Is Yoga Sabotaging Your Sleep?

There can be unintended consequences to your practice. Here's how to ensure that doesn't happen.

Photo: Ketut Subiyanto

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It’s not news that slowing your body and breath, as practiced in certain styles of yoga, can induce sleep. But if you take or teach an evening or late-afternoon yoga class, there are certain practices you need to be aware of that could be silently—and unintentionally—undermining a good night’s rest.

Our bodies are governed by circadian rhythms that are specifically designed to initiate hormonal, metabolic, neural, and nervous system changes throughout the day. But certain conditions need to take place for this mechanism to function. When they’re lacking or if something interferes, there’s an interruption in the release of sleep-inducing hormones, including everyone’s darling, melatonin.

Having knowledge around the connection between your practice and your ability to rest can help you take responsibility around certain practices that can disrupt your natural sleep pattern.

8 ways yoga might rob you of sleep

There are several ways that yoga can sabotage your (or your students’) sleep when you practice late in the day. Some are obvious. Others are much more subtle.

The solution can sometimes be as simple as changing the time when you take class. If you prefer to practice late in the day, you may need to rethink or omit certain yoga practices and styles. There are no absolutes, so bringing awareness to your individual response to particular practices is your best solution.

1. Too intense too late

They’re called Sun Salutations for a reason. The warming flow of poses is considered an invigorating morning practice in the traditional yoga. This series—or any intense sequence—will create a stimulating effect in your mind and body, including nervous system activation, quickened heart rate, and increased body temperature. This is a triple threat to sleep if you practice yoga in the evenings.

The fix: While an intense after-work vinyasa class is ideal for some students, it can cause others to find sleep elusive. Try opting for an intense class earlier in the day or try a slower style of yoga in the evenings for a week or two and notice if you experience a difference in your sleep.

Or if late in the day is the only time you can sneak in your practice, try a hybrid approach. An increasing number of studios offer evening classes that begin with vinyasa and then help you settle down with cooling Yin and restorative postures that rely on slower holds. Take your time on your exhalations, which has a physiologically calming effect.

Teacher tip: Offer more silence in your sequences. This can be challenging for teachers who feel they need to constantly give something in order to be of value. But by incorporating more moments of quiet, you cultivate your students ability to embrace moments of stillness and quiet, an essential skill we all need to know, especially when it’s time for sleep.

2. Backbends, backbends, backbends

There’s no doubt that you (or your students) could benefit from backbends to counteract sitting or hunching forward all day. But extreme backbends that work against gravity, such as Dhanurasana (Bow Pose) and Urdhva Dhanurasana (Wheel or Upward-Facing Bow Pose), can keep you awake for hours afterward. Even more moderate chest openers, such as Ustrasana (Camel Pose) can have a similar effect.

One way to notice if a backbend is stimulating the sympathetic part of the autonomic nervous system—responsible for the fight, flight, or freeze response—is if you break into a sweat or experience a swift uptick in heart rate during or just after practicing the pose.

Bottom line: Backbends are not helpful if you need to get some shut-eye.

The fix: You can still include gentle chest-openers in your evening practice to relieve tension. But stick to more restorative backbends, such as Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose) and Sphinx Pose. These postures can increase breath circulation with far less heating and heart-pumping than most backbends. You can also opt for a less-intense version of Bridge by sliding a block, bolster, or folded blanket beneath the sacrum to minimize exertion.

Also, consider Reverse Tabletop and Reverse Plank. These are slightly activating since you’re reaching yours arms back and keeping your legs strong. The key difference is that your upper back remains relatively level with your collarbones, knees, and hips, which require less exertion. Also, after coming out of the poses, you’ll feel a release of tension in your arms and legs, leading to a sense of deep relaxation.

3. Kapalabhati (or any intense breathwork)

For some, the pumping breath of Kapalabhati Pranayama (Skull-Shining Breath) feels restorative at any time of day. However, for many it’s simply too stimulating to the nervous system at night and counterproductive to a good night’s rest. Much like a shot of espresso, it’s better suited for mornings.

The fix: Instead, try a simple 1:2 or 2:4 breathing practice, gradually increasing your exhalation until it’s twice as long as your inhalation. This stimulates the parasympathetic portion of the autonomic nervous system that is responsible for calming and settling into a space of relaxation.

Teacher tip: If you feel that you must teach this practice in the evening, keep it short and disclose to students beforehand that the practice might have awakening effects. Always share an alternative breathing technique for students who choose not to take the risk.

4. Overly enthusiastic Ujjayi breath

The ujjayi (Victorious Breath) technique taught in many vinyasa classes is a heating practice. Engaging in strong inhalation and constriction at the back of the throat can cause a tendency to breathe into the upper chest. This adds stimulation to an already-overheated sympathetic nervous system and activates your fight, flight, or freeze response.

Consider the effect if you’re engaging in Ujjayi breath for the duration of a 60-minute class.

The fix: According to research, Ujjayi can have a slightly stimulating effect on blood pressure and heart rate. But it can also have a calming effect on the psyche. It depends on your unique makeup as well as how it is practiced. Instead of breathing into the upper chest with a strong inhale, you can modify Ujjayi so it supports sleep.

