Yoga for InsomniaLaura Lychnos
Insomnia is defined as a difficulty in getting to sleep, or staying asleep for long enough to feel refreshed the next morning. It’s a common problem thought to regularly affect around one in every three people in the UK.
Sleep is one of the most critical elements of health and well being, and anyone who has experienced difficulty sleeping will know this only too well. Sleep can affect our physical and emotional well being, improving concentration and memory formation, allowing the body to repair some cell damage and refreshing the immune system.
Insomnia can be triggered by a number of possible factors including worry, stress, being overworked, overstimulated, some underlying health conditions, and alcohol or drug use.
Yoga practice has been shown in several small clinical studies to help insomnia. While Yoga and meditation may not be a quick fix or an instant magic cure, a regular practice can definitely help. Students in my classes often tell me how they get the best nights sleep on the days that they have been to class. This “best nights sleep” could happen more often if their yoga practice happened more often. A little home practice could pave the way to a good nights sleep every night.
The health benefits of a regular yoga practice are many and varied. In relation to insomnia, yoga can help because of the way it calms the sympathetic nervous system (the nervous system that keeps the body in a state of arousal), and helps to reduce the stress hormones reducing the heart rate and lowering blood pressure. Yoga can also help to promote positive thinking and undo negative thought patterns that often accompany insomnia. Meditation as part of a yoga practice is beneficial as it helps us to keep the mind in the here and now, and decreasing anxious thoughts, which are mostly about future or past events.
So how can we use our Yoga practice to help?
As identified in the above definition, there are 2 patterns of insomnia, trouble falling asleep and waking up during the night.
If the problem is getting to sleep a simple meditative practice before bed can help enormously. This is a sequence by Kelly Golden, a ParaYoga teacher. It is designed to help balance the vayus, or winds, a concept in yoga used to describe the different types of energy that govern physical and mental health. The practice features poses that nurture samana and apana vayus—which respectively help you digest and release what’s keeping you awake.
Dynamic Forward-Fold Sequence (Ardha Uttanasana to Uttanasana)
Begin in Tadasana (Mountain Pose). Exhale as you fold forward with a long spine, sliding your hands down and around the backs of your legs. With each inhalation, rise up to extend your back, sliding your hands up to the backs of the knees and drawing the chest through the upper arms. On each exhalation, slide the hands down the backs of your knees as you fold forward. After six repetitions, remain folded in Uttanasana, keeping the knees slightly bent to support the lower back. Allow the spine to lengthen and the head to drop easily to the floor. Rest your hands on the ankles or the floor. Hold the forward bend for 10 breaths.
Inhale: I accept
Exhale: I allow
Ragdoll (Ardha Utkatasana), variation
From Tadasana, bend the knees and drop the hips, drawing the sitting bones back and the tailbone slightly down as you fold the upper body forward over the thighs. Let your abdomen rest on your upper thighs. Adjust your body so that you feel stable. Interlace the fingers behind the back, then straighten the elbows and let your head drop toward the floor. Anchor into your feet and feel completely supported by your upper thighs. Hold the pose for 10 breaths.
Inhale: I am aware
Exhale: I anchor
Downward-Facing Dog Pose (Adho Mukha Svanasana)
Bring your hands to the floor about shoulder-distance apart, fingers facing forward; step your feet back into Adho Mukha Svanasana. Keep lifting your hips, moving your shoulders down the back, and lengthening your spine. Once you have the actions of the pose in place, release your efforts. Think of this as a resting pose. Hold the pose for 10 deep breaths.
Inhale: I lengthen
Exhale: I let go
From Downward-Facing Dog Pose, lower your knees to come onto all fours with wrists beneath the shoulders and knees beneath the hips. To start the series, inhale and extend the spine, gently drawing the chest through the upper arms and the tailbone back, creating the tiniest of backbends. Then, begin to exhale as you round the spine. Complete the exhalation as you lower into an easy Balasana (Child’s Pose) with the hips on the heels and the belly on the thighs. Let the exhalation stretch twice as long as the inhalation.
Then repeat: As you inhale, rise back up and again extend the spine, moving fluidly between the three phases of the pose. Repeat 10 times.
