A Yoga Sequence for Better Sleep

One of the first things I ask my private clients is about the quantity and quality of their sleep. In my years of teaching and asking this question I would estimate that less than 10% of my students feel that their sleep is either adequate or restful. Some complain of having difficulty getting to sleep, whilst others find themselves waking up too early or in the middle of the night. Lifestyle factors and busy schedules mean that for many of us sleep is no longer a priority and gets squeezed out to make time for other things.

We now know however, the huge toll a lack of sleep has on our physical and mental health. Poor sleep hygiene has been linked to a greater risk of many chronic diseases such as diabetes and obesity, as well as an increase in mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression.

Knowing the implications of poor sleep habits is important but it can also make us feel further stressed and anxious about the fact that we are not getting enough sleep, which in turn makes it harder to fall asleep in the first place – a vicious cycle!

What I love about yoga is its pragmatic outlook and that it offers us so many wonderful, practical and realistic tools and techniques for managing our health.  Scientific research has shown that yoga can have a beneficial impact on our ability to not only fall asleep more easily, but also to improve the quality of the rest that we do get. This might be explained by the fact that yoga is a wonderful way to help us down-regulate our stress reactions and ‘turn on’ the ‘relaxation response’. The poses are also wonderful for reducing physical tension and tightness, which in turn can make it quicker and easier for us to drop into a state of deep rest.

Below is a short sequence of breathwork practices and yoga poses that I give to clients with insomnia and other sleep-related issues. The whole sequence takes around 30 minutes to complete but can be shortened by omitting a couple of the poses or doing shorter holds as time permits. Needless to say this would be an excellent practice to do prior to bed perhaps with a candle and some relaxing music playing – just make sure you’re already in your pj’s and ready to roll into bed afterwards! 🙂

 

Thanks to Tummee for the graphics!

 

  1. Alternate Nostril Breathing

This is a fantastic technique for soothing stress and switching on the parasympathetic nervous system – the branch of our nervous system that regulates rest and relaxation.

The key to this technique (and to all breathwork practices) is to be comfortable and in a position that supports a natural length to the spine and open-ness around the ribcage. You may like to practice sitting cross-legged or in a chair, whichever is more comfortable for you.

Start by closing your eyes and establishing a natural and even breath through the nose, aiming for around 4-5 seconds breathing in and out.

Now using your right hand place the middle and index finger to rest between the eyebrows. Inhale, and as you start to exhale, close the right nostril with your thumb and breathe out through the left nostril. Inhale through the left nostril, and as you start to exhale close the left nostril with your ring finger and breathe out through the right nostril. Continue in this way, breathing in through one side, exhaling through the opposite side for 2-5 minutes. The breath should feel natural, effortless and without strain – adjust the length and pace of the breaths accordingly.

 

  1. Eye Exercise Palming

This is a lovely technique for soothing tired eyes or feelings of strain or tension around the sockets of the eyes.

After practicing a few rounds of Alternate Nostril Breathing, release your hands and rub them vigorously together for 20 seconds until they feel warm. Place your warm hands over your closed eyes and allow the heat to soak in through the skin and muscles around the eye sockets. Repeat 3 times in total.

 

  1. Childs Pose with a Bolster

A lovely pose to free up tension in the lower back and hips, and its gentle cocooned shape promotes a sense of safety, quietness and rest.

You can use a yoga bolster or a couple of pillows/cushions stacked up to a comfortable height. From hands and knees position, bring your big toes to touch and widen your knees to outer hip-width apart. Sinking your hips towards your heels, lay your upper body over the bolster or support. Turn your head one way and allow your arms to come to rest around the sides of the bolster. Allow your breath to deepen and feel it move into your lower back, side ribs and belly. Hold the pose for a total of 2-5 minutes, switching the turning of the head half-way through.

 

  1. Reclined Hero Pose with Blankets

We have a lot of latent energy stored in the strong muscles at the front of our thighs and hips and these areas can get very tight from long periods of sitting  – stretching this area out can help to free up tension here, as well as gently open up the chest and ribcage making it easier to take slow, deep restorative breaths.

Come into kneeling, taking the feet a little wider than the hips so that you are sitting between your feet. Your toes should point straight back. If this is too much for the ankles or knees, explore putting a blanket or two under your hips. Come to lie yourself back over a stack of folded blankets, a yoga bolster or a pile of cushions. You should feel a pleasant stretch and sense of opening across the front of the body. If this position feels too strong in knees, ankles or your lower back, then explore the next pose instead. Remain here for 2-5 minutes.

