Q: My sleep has become easily interrupted. Which asanas and pranayamas do you recommend?
—Holly Hauser, Burlington, Vermont
When your brain is wound up, the accumulated internal tension does not allow your mind to become steady and focus on sleep. And when there is excessive tension in your physical body, your muscles get tight and hard. This, in turn, stresses your nerves and prevents them from unwinding, relaxing, and allowing your body to sleep.
The four major aspects of taking a holistic approach to solving sleep problems involve asana, pranayama, nutrition, and meditation. Muscle tension can be caused by either too much or too little activity during the day; a regular asana practice will help unwind the muscular tension so that the nerves can relax.
If you are overactive during your day, you need restorative poses, so be sure that your practice includes Salamba Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Supported Bridge Pose), Salamba Balasana (Supported Child’s Pose), and Salamba Viparita Karani (Supported Legs-Up-the-Wall Pose), followed by Savasana (Corpse Pose). If you aren’t active enough, you need a more dynamic practice to remove the built-up tension. Try three cycles of classical Surya Namaskar (Sun Salutation), Salamba Sarvangasana (Supported Shoulderstand), Salamba Setu Bandha Sarvangasana, Salamba Adho Mukha Svanasana (Supported Downward-Facing Dog Pose), Viparita Karani, and Savasana.
Pranayama is also useful. While in Savasana, do Viloma II (Against the Flow Breath) for about 10 minutes. This is done lying down and involves taking an uninterrupted inhalation and an interrupted exhalation. Start by lying in Savasana for a few minutes, then exhale whatever breath is in the lungs. Take a long, deep inhale without any pause, filling the lungs completely without strain. Exhale slowly for two to three seconds, pause, holding the breath for two or three seconds, exhale, and repeat. Continue until the lungs feel completely emptied, which may entail three to five pauses. At the end of the last exhalation, release the abdomen—this completes one cycle of Viloma II.
Alternatively, you may also do one-two breathing for 54 to 63 cycles of breath. To do this, make your exhalation twice as long as the inhalation, without strain. Both of these breathing practices soothe the nerves and promote sleep.
Nutritional adjustment can help promote sleep by emphasizing foods that ground the body’s energy, such as root vegetables, grains, and beans. Your dinner should include them. Avoid salads and spicy foods for dinner.
Meditation is another key to getting a good night’s sleep. Ask your yoga teacher to show you how to center your brain energy using your hands and your breath. This will prevent your mind from jumping from thought to thought. Make it a priority to set aside five minutes each evening to focus on centering yourself before you go to bed.
If you practice all four of the above suggestions, you will enjoy deep and sound sleep.
I feel dizzy when I do Kapalabhati Pranayama (Skull Shining Breath) or Anuloma Pranayama (With the Flow Breath). Why does this happen?
Why? In brief, because you shouldn’t be doing them! According to the ancient Indian science of Ayurveda, your nervous system is composed primarily ofvata (air quality), pitta (fire quality), or kapha (water quality). Dizziness can be taken as a sign that the quality of your nervous system is out of balance.
Kapalabhati means "illumined forehead" or "light skull." This is because the practice of this pranayama sends an incredible amount of energy to the brain and increases its creative flow, or vata (air quality). It also increases the quality of fire moving from the pelvis up through the spine. Both results can throw a nervous system that’s primarily vata completely out of balance and can create dizziness, nausea, and, in some cases, severe mental instability. My guess (because I haven’t seen you in person) is that your nervous system is of a vata nature. Therefore, I suggest completely avoiding strong pranayama practices such as Bhastrika (Bellows Breath), Kapalabhati, and Anuloma. Instead, focus on Ujjayi Pranayama (Victorious Breath) without any Kumbhaka (Breath Retention). Also, gently perform Viloma II. (See a description of how to do this pranayama in the previous answer.)
Is it unhealthy if your back cracks when doing twisting poses?
It depends. The cracking sound you hear often means that the alignment in the vertebrae is off (called a subluxation). In this case, when you do asanas and hear cracking, you are realigning the spine. This is a healthy cracking. Unhealthy cracking is when the same portion of the spine keeps cracking again and again over many months. This indicates that other activities in your life are causing that particular part of your spine to go out of balance, and you must make changes in the way you stand, sit, or walk.
The important thing to do is observe what effects the cracking has on your body. Do you feel more centered or calm? Have you released something that was tight and tense and now feel your energy flowing more freely? Or does the area feel sore, painful, slightly distorted? The first case is the release of a subluxation. In the second, you are causing one! Just as a good crack at a chiropractor’s office can remove the numbness from a finger, so a good crack in a yoga practice can promote energy flow in the nerves. This may then assist in the enhanced functioning of many organs and muscles in the body.