Inhale: I watch
Exhale: I witness
Hypnotic Sphinx (Sphinx Pose), variation
Lie down on your belly with your legs extended. Place the elbows to the sides of the chest, forearms parallel to one another. Gently lift the chest, dropping the weight into the elbows. Allow the neck and head to soften. As you inhale, slowly turn the face and chin toward the right shoulder, moving as if you were pouring sand from the center of the brain into the left side of the skull; as you exhale, turn the chin and face back to center. Repeat this movement on the other side. Allow the movement to be intentionally slow and soft, taking time to explore the tender spaces of the neck and base of the skull. Repeat 5 times on each side.
Inhale: I relax
Exhale: I release
Seated Forward Bend (Paschimottonasana)
Come to a seated position and extend the legs, keeping them hip-distance apart and parallel to one another. Ground the sitting bones and sit straight and tall. As you inhale, reach the arms overhead; as you exhale lengthen the spine and fold forward from the hips. Settle the arms on the floor by your sides or take hold of the toes. Relax. With each inhalation invite length into your spine, and with each exhalation release into the fold. Hold for 10 breaths.
Inhale: I lengthen
Exhale: I let go
Legs-up-the-Wall Pose (Viparita Karani)
Sit with one side of your body next to a wall, with your hips as close to the wall as possible and a cushion nearby. Roll onto your back so that your hips come onto the cushion and your legs rotate directly over the hips and up the wall. The feet can be together or hip-distance apart, whichever feels more comfortable to you. Keep your arms by your sides, palms turned up; relax your arms and shoulders. Feel the leg bones anchoring into the hip sockets as you release effort. Feel the spine lengthening and resting on the surface beneath you.
If your insomnia takes the form of waking during the night an asana sequence may not be the best remedy. I recommend taking a pranayama practice during those wakeful moments, as the best way to calm the body and the mind by controlling the breath. The pranayama’s listed below are particularly beneficial for insomnia.
Humming bee breath
brahmari, Sanskrit word that means “bee.” The practice is named after the humming sound that bees make. The sound is soothing for a spinning mind, and the practice lengthens the exhalation without excessive strain.
To practice Brahmari Pranayama, sit comfortably, with the back tall and shoulders relaxed. Start by taking a few natural breaths, and close your eyes (as long as closing them doesn’t produce more anxiety). Then, keeping the lips lightly sealed, inhale through the nostrils, and exhale, make the sound of the letter M, essentially a humming sound. Sustain the sound until you need to inhale. Then repeat: Inhale through the nose, then hum like a buzzing bee as you exhale. Continue by inhaling as needed and exhaling with this sound for several minutes. You can practice as long as it feels good.
The longer you sustain the humming exhalation, the more relaxing the Bee Breath is likely to be, but forcing the breath beyond your capacity can have the reverse effect, causing even more stress. So don’t force yourself to maintain any particular speed. Inhale whenever necessary, and let the buzzing sound last as long as it is comfortable.
Start by taking five long, deep, slow breaths to help relax you.
Close your eyes
Now comes the slightly tricky part. Constrict the throat muscles slightly and visualize as if you are breathing through a hole in your throat (as if you are trying to ‘fog ‘ a mirror in front of you with your breath). This slight constriction and visualization should lead to the air making a soft oceanic sound as it passes through your throat region. The sound should be that of the distant ocean surf (or think of Darth Vader). Steady and soft as you inhale and also, steady and soft as you exhale. Pretend as if you are breathing not through your nose, but your throat instead.
Continue to breathe in this way and allow you entire mind and body to be consumed by this pleasant sound. Find a nice slow rhythm and lose yourself to it.
Continue on for as long as you like, or until you fall asleep.
Dirga swasam pranayama
Three-Part Breath. The “three parts” are the abdomen, diaphragm, and chest. During Three-Part Breath, you first completely fill your lungs with air, as though you are breathing into your belly, ribcage, and upper chest. Then you exhale completely, reversing the flow.
Whenever you find yourself in bed and awake or before you drift of to sleep (having completed your home practice first of course), rest in Savasana. This posture is often overlooked and is used as a welcome release at the end of a class/ practice. Savasana offers the body a chance to realign and release tension. It also allows us to practice that feeling of total surrender and helps to remind ourselves that we are capable of that feeling of surrender.
Laura Lychnos is a registered yoga teacher and teaches a restorative yoga class Tuesday mornings 09:30 – 11:00 at the Holistic Centre Godalming. One to One sessions are also available by appointment. For further information please contact [email protected] 07719817000.