Wake up in the small hours and can’t get back to sleep? Perhaps you - or the students you’re supporting - can’t fall asleep in the first place? You’re not alone. According to the Sleep Foundation, nearly 60% of Australians suffer from at least one chronic sleep symptom.
That’s really bad news for our health. Sleep deprivation has a profound effect on your wellbeing. Around 75% of people diagnosed with depression show symptoms of insomnia, and anxiety is strongly linked to sleep problems.
My personal experience of sleep issues - and associated poor mental health - developed after the birth of my first child. The challenge of settling into the rhythms of a newborn left me struggling with sleep. Eventually, the worry about not sleeping overwhelmed me and I developed sleep anxiety. As the days and weeks went on, my mental health deteriorated. I had to stop driving because I could no longer judge distances or trust my decision making. Post natal depression followed and it took a combination of professional care and carefully crafted yoga and meditation practices to get me back on track.
So can yoga and meditation help? I have been working with a student who seriously doubted it when she first arrived in the yoga room. Laura doesn’t remember ever sleeping well, but her insomnia had worsened over the past 18 months. After trying everything from sleep medication to essential oils, Laura finally took the advice of her sister - a keen yoga student - and came along to yoga. Laura is a ‘thinker’ and loves to analyse things, and so we began by unpacking what happens when we practice yoga for better sleep. Yoga can help in a number of ways:
Balancing the nervous system
Many of us live stressful lives. When the mind is constantly being overstimulated or put under stress, our nervous system gets stuck on ‘high alert’. The sympathetic nervous system - the ‘fight or flight’ response - becomes our default setting. When this happens, the loser is the parasympathetic nervous system - the rest, digest and heal response. When we’re stuck in ‘fight or flight’, it isn’t just a busy mind that stops us from sleeping. Our whole body rebels as stress hormones, muscle tension and a cascade of stress responses overwhelm us.
A yoga practice designed for better sleep will use rhythmic movements and breath regulation to gently dial down the stress responses and restore parasympathetic nervous system functioning. The body comes off high alert and the benefits include improved sleep, improved digestion and an increased ability to build and nurture relationships.
Regular sleep routines can help prepare the body and mind for sleep, but it can be difficult to stick to them. A short daily yoga practice is an excellent way of getting the body into regular habits that promote good sleep. Just a few minutes of mindful practice can go a long way towards embedding new patterns of thinking and behaving that prime us for a restful nights sleep. What’s more, if you can develop a simple practice that you really enjoy (rather than trying to get it done because it’s supposed to be good for you), your sleep ritual can become a lifelong friend.
Where’s the evidence?
While there is plenty of anecdotal evidence for the power of yoga to improve sleep quality, is there any evidence that it’s actually effective? Yes!
A 2014 study found that, compared with a control group, older adults who practiced yoga showed significant improvements in overall sleep quality, sleep efficiency, duration, quality, fatigue, general well-being, depression, anxiety, stress, tension, anger, vitality, and function in physical, emotional, and social roles1. That’s quite a roll-call of benefits!
Another study, following the sleep quality of cancer survivors found that participants who practiced yoga demonstrated greater improvements in sleep quality, daytime dysfunction and medication use compared with standard care participants 2.
A 2009 study concluded that long-term yoga practice is associated with significant psycho-biological differences, including better sleep quality and modulating levels of cortisol.3
Where to start?
Keep it simple. You could start the practice with simple rhythmic movements that are easy and effortless to do, for example, cat to cow or raising and lowering the arms with the breath. Some easy stretches such as a seated forward fold, supported backbend and supine twists would work nicely. Then go for the relaxation practices - progressive muscle relaxation, body scan or yoga nidra. Finally, you could move into a comfortable pranayama. Nadi shodana is very balancing, while Chandra Bhedana (moon breath) is especially helpful for calming the nervous system and promoting calm relaxation.
All together, the practice can be as short as 5 or 6 minutes. Of course, you can extend it out to an hour or more, but whatever you create, make sure it’s do-able, enjoyable and fits in with your - or your student’s - schedule.
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