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. To learn to calm the mind in yoga we use breathing techniques (pranayama) and the relaxation technique yoga nidra.
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. During yoga nidra the aim is to stay aware, in a state between full wakefulness and sleep. The techniques used in this process can be utilised at bedtime to allow 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
We start by learning a 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. This relaxation practice will energise 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 gradually relax, 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 simply 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'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.
It may be helpful to use a sankalpa (resolve) 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 and, if you are experiencing some of the obstacles mentioned above, it could be "My life is changing for the better, as I deserve", "I treat my body well everyday and my health is improving", "I spend time on my physical and mental wellbeing for the good of myself and my family".
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, or a new partner.
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.
Sankalpa is a very powerful yoga practice which allows you to tap into your subconscious to find and reach your deepest and true desire. Practiced correctly, it allows each of us to reach our full potential.
Happiness is not found by working at a job you don't enjoy, however well paid it is! It isn't found by gorging on sugary cakes, or by filling your house with possessions.
Happiness is found by doing the things you were put on earth to do. Your subconscious knows what those things are; by delving into your subconscious and discovering your passion you will be able to create positive change in your life.
Use this guide and recordings to follow the steps to this magical practice.
The Definition of Insanity
The definition of insanity is to repeat the same things and expect a different result. Each New Year, many of us set a New Year resolution, framed with the words "I will ....".
"I will exercise more", "I will eat more healthily", "I will be kinder to my mother/sister/workmate". Resolutions made with the best intentions, but what happens? You believe you can reach this goal and imagine how much happier you will feel when it has been achieved. Then, two weeks later it has been forgotten, or if not forgotten, it has been put in the too hard basket. Usually discarded because it hasn't worked, you have slipped up and are disillusioned with the thought that you can effect change in your life.
You make the pledge to change your habits and way of life, but fail over and over again. Still you make another resolution the next year and fail again. Insanity!
The Yoga Alternative
Yoga teaches us that there is a difference between hoping to do or be something in the future, or feeling that we are the "new improved me" right now.
In yoga, you resolve to create your new reality by picturing yourself embodying the change you want to see. Yoga doesn't dwell on what is wrong, it gives you the ability to believe in yourself, to believe in the new you. By making the right resolution, which is your true nature and true path in life, you succeed.
This resolve is called Sankalpa in yoga.
You don't need to wait for the new year to arrive to change your life using the practice of Sankalpa, you can start any time. The sooner you start, the sooner you will begin to see change.
This may sound a little difficult to begin with. How do you start? Just stay with me, there are steps to follow. These steps will show you a simple way to use your own intuition to create your ideal life.
It is best to start with small steps, small changes, then work up to the bigger changes you find you want to make.
The Steps to Samadhi through Sankalpa!
There is an easy process to discover your Sankalpa, your deepest and true desire. You will discover your Sankalpa and use it during the deep yoga relaxation practice of Yoga Nidra, when your body and mind are relaxed and receptive to change.
The process allows you to picture yourself as the change you want to see in your life.
In yoga, we work towards our true nature, the Dharma we know is within us, which has become hidden by conditioning, expectations, false priorities and fears.
By formulating your Sankalpa and focussing on bringing it to fruition, one step at a time, you can reach your true Dharma. You become the person you want to be, the person who has become hidden by conditioning. You learn to channel the divine energy in your body, a very powerful process, but available to each and every person by using the tools of yoga.
Yoga means union, or yoke, to join together. We join together our body and mind, or our mind and spirit, or all three. We can use the Sankalpa to create a life full of our Dharma, our true intentions.
The ultimate aim of the Sankalpa is to honour the true divine meaning of your life, your highest intention. It is a commitment to change. By repeating your Sankalpa, preferably daily, you allow it to become a part of your being. It doesn't get forgotten and discarded like your New Year resolutions. The repeated statement reminds you of your true intentions and helps to guide your choices.
As the Sankalpa is a statement of your true intentions, it doesn't need a lot of effort to become a part of your life. It doesn't need to be announced or discussed with others. In fact, it is advisable to keep your Sankalpa to yourself.
Types of Sankalpa
A Sankalpa can be in the form of a direction you want to take in your life, or it can be in the form of a heartfelt desire. You start by working on directions in your life, and as your life changes and evolves, and you learn more about how this process works, you create your heartfelt desires.
Sankalpa starts with small steps. The direction you want to take in life can be broken down. You may start with statements such as "I make healthy choices", "I use my time wisely", "I take care with my words". Then when you see this becoming part of your day to day life, you move on with more focussed statements such as "My body exudes health and vitality", "I have a successful business", "I inspire others by my example".
The heartfelt desire reflects your own true nature. It doesn't actually require you to change, it allows you to recognise the true nature that has become hidden by the busyness and expectations of life. "I embody peace and tranquillity", "Compassion is my true nature", "I am whole and healed".