First, bring your awareness to the space between the bottom of your shoulder blades and your lower back, the area where your kidneys and adrenals are situated. Imagine breathing into that space—down and along your back—instead of up and along your chest. Imagine that your breath is as delicate and subtle as a silken thread. This can have an immediate calming effect on some people.

Then, instead of lengthening the inhale, which sparks the sympathetic nervous system, even out your inhalations and exhalations or lengthen your exhalation a little.

Notice the muscles around your eyes and jaw, and allow them to relax. If there is any tension in your face and neck, imagine the back of your eyes and jaw gently releasing and become more spacious. You can try this with your back supported by a chair, sofa, or wall to feel the support and feel your breath expand into that support.

5. Rigid breath counts

Notice how you are bringing attention to the breath, breath counts, and pacing of the sequence in your classes. The constant attention on in, out, in, out with the breath can leave yourself (or students) with little time to settle in between inhalations and exhalations.

Each of us has our own unique tidal volume (lung capacity) and will therefore need to find our own optimal length and pacing of breath that works best.

The fix: In order to fall asleep, you need to feel spacious and relaxed in your body. Your the breath can help you tap into that spaciousness. Ensure that your pacing of breath cues allows time for settling into the body, which can be experienced by a pause in between inhalations and exhalations, and in between exhalations and inhalations.

Take a tip from John Stirk, renowned British yoga teacher with 40 years experience, and allow yourself to experience the power of the space after the exhalation. Try dropping into the space after the out-breath for a brief moment without moving, encouraging your body to land and settle, without any strain, before breathing in again. This technique is commonly used by Yoga Nidra teachers.

6. Incessant cueing

Teachers can inadvertently create an environment in which our collective nervous systems can’t settle down. It happens when we string one cue after the other in run-on sentences, with scant pauses between. It also happens when we talk too quickly or when we don’t slow our talking and deeply breathe with our students.

The fix: One of my mentors gave me wisdom that I now offer to my trainees: Pause after every cue. Let it land. Observe whether the students have heard and acted, and then offer the next cue.

In this space, I learned to breathe with students and truly become aware of the effect of my cues. In psychology, the principle of co-regulation says that the teacher has the power to set an inadvertently stressful pace—or the power to share the experience of the breath together and create a calming space.

If you take class with a chatty yoga teacher in the evenings, consider taking a different class with them at an earlier time.

Teacher tip: As a new yoga teacher, I remember feeling like I had to live up to the poetry and power of my own teachers, who integrated helpful alignment points and other eloquent things as they cued us through asana. As a result, in my first couple of years of instructing,  I talked nearly every second of all of my classes. Sure, they were vibrant and exciting, and my following grew, but I was exhausted. And it wasn’t a space where students could rest.

7. There’s talking during Savasana

Over-teaching doesn’t apply only to asana, or the physical practice of yoga. It also applies to Savasana (Corpse Pose) and meditation, too. Some students might appreciate ample cues because they can tether their attention to the spoken word to help them stay present. But teachers can unintentionally create a situation in which we perpetuate an addiction to external stimulation—even in relaxation.

The fix: Cues to find comfort in Savasana and meditation can be helpful. But after that, silence can be essential. If you’re taking an online class and the teacher cues you throughout Savasana, it might be time to turn off the app and allow yourself to settle into a tranquil silence.

Teacher tip: Refrain from talking. Literally breathe with your students. This can be the hardest thing for some yoga teachers, who may feel they need to constantly give something in order to be of value. We then teach students to fall into the trap of always doing something. Try offering silence accompanied by your expansive presence. Not only will you cultivate your own ability to relax, you will empower your students to embrace moments of stillness and quiet—a skill they can lean on when it’s time for sleep.

8. You’re relaxing too much (yes, really)

It’s actually possible to wreck your appetite for sleep by restoring them too much. Sleep physicians refer to this as “sleep drive,” which is a measure of the body’s biological need for sleep. The longer you’re awake and expending effort, the greater your desire to sleep accumulates in various brain chemicals. This includes adenosine, a central nervous system depressant that decreases arousal and promotes sleep. Every hour you’re awake, the adenosine levels in the brain rise.

When you experience profoundly effective rest, you decrease the adenosine and other tiredness neurotransmitters, diminishing your sleep drive and becoming less desiring of rest.

Although a short meditation or restorative practice can be help you settle into a calmer state before sleep, taking a full-length restorative yoga class or a long meditation late in the evening might set up conditions for you to fall asleep well before bedtime, sabotaging your ability to sleep later.

The fix: Try bringing students into 10-20 minute segments of restorative poses at the end of an evening class rather than devote the entire class to complete relaxation. Also, suggest to students that they take a few minutes at different periods throughout the day to practice these same poses. This approach is especially useful for students who exacerbate their stress response with caffeine or intense exercise. You’ll help them “put energy back on the grid” similar to how a solar panel restores electricity. That is to say, sustainably.

As for meditation, the Transcendental and Vedic traditions suggest scheduling classes in the morning and late afternoon, ideally before dark. If you prefer practicing meditation shortly before bed, make it a shorter practice so that you don’t slip into pre-sleep sleep. This enables you to settle into calmer and deeper brain wave patterns during your practice without compromising your sleep drive.

See also: 15 Yoga Poses for Sleep

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