She’s desperate for rest. Moving through her asanas like a wet noodle, her eyes heavy with exhaustion, one of your regular students complains she can’t sleep, then either dozes off or fidgets during Savasana (Corpse Pose). Considering that sleep disorders in this country are on the rise, chances are high that you’ve had a student like this in one of your yoga classes.
According to the National Sleep Foundation, 90 percent of Americans have struggled during the past month with insomnia—needing more than 30 minutes to doze off or experiencing 30-minute interruptions in slumber. “Our ability to fall asleep is affected by everything we do from the moment we wake,” says Ann Dyer, an Iyengar-based instructor in Oakland, California who leads sleep workshops. “And since our culture keeps us revving all day at the same go-go pace, it’s no surprise that we can’t fall asleep when we finally jump into bed at night.”
Chronic insomnia is prevalent, affecting 30 to 40 percent of Americans, according to the National Center for Sleep Disorders Research at the NIH, and persistent yoga can help counteract it. “Yoga is an effective treatment because it addresses insomnia’s physical and psychological aspects,” says Sat Bir Khalsa, PhD, a Kundalini instructor and a sleep researcher at Boston’s Harvard Medical School. “Yoga calms the sympathetic nervous system that can keep the body in a state of arousal, where stress hormones surge and your temperature, heart rate, and blood pressure spike. Yoga reverses all this and, just as importantly, it quiets the mind, undoing the negative thought patterns that often accompany insomnia.”
As a yoga teacher, you can’t diagnose or offer medical treatment for your student’s sleeplessness (which a qualified doctor should do, pegging and addressing the underlying causes that can range from anxiety to thyroid problems to an adverse reaction to prescription medication). But you can make your teaching sleep-conducive, and you can encourage your students to take these restful steps:
Time It Right
Remind your students that practicing yoga regularly (for an hour to an hour and a half at least three times per week) can reduce stress hormones, heart rate, and blood pressure and thus promote better sleep. If your students do rigorous asanas, they should practice these only in the morning so the burst of energy they bring wears off by the end of the day. If their practice is more moderate, they should finish yoga at least four hours before bedtime, as exercise any later in the day can interfere with falling asleep. Pre-bed restorative poses, like those presented on Dyer’s DVD ZYoga: The Yoga Sleep Ritual, can also help. Also suggest that they start a bedtime ritual that includes shutting off electronic devices at 8:30 p.m., taking a hot bath, and curling up by 10:30 p.m.
Pick Your Poses
If you’re designing a sequence for students with sleep disturbaces, go easy on backbends. With the exception of sleep-promoting Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose), backbends tend to rev up the sympathetic nervous system. Instead, do forward bends and inversions, which have the opposite effect. Include moves such as Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog), Janu Sirsasana (Head-to-Knee Forward Bend), Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend), Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend), and Halasana (Plow Pose). Pick easy inversions such as Salamba Sarvangasana (Supported Shoulderstand) and Viparita Karani (Legs-Up-the-Wall Pose). Hold poses slightly longer than normal, and use blankets and bolsters to make the practice restorative. Have students tense and release all their muscles progressively, then extend the final pose—Savasana—so they get a full 15 minutes of complete relaxation.
Regulate with Pranayama
Encourage insomniac students to breathe deeply both on and off the mat. “When we start to breathe less with the chest and more with the diaphragm or belly, this turns down the sympathetic nervous system,” says Corinne Andrews, a sleep workshop facilitator and the owner of Yogafied in Colorado Springs, Colorado. In class, steer away from energizing practices such as Kapalabhati (Skull Shining Breath) and instead offer calming ones like Nadi Shodhana (alternate-nostril breathing). Ask students to exhale twice as long as they inhale, which slows down the heartbeat and induces rest.
Cultivating mindfulness will reverse negative thinking patterns. So, for example, if a student starts fretting that five hours’ sleep is not enough, he reminds himself that many people function well on less. This idea is presented by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutra II.33, “when disturbed by negative thoughts, opposite or positive ones should be thought of.”
Meditation is another helpful tool in combating sleep disturbances. A 2009 study at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago found that just two months of regular meditation practice can improve total sleep time and sleep quality. “Meditating for ten minutes right before bed is especially helpful for inducing the passive state that is necessary for sleep,” says Roger Cole, PhD, an Iyengar-certified yoga teacher and Stanford-trained scientist. Give students tips to make it accessible, reminding them that one minute or even one breath is better than not meditating at all.