“Sleep is that golden chain that ties health and our bodies together. “ - Thomas Dekker
When I was younger my family used to joke that I could sleep through a fire alarm. Yet when I was diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, those blissful nights of sleep were traded in for nights spent sitting awake in bed. I tossed and turned under the sheets and often woke up feeling worse than I did the night before.
It’s no surprise that one of the most common complaints I hear from new students is around trouble sleeping. Almost everyone will have an occasional restless night, but for some, insomnia can linger for weeks, months, or even years. Yoga for deep sleep has helped many of my students find restful nights.
Trouble sleeping can come in the form of not being able to fall asleep at night, waking up several times during the night, waking up too early, or waking up feeling restless and un-nourished by sleep. You might feel like you can never get enough sleep or exhausted first thing in the morning.
Not being able to sleep is frustrating, at best, and at worst can cause debilitating daytime fatigue, irritability, depression, anxiety, or tension headaches. Poor sleep can take away from your ability to focus and function at your job or at school during the day. And can make it harder to be present with friends and family. If long term insomnia goes untreated it can lead to more serious health conditions.
Many people who struggle with sleep do just that, struggle. Their problem might not be serious enough to see a specialist or they might try to use over the counter medication for temporary relief. I myself was on sleep medication for many years to try to treat the problem, without ever understanding the root of it. My doctor prescribed me medication after medication, none of which had a lasting effect. My pharmacist looked at me with worry every time she handed over a new prescription, warning me that these pills aren't meant for long-term use. But at the time, I felt like I had no other options. It took years before I started learning more about what caused my insomnia, and how yoga and meditation could help me manage that insomnia to finally get the sleep I needed.
In this article, I'll explain my findings on why it's often so hard to get to sleep, and how you can use yoga for deep sleep.
What is causing poor sleep?
I didn’t understand why I couldn’t fall asleep, and neither could my doctor. It took years of studying and self-practice to finally figure out what was going on with me and how I could help myself. I was experiencing what is common in insomniacs: hyper-arousal before bed. I was tired all day, so this news came as a shock to me! But I've learned that arousal and stress can come in many different forms.
There is now a lot of research around insomnia showing that cognitive and physiological arousal are a leading cause of insomnia. Because yoga and meditation are so good at reducing arousal (more on that later), many people are turning to these therapies, rather than medication, to help with sleep. Yoga for deep sleep can be an effective tool for beating insomnia and reducing stress and anxiety.
The potential causes of insomnia and hyper-arousal vary, but at the top of the list is stress. Other causes may include prescription and over the counter medications, caffeine, nicotine and alcohol, medical conditions such as chronic pain, breathing difficulties or frequent urination (just to name a few), changes in your environment or work schedule, poor sleep habits, eating too late in day and too much, and worry about falling asleep.
The breath as a tool for deep sleep
How does your body react to stress? Your heart starts beating faster, you start sweating, and your breath becomes fast and shallow. These are not conducive conditions to going to sleep. So how can we counteract this state and guide our body to our ‘rest and digest’ response?
By breathing deeply into the belly (rather than into the chest) you will start to activate your parasympathetic nervous system. Try this exercise to see the power of the breath:
Try this exercise to see the power of the breath:
Ball one of your hands into a fist, squeezing as hard as you can. Now, take a breath into the belly, noticing your belly rising, and exhale slowly letting all of the air leave the body.
What happened during this exercise? My guess is that it got harder to keep your fist balled up as you took a deep breath, especially as you exhaled. Your body naturally wanted to relax and let go of tension, all just from taking a breath! Yoga and meditation are both utilize the breath, so it's no surprise they are great tools for relaxation!
Yoga for deep sleep
55% of yoga users improved sleep and 85% reduced stress according to a US national survey, and in a systematic review of complementary and alternative medicines for insomnia, yoga was found to be an effective treatment for insomnia.
Yoga was the first thing that helped me get to sleep naturally, and I’m not alone on that.
Yoga can lower your levels of Cortisol. Cortisol is that pesky hormone causing your nervous system to stay over aroused in stressful, but nonlife-threatening, situations. Following a balanced yoga practice can help balance this hormone in people who are producing too much. Reducing cortisol will help you sleep better each night. This is one way you can use yoga for a deep sleep.
You’ve heard the advice that if you haven’t fallen asleep in 15 minutes, you should get out of bed and do something else. While this is generally true, it can cause some problems. First of all, some of us aren't able to get out of bed. If you are suffering from chronic pain disorders or chronic fatigue, getting out of bed to do something else is no easy task.
Secondly, standing inhibits sleep, while reclining and inverted positions promote it. So think twice about getting out of bed to watch TV, or cook tomorrow night’s dinner. The best thing you can do if you are having a restless night is roll yourself onto the floor and do a yoga pose. Putting your legs up the wall, or a forward bend resting on your pillow are two that I find helpful! Once you start to feel sleepy, climb back into bed.
Meditation and visualisation as a tool for deep sleep
If you’re not able to do yoga for deep sleep, meditation and visualisation can also be helpful. Even if you’re not able to fall asleep from meditation, the benefits of meditation are similar to sleep! Counting the breaths in and out, and extending your exhalations can be helpful meditative breathing exercises for falling asleep. Many people also find a body scan puts them straight to bed. It’s why so many people fall asleep in Savasana in yoga class! You can see a few more meditation techniques for deep sleep here.
The best way to see if yoga can help you sleep is to give it a try! I recommend trying one of the exercises in this article before bed tonight, or try out this free video on yoga for deep sleep