 

  1. Reclined Butterfly with a Bolster

This is a good alternative to the previous pose particularly if you have sensitive knees or lower back. Gently helps to open up tightness in the chest, shoulders and inner thighs – all sources of unconscious tension from long periods of sitting or stress.

Sit your hips up against the edge of a yoga bolster or pile of cushions/blankets. Lie back over the support. Put some extra height behind your head to ensure that the forehead is slightly higher than the chin – this will make the pose more restful and relaxing. Bring the soles of your feet together and allow the knees to open out with gravity. Allow the arms to come to rest by your sides with the palms facing up. Remain here for 2-5 minutes.

 

  1. Side-reclined Shoulder Stretch/Supine twist

Twists are inherently balancing for the left/right sides of the body and provide a lovely ‘squeeze and soak’ effect for the spine and abdominal organs.

Lying on your back, allow your knees to drop to the right as you allow the belly and upper body to twist to the left. Stretch the arms out to allow an opening in the chest. Explore bringing your knees up higher or further away from the chest to find the position that feels most comfortable for your lower back. Consider putting cushioning under the bottom knee or between the thighs if more comfortable. Hold for 1-2 minutes and then switch sides.

 

  1. Sleeping Pigeon at the Wall

This is a fantastic pose for relieving lower back and hip stiffness and tension from sitting for long periods. The support of the wall and floor also makes this a supportive and safe option for people with lower back issues.

Extend both legs up against the wall, with your hips about 10-15cm away from the wall. Bring your right ankle over the top of your left knee and slowly slide the left foot down the wall until you start to feel a stretch in your outer right hip. Make sure your lower back stays on the floor, so only go as far into the stretch whilst maintaining this alignment. If you want more stretch, shift your hips nearer to the wall. It may also be required to put a blanket or two behind the head to ensure that the forehead is slightly higher than the chin. Relax the arms and shoulders in whatever position feels restful to you. Hold for 1-2 minutes and then switch sides.

 

  1. Legs Up the Wall Pose

Another great wall yoga pose for helping to relieve tired legs, as well as gently opening up the back of the body without placing undue strain or tension on the lower back. Gentle inversions such as this one, with the legs above the heart, have a quietening, soothing effect on the nervous system, helping to promote a sense of deep rest and relaxation.

Place your legs up the wall with your hips a comfortable distance from the wall. If your legs are tighter you will need to move your hips slightly further away, you can also bend your knees slightly. To increase the inversion effect, put a rolled up blanket or yoga bolster under your hips by pressing your feet into the wall, lifting the hips and sliding it underneath. Put additional padding behind your head as needed for comfort. Allow the arms to rest by your sides and settle into relaxed abdominal breathing. Allow the eyes to close, jaw to unhinge and feel the muscles of the back slowly

A Simple Breathing Practice to Restore and Heal

“The oscillation of breathing is a perfect mirror of the fluctuations of life. If we are open to this process, life will move us. If we are unable to integrate life’s changes, we begin to resist by restricting our breathing.

When we hold the breath and try to control life or stop changes from happening we are saying we do not want to be moved. In those moments our desire for certainty has become much stronger than our desire to be dynamically alive.

Breathing freely is a courageous act. ~ Donna Farhi

 

One of the fundamental teachings of yoga is that our breath mirrors our emotional state and by changing our breath we can at a deep level change the way we feel. Not only that but as Donna Farhi’s quote above outlines, our breath is a direct reflection of our relationship to life itself.

 

When we live in fear, or try to control the world around us, this often manifests in a tightening and gripping in our bodies that limits and restricts our ability to breathe well. Breathing freely is courageous because it signals to ourselves and the world that we are OK with change, that we strong and resilient and able to face whatever comes our way.

 

In my private sessions I spend some time in each session exploring and working with the breath. I believe that breath is one of the master techniques and an incredibly valuable tool which can be applied and used to great affect from the very first yoga session.

 

I teach my clients that through conscious and deliberate awareness of their breathing they can soothe (or stimulate) their nervous system, and in turn create a complete physiological and psychological shift in literally a matter of minutes.

