One of the most common complaints that my yoga students and patients share with me is their inability to get a good night's sleep. Almost everyone will have an occasional bout of sleeplessness, but for some, insomnia can linger for days or weeks, or even become a chronic situation. According to the Centers for Disease Control, it impacts more than 70 million Americans. That counts as an epidemic.
How much sleep a person needs is somewhat subjective. I’m a solid 8-hour a night guy. That's what it takes for me to wake up feeling refreshed and ready to go. My grandmother, on the other hand, used to say she only needed 5-6 hours a night in her later years to feel her best, and she lived to 93!
The symptoms of insomnia are at minimum troublesome, and at worst, debilitating: daytime fatigue or sleepiness, irritability, depression, anxiety, tension headaches, GI symptoms, ongoing worry about sleep, trouble with mental focus and attention. Beyond inconvenience, insomnia's effects can be much more serious: it's implicated in car accidents, medical and work errors, and linked to chronic diseases like high blood pressure, depression, anxiety and obesity, and even cancer.
The potential causes of insomnia vary, but at the top of the list is stress, followed by anxiety and depression. Other causes may include prescription and over the counter medications, caffeine, nicotine and alcohol, medical conditions such as chronic pain, breathing difficulties or frequent urination (just to name a few), changes in your environment or work schedule, poor sleep habits, eating too late in day and too much, and “learned” insomnia linked to excessive worry about falling asleep.
And as we age, the chances of developing insomnia go up due to the following age related changes: changes in sleep pattern; a decrease in activity levels, both social and physical; changes in health status; and increase use of medications.
Can yoga help? Research indicates yes. We already know that the three most common reasons for insomnia—stress, anxiety, depression—are diminished greatly with regular yoga practice. In addition, one study found that yoga also helped with increased cognitive arousal, or when the mind wakes up and is very busy right when you try to fall asleep or wake in the middle of the night.
Another study found that insomnia among menopausal women was decreased through an evening yoga practice.
When my students ask me what yoga pose is good for insomnia, I have them immediately expand their view of sleeplessness. I do that by suggesting that addressing insomnia with yoga starts first thing in the morning and lasts all day! What am I talking about? I recommend doing a more active yoga practice early in the day if your energy level permits it. This melds more naturally with the hormones in the body that, if balanced correctly, will support a better night's sleep. And if you are too tired for a vigorous asana practice, even a gentle one to get you moving a bit and loosen up the physical tension that often accompanies a poor night’s sleep, is beneficial.
From there, being mindful of what you are taking in during the day that could have negative affects on sleep is really important. You might set the intention at the end of your morning practice to pause during the day before consuming things like food and drink, that could keep you up at night, specifically caffeine, cigarettes, alcohol, and medications that are stimulating. I recommend trying to take at least 10-15 minutes of time out in nature during the day to reconnect to a quieter, more peaceful reality.
And in the evening, an earlier dinner-time, followed an hour or so later with a gentle yoga practice is good preparation for sleep time. Include poses you find quieting to your individual system, as well as breathing practices that are calming, like ones that gradually lengthen the exhalation part of the breath cycle, as one example. A recorded guided visualization, body scan, or meditation, or yoga nidra can all help to shift your nervous system for arousal to calm in preparation for bed. And turn the action dramas of the TV or computer off early, put down the Hunger Games trilogy way before the lights go out.
And if you still find you are having trouble falling asleep or you awaken in the middle of the night, doing breath awareness and body scan practices in bed often will get you back to sleep faster than doing nothing at all. With yoga, done daily, may you have sweet, uninterrupted, dreams!