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.

The Pursuit of Poses: A Shift in Perspective

A young Vicky in love with arm balances.

 

When I first began my yoga practice, I was both fascinated and captivated by the postures. Many of the yoga books attributed miraculous healing benefits and outcomes to each pose. However, as my journey into yoga evolved I started to realise that striving for ever advanced poses can be fraught with frustration.

 

The body waxes and wanes, your practice goes through peaks and troughs. Some days a pose is readily available, and some days a pose you used to be able to do mysteriously disappears from your repertoire. To base your sense of satisfaction and achievement on the relative ease (or not) with which you could attain these outward forms was like chasing a mirage.

 

As a teacher I witnessed how seductive the pursuit of poses could be and in many ways, as I reflect back on my earlier teaching years, I perhaps inadvertently encouraged it. I taught many classes that were all geared towards preparing you for some sort of ‘peak pose’ – usually an intermediate/advanced level arm balance or deep backbend. I tried to instill a message of finding joy in the journey but I do sometimes wonder if the message got lost along the way, that students felt an unconscious pressure to ‘get somewhere’ in their practice.

 

At this point, I want to say that I do believe in exploring, challenging and having fun with testing our physical and mental boundaries, whether that be through exploring a difficult yoga posture, training for a marathon or practicing cartwheels in your garden. My concern is that we don’t mistake the reward for the pose rather we recognise that the real pleasure and growth lies in the journey, the many pathways and detours we make towards it.

 

“Yoga is not about touching your toes, but about what you learn on the way down there.” ~ Judith Hanson Lasater

 

This quote speaks to the understanding that the poses are just tools, vehicles if you like for helping to light up and bring awareness to different experiences on all levels – physical, mental, energetic and even emotional.  What does the pose teach us about ourselves and our habits and tendencies? What does this pose have to offer us in terms of getting us to know ourselves better?

 

In truth, the process of learning to do something wonderful and crazy in your body (such as going upside-down, or balancing on one leg) is actually way more interesting and fun than the actual ‘doing’ of the pose. Even if we get a glimpse of satisfaction and achievement when we finally nail that handstand, human nature says that once we’ve learnt how to do something we quickly get bored and look to the next thing. This is not bad – constantly looking forwards is how we grow and evolve – it can just get a bit disheartening if you’re not aware of what’s happening.

 

A lot of my students tell me they want to learn the right way to do a pose – the correct technique. I always struggle with how to let them down gently. There is no right way. There is no neat list of cues that we can happily fit into a box called Downward-Facing Dog (DWD). This can be an inconvenient and uncomfortable realisation for those of us who like to have all the answers (basically me). In truth there are a million and one ways to do DWD depending on your skeletal structure and your intentions behind why you’re doing the pose in the first place. This lack of clarity around alignment can be confusing and frustrating for new students – they don’t want to get it wrong, they don’t want to get injured. And yet this is even further evidence to me that the way yoga is often taught may be missing the whole point entirely.

 

Downward-Facing Dog – annoyingly there is no one ‘right’ way to do this pose!

 

I humbly suggest that as teachers we need to empower our students to believe that they have the intuitive wisdom to align themselves in a way that feels integrated, strong and whole. This ability to feel into our bodies and discern and make sense of what we’re feeling and sensing can be a long and sometimes difficult process. In our analytical, logical, cerebrally-centered world many of us have learnt to ignore and shut down the messages of the body and yet what is yoga, if not the art and science of developing of getting to know ourselves better? This developing of self-awareness may in fact be the very best thing we can do for our health and well-being.

 

In my private sessions I am learning to be a little less prescriptive in my cueing (it is still work in progress).  Rather than saying  ‘Put your foot here, turn your shoulder this way – I invite students to try things, to see what gives them the greatest sense of space, strength and stability. “What would it feel like to widen your feet?”  “How can you place your arm to give you the greatest sense of opening in your shoulder?”

 

Rather than there being a wrong or a right way to do a pose – how about exploring many ways of doing something and finding the one that gives you the greatest sense of ease, whole body integration and strength?

Rather than the yoga teacher now being the “guru” or expert who supposedly knows all the answers, the teacher serves as a guide, asking questions along the way, helping the student to find their own answers.

 

Teaching in this way invites the student to see the practice as an internal experience, and a practice of self-enquiry, it creates an environment of playfulness and curiosity and ultimately reminds the student that they are the true authority on their body, not their yoga teacher, their physio or their massage therapist.

 

This type of learning comes from an inwardly directed force, rather than an externally directed dictate and it opens us to the realisation that there is no end goal, just this moment, this breath, this movement and the next time you step onto the mat it will all be different.

 

“We don’t use our body to get into a pose,

We use the pose to get into our body. ~Bernie Clark