 

Many of my clients come to me with restricted breathing patterns which in turn keep them unconsciously locked in a chronically stressed state. Stress tends to manifest as short, irregular, shallow breathing patterns which are felt predominantly in the chest and neck. This type of breathing creates a vicious cycle, keeping our body in a hyper alert state and imprisoned in the stress response.

 

Before I teach clients specific breathwork techniques I almost always give them the time and space to observe their natural breathing patterns, that is, the way they normally breathe without making any changes to it. I invite them to get a sense of how and where they are breathing, the pace, texture and relative ease (or not) of their breath. This helps to give me and the client a sense of where they are starting from.

 

I strongly believe that we can not create change if we are not first aware of what is actually happening. Awareness is the absolute prerequisite for transformation to occur.

 

Once clients have a sense of their natural breathing patterns we then progress to exploring techniques that offer more healthful ways of breathing.

 

The following short audio is one of my favourite ways to work with the breath and I teach it and many variations to my clients. There are two parts to the exercise:

 

  • Breath Awareness through Touch

This part of the exercise is designed to get you comfortable and familiar with feeling the breath move into different parts of the body. We are learning to move breath through the body and to get a sense of what that feels like. I find that using the hands gives us a very immediate and tactile form of feedback which can be useful in the early phases of this work.

 

  • The Complete breath (sometimes called the Yogic Breath)

Taking our ability to move breath into the belly, ribcage and upper chest as our starting place we now explore how to integrate these movements of the breath into all three areas during one complete breath cycle.

Some of the benefits of this exercise include:

  • Increased energy and vitality as we improve circulation and oxygen-intake to the body
  • Strengthened and promotion of proper functioning of the diaphragm which in turn stimulates the relaxation response and reduces
  • Reduction in tension and load of the accessory breathing muscles in the neck, shoulders and upper back/chest
  • Enhanced focus and clarity as the mind is required to stay present on the technique

 

 

The best part about breathwork exercises is that they are incredibly versatile. Breathing requires no special equipment, can be done at any time of the day (or night) and is inconspicuous enough to do in public. This is important because we become what we repeatedly do – thus the more we can integrate these practices as we go about our daily lives, the more we can rely on the power of the breath to soothe, settle and heal at any moment.

6 Ways to Build more Strength in your Yoga Practice

It’s probably fairly obvious to say given that this is a blog about yoga, but I love yoga. I mean really love it. If I could get away with spending most of my time just practicing yoga I would (with the occasional break to explore my other two loves, reading and cooking).

Some years ago though, I experienced something of an uncomfortable revelation. I was running late to teach a yoga class and had to run like the wind to get to the studio in time. I made it (just), but was so out of breath that it took me a good few minutes, bent over double to recover myself before I could walk into the studio with any sense of composure. To give some context, at that time in my life, I was practicing vinyasa yoga at least 60-90 minutes a day, walked everywhere, and to look at seemed in pretty good shape, but in that moment, gasping for breath, I was somewhat appalled to discover I was not as fit as I had thought. I resolved then and there to start switching up my movement patterns and activity to develop a more well-rounded level of overall fitness.

This is when I started to explore the concept of general fitness vs fitness specificity. General fitness programs look at creating a balance across a few key areas such as strength, endurance, speed and flexibility. To do this we need to practise a varied movement diet. However, when we train mainly in a specific movement practice such as running, cycling or yoga we develop fitness specificity for that type of movement i.e. our body adapts over time to become super efficient at handling the stresses of that particular way of training. This is a good thing and enables us to become highly skilled and proficient in our sport of choice.  However, these days professional athletes and sportsmen understand the importance of cross-training with other kinds of movement practices, not only because the more you train in only one kind of movement type, the greater the potential for imbalance and injury, but also because cross-training will actually make you better in your chosen sport.

So to address the imbalance, I started lifting weights, doing some more cardio and HIIT. I kept the yoga separate and sometimes missed having the time to do long practices as I tried to squeeze in other kinds of training. As time went on however, I wanted to explore how I could bring more of a cross-training mindset into my yoga practice. I started to weave in other kinds of movement. My sense of what yoga was or could be started to broaden. I began to realise that the fundamental component of any physical yoga practice was a) a strong sense of the breath and b) mindfulness, and with these two elements intact I could bring the feel of yoga to any kind of movement.

It was from this place that I started to evolve how I was teaching – looking to bring a more well-rounded physical experience to my students, so that they too could benefit from a more inclusive, all-encompassing way of moving. Below are the 6 big changes I have made to my own yoga practice and the way that I teach – the result being that I feel stronger and fitter than ever before.

