Sleep Well

Baxter Bell describes a program of asana, pranayama, and other gentle practices to help you sleep.
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Baxter Bell describes a program of asana, pranayama, and other gentle practices to help you sleep.

Among the various hats I wear in the world, one of my favorites is that of director of the Piedmont Yoga Studio's Deep Yoga Program, our teacher training program in Oakland, California. My current group of future teachers are now only three months from graduation, and although as a rule they all seem to be enjoying the training, it is an added stress (albeit a positive one) on their already busy lives. Just last session, we delved into the therapeutic benefits of yoga on a variety of health conditions. I went around the room and asked each of the 23 trainees to briefly share the issues that have found yoga to be helpful for in their own lives. About a quarter of the participants mentioned insomnia or sleeplessness as their number one problem that their yoga practiced has helped. If you have followed the yoga research news in the past few years, you will know of a study from Harvard funded by the NIH that has looked at applying yoga practices to improve insomnia. In my own backyard, fellow faculty member at Piedmont, Ann Dyer, not only a gifted yoga teacher but a world class vocalist as well, released a wonderful yoga DVD, Z Sleep, which I and others have found invaluable for our sleep-deprived students.

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One technique that Ann promotes and I have found useful, is to design a special asana practice that you use to prepare for sleep. In other words, it's a practice you would likely do near bedtime, possibly in or near your bedroom. If you have not had a chance to do any yoga poses earlier in the day, you can incorporate just about any pose at the start of the practice, but I recommend those that have some forward-bending aspect to them, especially at the hips and possibly gently in the rest of the spine to help quiet the mind and body. (If you have super tight hamstrings and hips, bend your knees.)

I'd start with any standing variations, like Half Dog at the wall, or Wall-Hanging Forward Fold, where you stand 12-inches facing away from a wall but resting your buttocks on it, and fold forward. Depending on how stiff or tight you are, you can gently pulse in and out of the pose, or simply hang here as quietly as possible.

Ann recommends to let the head hang toward the floor. I have found this can add extra release of my mental energy and I have adopted this recommendation for my practice and those I give to others.

From standing variations, you can work on a chair, doing Seated Forward Folds and Seated Twists, and then eventially sitting on the floor and doing Seated Forward Folds, liberally using blocks and bolsters as props so there is just the lightest amount of physical effort. By simply quieting the body, the mind will begin to quiet as a prelude to sleep.

Finally, reclining poses on the back, such as Legs up the Wall and Corpse Pose, are the perfect finish.

In addition, 2 breathing techniques are particularly helpful in my experience. The first is a classic pranayama technique that is know to have a quieting effect on the autonomic nervous system, which is an essential shift that needs to happen to fall asleep easily. It is accomplished by lengthening the exhalation to twice the length of the inhale, which lowers the heart rate. I have recently been doing the following pattern: 3 normal breathes in a row, and on the 4th round, gently, but actively, squeezing the exhale out to twice the length of the inhale. Then, allowing the next inhale to arise naturally out of the longer exhale. Repeat this 4-breath cycle at least 6 times. Notice if this creates more physical and mental relaxation. If it does, add it to your pre-sleep routine.

The second technique when I wake up in the middle of the night and find that mind has turned on its "thought factory" quickly. It is a variation on counting sheep that I learned in India years ago in my yoga studies. I use the 12 creases of my 4 fingers on one hand like the markers on an abacus, the ancient counting machine. I use my thumb on the same hand to move around the spaces. I have two patterns I use, but you can make one up that is easy for you to remember, and then practice it when you are wide awake a few times, so you'll have the hand pattern already in your memory bank when you need to use it. Start with the tip of your thumb on your number one space, and after every cycle of inhale/exhale, move it to the next space on your pattern. If you make it to 12 and are still awake, slide your thumb back to 1 and begin again. Keep the breath pace relaxed, with no sense of urgency to complete the 12 movements quickly. I find I will often drift off to sleep in 1-2 rounds, and even if it takes me longer, I am at least not focusing on the stressful thoughts that likely were keeping me up in the first place.

Finally, consider your sleep preparation: are you getting to bed at a reasonable time? Are you permitting some time between watching action packed or stressful dramas, or time on the computer or phone, before the lights go out? I'd recommend 45 minutes as a safe bet for the mind to shed some of the tension created by those activities. Are you limiting your fluid intake after dinner? Are you careful not to overdue the caffeine, alcohol or other substances that can interfere with a good night's rest? And can you remember to begin preparing for sleep first thing in the morning, by noting what worked and what did not seem to work the night before, and consider doing a brief morning meditation to set your intention to have good sleep preparation throughout the day? Just like any benefit we hope to derive from our yoga, it will require a regular, daily effort in order for the possibility of success. Why not start today?