Can Yoga Help with Insomnia?
Cheryl Fenner Brown, C-IAYT, E-RYT 500
Ever since I was 13 years old I have had bouts of insomnia, sometimes lasting for months where I would stay awake until the wee hours, unable to stop the incessant worrying and chatter of my mind and emotions. As a child I had no real tools at my disposal, but I would read, watch TV - do something to try to distract myself from my inability to sleep. I remember one night during a particularly bad time, watching myself breathing as I lay in bed while lying on my back. I closed my eyes and noticed that I was breathing in and out through my nose. I knew that I would likely fall asleep when I stopped being aware of my breath. I would try to ‘catch’ myself becoming unaware of my breath. Now that I understand the process I was engaging in was a rudimentary attempt at a pranayama practice, I realize that I was attempting the impossible all those years ago.
Now in my mid-forties, I will have months at a time where I sleep well, wake refreshed and have no trouble with waking during the night. But every so often, I still get a few nights in a row where my sleep cycle is disturbed. Either I am waking many times due to intense dreams, or the need to vacate my bladder, or more often, I lay in bed and cannot fall asleep. Either my body is restless or my mind is whirling with all the events, hopes and regrets from the day. During these three decades of insomnia, I have come up with some easy to follow, nearly sure-fire ways to help myself get to sleep more easily.
Studies have shown that mild to moderate aerobic exercise is beneficial for improving insomnia. (Passos 2011, Milne 2016) And it does not seem to matter whether the exercise is taken at the beginning of the day or in the evening in terms of its effectiveness. (LeCheminant 2016) Exercise can release muscular tension and restless leg syndrome and make it easier for the body to release into sleep. But what about the more meditative movement of yoga, can yoga also help to prepare the body for sleep? Yoga enables us to connect to and calm not just our physical bodies, but also our energetic system, and our often swirling mental and emotional states. Think back to how relaxed you feel after you come out of savasana at the end of a yoga class. Imagine how easy it would be to fall asleep from that state of ease. You have likely experienced for yourself how yoga can soften around the edges of worry and muscular tension during the day and the restful effects can last the rest of your day. Many recent studies delve into the beneficial effects that yoga and other meditative movement therapies have on insomnia. (Wang 2015)
When is Your Bedtime?
According to Ayurveda, the three doshas are embedded in our daily cycles and certain times of day support specific activities, including sleeping, waking, and eating. It is recommended that you rise before the sun, during the time that the airy vata dosha is dominant, between 2-6 a.m. This time is best for rising and engaging in morning meditation, yoga practice, and your cleansing and grooming routine. When we sleep in past this time, we enter into the time when earthy kapha dosha dominates, from 6-10 a.m. Ever notice how sleeping late sometimes makes you feel more tired and groggy? This is due to kapha’s dense pull. As the morning progresses, from 10 a.m. till 2 p.m., the fiery pitta dosha dominates, take your mid-day and largest meal here while digestive fire burns strongest. In the latter half of the day, the cycle repeats. From 2-6 p.m., the vata dosha dominates and presides over a time of increased mental capacity. Then from 6-10 p.m., begin winding down for the day, eat a light supper so as to not overtax your digestive system, and try to get to bed by 10 p.m. If you stay up later, you enter into the pitta time from 10 p.m. till 2 a.m., which is why you may feel a second wind come on and have difficulty getting to sleep until much later.
The Importance of Routine
Besides following our natural circadian rhythms and getting to bed at a reasonable hour, implementing a bedtime routine can help to prepare both the body and mind for sleep. Beginning 60-90 minutes before bedtime, limit your exposure to electronic devices, this includes the television, e-reader, and cell phone. Not only do these LED-screened devices engage the mind, but they also emit a specific blue wavelength light that inhibits the body’s production of melatonin, a hormone that encourages drowsiness enabling you to get to sleep and stay asleep. (Cajochen 2011) (Wood 2012)
You may also want to consider these other relaxing additions to your bedtime routine: sipping calming herbal tea, a warm bath or shower, self-oleation massage, diffusing lavender or other relaxing essential oils, a gentle yoga sequence, or yoga nidra. Yoga nidra is a guided form of meditation that can be very helpful for insomnia because it enables you to connect to your witness consciousness, releasing self-judgment and doubt, thus gentling the mind into a relaxed state of awareness. You could also try this special yoga nidra for insomnia that will lead you from relaxed awareness into sleep. With a little planning and patience, you can reset your circadian rhythms and begin to get the sleep that is your birthright.
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I attend Cheryl's class regularly and feel that my practice has improved immensely over the past few years due to her expert coaching. Her teaching style is clear and compassionate and her previous experience in teaching adults is evident in her organized approach and easy to understand instructions. I also appreciate that Cheryl not only teaches us about how to correctly position ourselves, but also touches on many aspects of yoga philosophy, which in turn has deepened my personal practice and heightened my awareness of the connection between mind and body, breath and relaxation.