 

 

  1. Get creative – bring in ideas from other movement modalities

One of the things I love about yoga is how alive it is as a discipline. Yoga is a constantly evolving, growing practice – new poses and ways of moving around the mat are constantly being added to the repetoire. Over the past few years I’ve noticed teachers weaving lots of other movement modalities and disciplines into their teaching. I have seen inspiration from Pilates, somatics, functional movement, Feldenkrais, ballet, bodyweight strength training, calisthenics, plyometrics and HIIT being incorporated into yoga in exciting and creative ways that challenge our bodies and minds to stay present and connected.

A big part of this approach requires us to redefine our idea of what yoga is or what it ‘should’ look like. For me, yoga is more about cultivating a certain quality of attention. It’s about learning to be more present, more focused, more disciplined and the body becomes a tool through which I can hone these skills.  That being the case then, any movement practices could be thought of as yoga once combined with breath awareness and mindfulness.

As a long-term yoga practitioner I know how easy it is to get stuck in the yoga treadmill – the same poses, the same movement patterns and sequences – and how easy it becomes for the mind to tune out and the body to go onto auto-pilot. It’s very hard to stay curious, exploratory and present when this happens. Our bodies, nervous systems and brains also stop learning and growing when something becomes familiar and it becomes too easy to fall into ingrained habits and repetition.

Doing the same kinds of physical training over and over is also a sure fire way to create imbalance. Yoga is fantastic for improving pushing strength through all of its weight-bearing work in poses such as plank and downward-facing dog, and for increasing joint mobility and flexibility, but perhaps not so good for developing others areas of fitness such as cardiovascular endurance or pulling strength (more on this specifically later). Another common area of imbalance for yogis is the tendancy to train hip flexion (when the knee comes towards the chest) more than extension (when the leg goes back behind the hip). Yogis tend to be strong in their quads and pectorals due to all the lunges and chaturangas, but not necessarily as comfortable with movements that engage the extensor chain such as hamstrings, glutes and middle/lower trapezius.

In order to become stronger (and more mentally engaged) we need to continuously challenge the muscles and joints in new ways – to move them out of their comfort range, to explore new transitions, new joint angles, movement patterns and investigate the end range of our mobility. This end range has been described by Gary Ward in his fantastic book ‘What The Foot’ as the ‘dark zone’ and he suggests ‘growth and potential develop only when you step into the unknown and challenge yourself to do or be better’. When we move only within our comfort zone we limit ourselves and can not develop our true potential for strength and mobility.

So think outside the box – weave in ideas from other movement practices, play with new patterns and enjoy how your experience of yoga evolves and the potential of your body opens up.

 

 

  1. Incorporate mobility and strength drills (not just static holds) into your yoga practice

A healthy muscle should be able to shorten, lengthen and relax at optimal length, and healthy movement patterns rely on the ability of each and every muscle to do this. With this in mind, we need to start incorporating eccentric, concentric and isometric loading in our practice through movement, not just static holds of yoga poses. To clear things up a little let’s start by defining these terms:

Concentric strengthening– this is where we strengthen a muscle as its shortening under load

Eccentric strengthening – this is where we strengthen a muscle as its lengthening under load

Isometric strengthening – this is when we strengthen a muscle in a static length under load – i.e it is neither shortening or lengthening

In styles of yoga where we hold poses for longer periods of time such as Iyengar we do a lot of work in the isometric range. Working in the isometric range is useful for stabilisation and can be helpful particularly for students working with back pain. Muscles, however, need a wide variety of movement and to be strengthened at various different lengths in order to work at their optimum.

How might this look in a practical sense in a yoga pose? Say our desire was to strengthen our core and we wanted to practice forearm plank. One way we could challenge the abdominals to work in a new pattern is by incorporating a cat-cow type movement into our forearm plank so as we inhale we allow the lower belly to move towards the floor, lengthening the abdominal muscles as we keep them engaged (eccentric load), and as we exhale lifting the belly, contracting the abs and trying to round the spine towards the ceiling (concentric load). The neutral place between those two movements would be where we’d hit isometric strengthening but note this happens naturally anyway between the eccentric and concentric action.

When we start to look at this way of training the muscles in yoga it opens up an exciting range of movement possibilities. I have learnt and created lots of mobility/strength drills over the past couple of years and feel not only stronger but a lot more fluid and controlled as I move around the mat as a result.