These statements become a reminder not to lose track of who you really are. The first type of Sankalpa, the direction, allows you to move towards the life you want in a deliberate manner. Seeing each step reached will inspire you to keep moving forward. Recognising your heartfelt desire allows you to reach your full potential.
Discover Your Sankalpa
Perhaps the most difficult part of this whole process seems to be how to work out what your Sankalpa should be. Use the "Discover your Sankalpa" track which will provide you with a tool to work with that will allow your Sankalpa to reveal itself.
It involves listening to yourself, allowing your true desires to bubble up to the surface. You need to be open to the process and be patient with yourself.
As the Sankalpa is actually your own true desire it can be discovered by tapping into your subconscious mind and asking yourself "What do I really want?". The answer is allowed to arise without the questioning mind stepping in to get in the way.
If you simply ask yourself this when in a fully awake state, self-doubt tends to get in the way and sabotage the answer. The little self-doubter sitting on your shoulder comes up with all the reasons you can't make the change "you're not good enough", "you're not clever enough", "you don't deserve that".
Sometimes you may formulate a Sankalpa and after a few days find it has become obvious that it isn't the right one for you right now. That is not a problem, as it most likely means you have recognised a Sankalpa that is more meaningful for you and you can start to use that. If that's not the case, simply go back through the process to discover your new Sankalpa.
Other times you might hear your Sankalpa and reject it as the change it requires feels difficult. Maybe you enjoy the jam doughnuts too much and don't want to commit to making healthy choices! When this occurs, it is best to just try it out. After a few days you may find that the desire for jam doughnuts has disappeared – or you may decide to work on another area of your life for the time being.
The Sankalpa is not meant to be used for material gains. It is not "I own the latest, flashiest car" or "I have the most beautiful partner". These are egotistical aims, not the wisdom of your being.
To help find your Sankalpa, when something arises that you are not sure about, try to picture the change it will make in your life. If you own the latest, flashiest car will it really improve your life? Will it lead to an awakening to your true identity? Or is it something that you feel will make you look good in the eyes of others?
If you know you need to make a change to give something up in your life, like gambling or drinking alcohol, ask yourself what the end result will be. Perhaps it will allow you to be more relaxed, or healthier. Maybe there is an underlying pain that is causing these habits, and you can work on resolving that pain. The habits may have evolved through a feeling of worthlessness and your Sankalpa could be "I am worthy and loved".
As you recognise your Sankalpa as your true nature, your Sankalpa should be worded in the present tense and as a positive statement. The phrase should be in the form "I am worthy and loved", not "I am working towards being worthy and lovable". This is how the power of Sankalpa works, we see it as true in the present moment. We recognise that our true nature just needs to be recognised, by ourselves. It is already within us, part of us, we are simply bringing it to the fore.
How the Sankalpa Process Works
The Sankalpa is uncovered and then embodied during the deep relaxation practice of Yoga Nidra. Yoga Nidra will allow you to awaken to your true nature. You will be guided systematically through a series of steps to relax your body and mind. You will reach a state where you are quite disconnected from your usual bodily sensations and thoughts.
It is very easy as long as you listen and follow the instructions. Even if you feel like you fall asleep, you are in a very light sleep state and your mind is still receptive to the instructions and intentions.
During Yoga Nidra you will reach a hypnagogic state. This is the stage between wakefulness and sleeping, when the mind is in its most receptive state. The hypnagogic state can be used to change your way of thinking about yourself. It can also be used to enhance learning, but that will be covered later!
By repeating your Sankalpa during the hypnagogic state, you allow it to settle into your body and mind. You don't want to do that with a negative Sankalpa such as "I won't eat sugary food". That would just imprint "sugary food" into your mind. You want to implant the idea "I make healthy choices when I eat".
During Yoga Nidra you will be reminded to stay awake and aware, but sometimes this isn't achieved. Just trust the process, knowing that you are in a very receptive state.
Obstacles and Victories
Obstacles will arise when the conscious mind gets in the way, trying to thwart our best intentions. Sometimes it is others around us who feel threatened by seeing us change, scared that the change will turn us away from them, or feel jealous of our new happiness.
If you find yourself tempted to act against your Sankalpa, bring your Sankalpa to mind and repeat it to yourself. That may be enough to change your direction, sometimes it may not. If you find yourself acting against your Sankalpa, just watch with interest and see how you feel in the moment as you act against your true nature. Most often you will feel uncomfortable, or not enjoy the moment. Either way, bringing your Sankalpa to mind will be a reminder that may prevent a similar occurrence in the future.
As you become more relaxed and familiar with the process, by taking a few deep breaths, becoming aware of your breath in your body, by pausing for a few moments and reflecting on your Sankalpa, profound change will occur.
Celebrate victories. At the end of the day, review how your day has gone and look for moments when your Sankalpa has been effective. Think about how each positive event made you feel. Think about the changesListen to a sample or buy Relax Into Sleep download you have made and how you have progressed.
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
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.