practice. The benefit of yoga is that it leads to profound changes in your whole life. That might sound a bit scary to start with, but it really isn't bad! The changes that yoga will make in your life are all great benefits, leading to a more relaxed way of life, better health, better sleep and being better able to deal with everyday stresses.
No-one is going to push you towards anything you aren't ready for. There is a wonderful saying "when you are ready the teacher will come". When you're not ready the teacher won't appear, or you won't notice them or what they have to offer!
It is difficult to convey just how much yoga can benefit you and lead you to a more satisfying life - and hard to believe until you experience these changes for yourself. All you need is to be ready to learn with an open mind and a willingness to follow your teachers instructions. The first and most important of those instructions is to take time for yourself on your yoga mat, leave your worries and busy life behind and be fully present in your yoga class.
The changes and benefits brought about by yoga are not hocus-pocus, magic, or some kind of religious sect. The changes happen through allowing your body, mind and breath to work together in harmony. Busy people have forgotten how to breathe fully, allowing the breath to reach into the spaces between your joints and soothe aches and pains. Most people have no idea how to relax each area of their body and allow the universe to support them.
Yoga Benefit 1 - Flexibility
The yoga exercises (or asanas, the Sanskrit word for postures) you will do in a yoga class will help your body to become and remain flexible. I am sure you have seen pictures of yogis twisting their bodies into interesting and exotic postures - this may be the end result for some, but for most people the starting point is to release their tense and inflexible joints that have resulted from spending too much time sitting at a desk or behind the wheel of a car. Achieving this flexibility will reduce your risk of injury, lead to a more graceful way of moving and better posture.
While your joints are benefiting from gentle stretching, you will also be lubricating your joints, ligaments and tendons. That lubrication will then assist you to become more flexible. How's that for synergy?
Yoga Benefit 2 - Reduce Flab and Increase Bone Strength
Muscles that have become weak and flabby become toned through yoga, leading to increased strength. This also helps to lose excess flab from your body. While you will be encouraged to practice yoga at your own level, as you increase in flexibility you will perform more weight bearing exercise. This is important in keeping your bones strong to protect against osteoporosis.
Yoga Benefit 3 - Detoxify Your Body
While performing the asanas you will be massaging your internal organs, helping to clean out accumulated toxins and also giving them a soothing workout. This helps to keep disease away.
Yoga Benefit 4 - Learn to Relax, Handle Stress and Sleep well
The final pose in every yoga class is known as Savasana, or corpse pose. This doesn't mean that you have overdone your yoga class! It is a relaxation pose that is used to allow you to accept all the changes that your body has undergone during the class. It is also incredibly relaxing. It is the beginning of meditation. When you do this in your yoga class you will get the benefit of relaxation and also you will learn a skill that can be called upon at moments of stress, or at times when you cannot sleep.
Yoga Benefit 5 - Look and Feel Younger
Gently stretching muscles and massaging your organs brings a supply of fresh blood to your organs, flushing out toxins and bringing a supply of fresh blood to nourish every part of your body, helping to keep you looking and feeling younger.
Yoga Benefit 6 - Increase Your Lung Capacity
As you learn to breath deeply in your yoga class, your lung capacity will increase. Most people do not realise that they have forgotten how to breathe completely and fully, and find great benefit in the simple practice of breathing fully. Complete breathing is also wonderfully relaxing.
Yoga Benefit 7 - Patient and Understanding Teachers
Yoga teachers are professionally trained and much of their training involves participating in yoga classes, learning from yoga masters and studying yogic philosophy. This leads to a pool of great teachers who are understanding, patient, professional and just wonderful people!
Your yoga teacher will lead you gently through the steps to learn yoga postures, yogic breathing and relaxation. Each teacher is different and has a slightly different style, so if the first class you go to does not suit you, just try a different class. I have been to a few classes that didn't suit me, but I have never felt judged or out of place in a yoga class. All the yoga teachers I have met are very understanding and approachable.
When you go to your first yoga classes make sure you tell the teacher about any concerns, health issues or injuries you have. He or she will make sure the poses are adjusted to suit you. It is always advisable to arrive a few minutes early to get yourself set up, pick a spot where you feel comfortable and spend a little time relaxing and winding down from your day before starting the class.
You may find some things in a yoga class a bit confronting to start with. Some teachers lead the class in an "Om" chant at the beginning or end of the class. If you aren't comfortable to do this, it is ok to just sit quietly and listen.
At the end of a class the teacher will usually say "Namaste". This has various translations, all similar, my favourite is "the divine light in me salutes the divine light in you".
Plus a Surprise Personal Yoga Benefit - Courage to Experience Something Different!
After attending yoga classes for several years, I found that I was going to be spending New Year's eve and day alone. I had been to a yoga retreat at an Ashram in Mangrove Mountain and I saw that they had an evening of chanting planned to bring in the New Year. I went along, alone, and spent the evening chanting with a room full of wonderful spiritual souls. It was a wonderful and magical way to bring in the New Year. If someone had told me six years previously that I would be doing something like that, I would have thought they were mad! Since then chanting and kirtan have become a favourite way to spend my time.