Thursday, October 29, 2009

Yoga For Insomnia

Most of us are so busy that we don't even think about sleep until we're laying in bed waiting for it to come. We rush through our days, taking care of the people around us, fulfilling the expectations of our jobs and making to-do lists so our waking hours are fully maximized. Maybe we daydream about an afternoon nap, or let our minds wander to the moment when our heads will hit that soft pillow - but we quickly snap out of it and get back to work!

Sadly, when the time for sleep actually arrives, we're too wound up to take advantage of it. Tossing and turning, thinking of what needs to get done tomorrow, revisiting today's reel of thoughts - it's exhausting, yet sleep just isn't coming naturally. It's a cycle of sleep deprivation, and for many people it's a reality.

This is of course, not healthy. A Reader's Digest article on the topic reports that "sleep is crucial to maintaining your health. Without it, you increase your susceptibility to an astonishing array of health problems, including heart disease, stroke, diabetes, obesity and depression." In addition, sleep deprivation severely affects immune system functioning. "The immune system works best when you're asleep," said Stanley Coren, professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia "That's when your natural killer cells are generated." These natural killer cells are what protect us from viruses and bacteria; a key reason to get enough sleep in the midst of the current H1N1 frenzy!

Thankfully, yoga can help the sleep-deprived and stressed (i.e. most people!). A regular yoga practice, like any exercise, is a wonderful way to begin the process of incorporating healthy sleep habits into your life. Taking a yoga class two or more times per week, and practicing a few asanas before bed can make an incredible difference to the length and quality of your sleep.

To help you get ready for bed tonight, Bobby and I have put together a short series of calming, restorative postures. These asanas are designed to slow the body and brain, helping you ease into a restful state of mind. The props we've used in the photos can easily be substituted for things you have at home such as pillows and blankets.

Start in any comfortable sitting position. Use a pillow or blankets to elevate your hips. Draw your focus onto the breath, slowly beginning to extend both the inhalation and the exhalation until you feel your lungs expand fully with each deep breath. Choose a mantra to focus on - to calm the mind I like to repeat the sound Om or the word Shanti, which means peace. Each time you exhale, hear the mantra in your mind, letting the sound and meaning relax your mind until all other thoughts fall away.

Once you feel grounded and calm, slowly move onto the hands and knees. Remove your sitting props. Place your hands about one palm distance ahead of your shoulders and the knees directly below the hips. Tuck your toes and take a deep breath in. As you exhale lift your hips toward the sky into adho mukha svanasana, downward facing dog. Make the movement slow and controlled. Continue to focus on your breath and your mantra. Using a block underneath the head will allow you to relax more deeply and feel fully supported.

Next, come into a well-supported forward fold, paschimottanasana. Seated forward folds calm the brain and ease anxiety. Rather than striving to be deep into the posture, stretching the hamstrings, allow yourself to be completely at ease here. Support your upper body, arms and head with pillows and blankets. Rest yourself at a height where you feel absolutely no strain. Remember, the purpose of this practice is to become sleepy - not to lengthen your hamstrings!

Slowly remove the props, draw your legs to the side and bring yourself to hands and knees. With a deep exhalation sink your hips towards your heels. Rest the belly, chest and head on a firm support, easing into a comfortable balasana, child's pose. Breathe into the hips, feeling them become more loose with each exhalation.

With as little movement as possible, reposition your firm supporting pillow or bolster next to a wall. Rest your hips on top as you lengthen your legs up the wall. Be sure to have the hips and heart slightly elevated in order to get all the benefits of this half inversion. Arms can rest by your sides, palms up or raised over the head, clasping the elbows. You can lay a blanket over the chest and arms to keep heat in. Let your eyes close and notice the calming effect this posture has on body and mind. This variation of viparita karani offers relief for tired legs and mild backache. It also eases digestive problems, the symptoms of menopause and uncomfortable symptoms during the menstrual cycle.

When viparita karani feels complete (approximately 2 - 5 minutes) gently roll to the side and prepare for your final sleep-inducing posture, supta baddha konasana, reclined bound angle pose. This asana requires some time to set-up properly but is well worth the effort (this is my absolute favorite restorative asana!).

To set up: sit in front of the cushion, bolster or firm pillow. Press your sacrum into the edge. Bring the soles of your feet together, drawing the heels as close to your groin as is comfortable. Wrap the blanket over the feet and pull the ends underneath your thighs. Bring both hands to the bolster behind you and gently lengthen the spine along it. You may need additional support underneath the head of you have a long torso (like I do - notice in the photo, I'm also using two foam blocks to support my head. Another pillow or some blankets will also do the trick). If you have tight hips you may also want to use support underneath the knees to bolster the work of the rolled blanket. Before settling in completely massage your temples and actively relax your jaw by removing the tongue from the roof of the mouth and letting the lips part.

Enjoy this pose for as long as you like, noticing your heart and hips gently opening, releasing tension and preparing you for sleep. Afterwards, take savasana, corpse pose for a few minutes or simply climb into bed.

This series can be practiced in as little as 10 minutes. If you have more time to linger, even better. Over time you will notice how your body reacts to these asanas - revise the sequence accordingly; spending more time on one, less on another or modify in any way that brings you greater relaxation.

Sweet dreams,

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