The importance of sleep has enjoyed a renaissance in recent years, a whole host of new studies, books, medical advice and testimonials have emerged. What once may have been scoffed at by over-achievers and those in high-octane careers as an impingement on productivity, is now seen as the essential key to unlocking happiness and success. The tides have turned in our opinion of sleep, but unfortunately, our technology and culture continues to interfere and provide endless stimulation making it hard for many of us to get some shut eye - even though we know how important it is.
So how can yoga assist with good sleep hygiene - the habits needed to engender better quality sleep? Read on.
Releasing muscular tension
The long held belief that movement is medicine is being proven time and time again in clinical literature. Yoga asana (postures) can measurably reduce muscle tension, thereby reducing discomfort or pain that may prevent or inhabit our ability to fall asleep and sleep soundly. Often we’re not even aware that muscles are tense because we spend so much of our day in positions where, for example, our hip flexors are contracted while sitting, or our shoulders and jaw are permanently tense as we type and text. Muscular tension requires energy output, effort even if we’re not aware of it, so by releasing it through yoga asana we have a better chance of entering a more restful and regenerative state.
Triggering a relaxation response
Key practices under the umbrella of yoga, such as pranayama (breath work) and meditation, have been shown to trigger a relaxation response. Some studies have shown these practices to decrease our rate of breathing, decrease blood pressure and heart rate and increase slow brain [alpha] waves . This puts us in a much more balanced state, so that we are ‘sleep ready’ when we hit the hay. Making a habit before bed of simple, gentle breathing (such as long deep breathing or alternate nostril breathing), or a short meditation practice can prepare our nervous system for optimal sleep.
Increased self-awareness leads to better choices
Advice for good sleep hygiene often includes sleeping in a very dark room, reducing blue light in the hour before bedtime, and putting your phone in another room while you sleep so you’re not tempted to check it. Adjusting these habits at first take focus, awareness and commitment. Yoga and meditation, as practices of awareness, encourage us to look more closely at our lives and our choices. As we develop this self-awareness over time, we’re more able to catch ourselves out when we’re about to engage in a behaviour we know isn’t helpful to us, and correct our course.
Better sleep starts with becoming more aware of the behaviours and choices that are preventing us from sleeping really well. Often we spend all day long in a state of distraction, tension and overstimulation. We need to re-train our bodies and nervous systems to relax and power down more frequently, so that we know how to disengage from our day when we hit the sack. Frequent yoga and meditation practice can help reduce this tension, bring us into a more relaxed state, and replace unhelpful habits with ones that make us look and feel great.
1 Functional brain mapping of the relaxation response and meditation. Lazar SW, Bush G, Gollub RL, Fricchione GL, Khalsa G, Benson H Neuroreport. 2000 May 15; 11(7):1581-5.
2 Functional brain mapping of the relaxation response and meditation. Lazar SW, Bush G, Gollub RL, Fricchione GL, Khalsa G, Benson H Neuroreport. 2000 May 15; 11(7):1581-5.
Note - a key report that cites the above study can be found here
This article was written for us by our awesome Global Brand Warrior, International Yoga & Qigong Teacher and Writer, Soho-based James Rafael. For more information about James, click here