 

 

  1. Bring in some equipment

When I first started yoga I remember naively thinking that needing props in yoga was a sign you were a beginner. These days my car is filled to the brim with yoga kit, and I personally use lots of it in my own practice and with clients. I’m not necessarily suggesting we need to go so far as bringing dumbbells into our yoga classes (although why not), but I do love to use equipment that can be used to introduce more resistance or movement opportunities.

Yoga straps and blocks can be super useful for helping to bring awareness to certain muscles. For example, I use straps to help students with mini lat pull-down type movements, or blocks between thighs in mountain pose to help students feel the adductors and pelvic floor turn on.

I have also recently fallen in love with mini-bands and resistance bands and use these in class to help with glute activation and to develop better awareness of how to set the shoulders for weight-bearing poses such as plank and downdog.

I use tea towels and blankets to act as foot sliders for movements such as hamstring curls in bridge or to practice hip pikes in sun salutations. I also love the small Pilates balls to help with spinal articulation and core work. There is really so much to choose from – the key again is to get creative and playful.

 

 

  1. Include plyometric movements

Plyometric movements are movements that require the rapid stretching and contracting of muscle fibres to increase muscle power and strength such as sprinting, jumping and hopping.

Most traditional yoga styles are steady, slow affairs. In Ashtanga and vinyasa styles there are some elements of jumping, particularly during the transition movements in sun salutations but there are not really enough of them to significantly boost the aerobic function of the heart and not varied enough to challenge the body in new and interesting ways.

This brings us to the difference between slow and fast twitch muscle fibres. Slow twitch muscle fibres are used for endurance activities, like taking a long 90 minute vinyasa class, whilst fast twitch muscle fibres are developed through short, sudden bursts of activity like running for the bus or jumping to catch a ball. To cultivate balanced strength ideally we want to incorpoate both types of movement into our training.

By incorporating drills in our yoga practice that incorporate plyometric-style movements such as jumping or hopping we can improve our cardiovascular health, train our fast-twitch muscle fibres and potentially improve the health of our bones, reducing the risk of osteoporosis. Some ideas include:

  • adding burpee style jumps into our sun salutations
  • mountain climbers
  • downdog bunny hops
  • plank-to-squat jumps

The options are huge and only limited by one’s imagination!

 

 

  1. To build more strength in a pose, do 1 or a combo of these:
  • Increase duration of hold
  • Increase the number of repetitions
  • Increase the load
  • Add movement variations to introduce variety, challenge and complexity

If you want to get stronger in a specific yoga pose there are 4 main ways to go about it – you could work with just one or try a combination. What you choose to do will depend a lot on the type of pose or movement you’re doing, but to give a simple example, let’s imagine you wanted to improve your strength in plank pose:

  • You could simply increase the length of time you hold plank, for example, from 30 seconds to 45 seconds
  • You could increase the number of times you practice plank in your yoga practice say from 5 times to 10 times.
  • You could place a sandbag or heavy cork yoga block on the back of your hips to hold up whilst in plank thus increasing the load.
  • You could incorporate the cat-cow movement as described in section 2 to provide a different kind of challenge.

 

 

  1. Buy a pull-up bar, monkey bars or rings

Ok, so technically this may not be something you’d incorporate within the yoga practice per se, but I do believe this has made a huge change to my overall body strength and has addressed a significant area for potential imbalance from doing only yoga, so I had to incorporate it in here.

Through my consistent yoga practice I have no issues with holding plank for at least a couple of minutes. I’m also very comfortable with the majority of regular arm balances in yoga. In terms of pushing shoulder strength I’d say I’m pretty strong. However, the first time I tried to lift my bodyweight up on a pull-up bar was very humbling to say the least. Basically I couldn’t do it, my feet weren’t going anywhere, let alone lifting off the floor!

Since then, I have worked hard to incorporate some amount of pulling work into my movement routines. I have a pull-up bar above my bedroom door and try to incorporate a few pull ups with different grip positions throughout the week. There are a lot of benefits to hanging including strengthening the wrist, elbow and shoulder joints – all essential for any aspiring yogi who wants to practice long-term. For more info and a list of the benefits I highly recommend checking out Ido Portal’s blog on ‘Hanging’ and his 7-minute daily hanging challenge he outlines.