NAVIGATING YOGA > As anyone who practices yoga can tell you, it is a powerful way to relax. As such, it also can mean better, deeper sleep. But what exactly about yoga aids healthy sleep? Is it the long, luxurious stretching? Is it the meditation aspect, or the deep breathing? Or it is because “savasana” basically feels like a nap? In short, the answer is yes to all of the above. Yoga is one of the best ways to promote relaxation—so how can we take advantage of its positive affects on sleep?
This can be answered by first diagnosing what your sleeping problems are attributed to in the first place. (On that note, let’s get this disclaimer out of the way: I am not a doctor. The opinions, advice, and attitude reflected in this blog is not that of a health or medical professional, rather a yoga instructor with a genuine belief that yoga will save the world one willing, wide-eyed, barefooted, mat-carrying enthusiast at a time.) Given the prevalence of stress-induced insomnia, let’s assume that your sleep problems are related to stress. Luckily, yoga helps with stress relief in general. Here’s how:
“Yoga nidra” can be defined most simply as “yogic sleep.” This is a state of consciousness that many yogis report to experience during meditations. Sometimes when you sleep, you are actively dreaming; meaning your mind is still active while your body rests and refuels for the day. This is a similar concept applied to yoga nidra—the idea that if we let our minds actively relax, we let go of negative thought patterns that keep us stressed, unfocused, and consequently restless at night. This is a transformative way to meditate that can ultimately calm your nervous system by letting go of anything that is no longer serving your meditative process (i.e. to-do lists, problems with work, relationship anxiety, etc.). Sounds great, but how do you achieve this, you ask? Read on …
At the next yoga class you attend, see if you can focus less on the asanas (postures). Yes, I am asking you to avoid the temptation to achieve the perfect handstand for a moment and see if you can simply be still. You probably hear yoga teachers gripe at you about breathing, and there is a good reason for that. When you breathe consciously, you’re ultimately slowing you’re heart rate to match your breath. Even when you’re in a complicated yoga pose that gets your heart rate racing, slow your breath down to a conscious inhale and exhale. This helps your mind focus and recharge in the asana, and ultimately you can come back to meditation. If your breath is still jagged in the posture, come out of it and relax in a way that feels best to you. Bring your mind back to something that makes you happy, and let go. Actively let go of distractions, let go of your tendency to observe everyone else in the class, let go of your awareness of everything else going on around you … essentially of anything that is no longer relative to you in that moment. When you can do this and not let your external thought process creep in, you are in fact meditating and, thus, accomplishing a practice of yoga nidra. Eventually, the stretch you feel in your body through yoga can be aided by this meditative process, and meditation no longer has to be only achievable through sitting still with eyes closed. Your yoga practice can ultimately become a moving meditation.
“Savasana,” or corpse pose, is the way we end every yoga class. This is a good way to end your day, too. Next time you lie in bed, focus again on slowing your heart rate down to your breath. Close your eyes, and consciously let go of the worries and the eternal distractions that hold you back from your moment of ultimate relaxation. Let every muscle, bone and vertebrae melt and soften. Bring your mind back into your awareness of what makes you happy and let the corners of your mouth stretch up to your ears. Let go. Breathe. Sleep. Namaste.
Shandara Gill, or Shanie, is a yoga teacher in the greater Santa Cruz area. She teaches more than 10 classes a week at the Westside, downtown, and Cabrillo Toadal Fitness locations. For more information about Shanie and her classes, you can visit toadalfitness.com or email her at [email protected].