In our fast-paced Western culture, it’s no surprise that so many Canadians have difficulty falling asleep. Since it is not often possible to change our culture and our environment, another way to find some peace within the chaos of the world is through yoga.
Yoga is the salvation in a tornado of mental and physical exhaustion in which we can sometimes find ourselves. Regular practice calms the sympathetic nervous system that often keeps the body in a state of continuous stimulation, causing stress hormones to surge and our temperature, heart rate, and blood pressure to spike. Yoga has the ability to reverse these effects and quiet the mind, undoing the negative thought patterns that often accompany insomnia.
The Yoga Journal recommends practicing yoga for an hour to an hour and a half, at least three times per week, to reduce stress hormones, heart rate, and blood pressure, which promotes better sleep. They also recommend that students suffering from insomnia breathe deeply both on and off the mat.
If you can’t dedicate that much time to yoga, don’t worry – adding simple breathing techniques and a few minutes of yoga can also have an impact. Improved breathing starts with learning to breathe all the way down to our diaphragm. Deep breathing has the ability to turn up our parasympathetic tone in order to slow down our state of being (everything except our digestion, which has the tendency to speed up when we activate our parasympathetic nervous system). It’s also activated when we exhale. The Yoga Journal recommends students exhale twice as long as they inhale, which slows down the heartbeat and induces rest.
So when you find that you are once again lying awake in bed, give your sheep a night off and become mindful of your breathing. A 2009 study at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago found that just two months of regular meditation can improve total sleep time and sleep quality. Remember, meditation does not mean we need to be sitting on a cushion in an incense-lit room; instead, it’s about becoming mindful of our reality. Breathing always brings us back to the present moment. There is no room to think about yesterday or tomorrow when we are concentrating on our next breath. Try the pattern of inhaling, holding, exhaling and holding your breath. You can do it for a count of 3, 4 or more—whatever feels comfortable.
The technique is drawn from pranayama, an ancient Indian practice that basically means “regulation of breath.” Breathing is entirely controllable and thus one of the few things in life that we can actually control. Once tamed, it can influence heart rate, blood pressure, circulation, hormone production, stress levels and many other bodily functions. It can also settle you down enough to induce sleep.
Try the following gentle yoga inversions to help you to relax and enjoy a peaceful sleep. Doing the poses shown above before bed will help to relax and calm the mind. Remember to breathe deep into the diaphragm when stretching and focus on the exhale!