I first heard the word “insomnia” at age 12. It was the word my doctor used to describe my tossing and turning and frequent wake-ups in the middle of the night. It was debilitating. I struggled to pay attention in school and fully engage in my life, spending most of my sleeping and waking life in an anxious state of fog. At night, I would wish I was asleep and become frustrated and dismal about not being able to sleep. I did not realize at the time that the insomnia was triggered by stress and anxiety in my life about grades, my social life, and my physical appearance. I also did not realize that my thoughts and frustrations about my inability to sleep exacerbated my insomnia, perpetuating a horrible cycle of depression, anxiety, insomnia, and low self-esteem which I lived with through my middle and high school years.
It was not until I was in college that my sleep patterns began to normalize. In college, I began doing yoga originally as a way to stay fit and avoid the freshman 15. Over time I began to recognize yoga as a way to develop into a more self-aware and spiritual being. I would be amazed to find myself dozing off on the mat after a class during a 5-minute savasana, when I would spend hours unable to sleep in my own bed. This remained a mystery until I began my studies as a mental health counselor and realized yoga had been teaching me how to regulate my nervous system without my conscious awareness. I had been reaping the benefits of better sleep without knowing why.
People who suffer from insomnia typically suffer concurrently from stress and anxiety. Our autonomic nervous system is responsible for regulating our levels of arousal with two main states: sympathetic (“fight or flight”) and parasympathetic (“rest and digest”). Our nervous system fluctuates back and forth between these two states naturally throughout the day. In a balanced person, the nervous system moves back and forth between sympathetic and parasympathetic throughout the day, and even with each in-breath and out-breath, maintaining an overall state of equilibrium between the two states. But trauma and stress can damage this normal healthy autonomic nervous system’s flow, trapping us in a hyperaroused state as a baseline, and never allowing us to fully relax.
People who struggle with stress, anxiety, and insomnia frequently experience sympathetic arousal at inappropriate levels and unfortunate times, such as right before bedtime. Physical and mental relaxation is necessary for quality sleep, and when the body and mind are unable to calm down, insomnia can set in as a result of a hyper-aroused or sympathetic state. To make matters worse, frustration, impatience, and fear about not being able to sleep can exacerbate insomnia, trapping us in a cycle of struggling to sleep, worrying about the inability to sleep, sympathetic activation, and release of stress hormones, which increases the struggle to sleep and perpetuates the cycle.
People have asked me how I manage to juggle the two “different” professions of yoga and counseling. But I see them as a complement to each other. The mat can be a place of deep self-inquiry, where we can become more aware of our patterns and the lessons the body has to teach. The yoga “practice” is a place not only for the practice of physical postures but of new ways of being. And yoga can be a place to begin to live the lessons we learn in counseling, trying out new ways of relating to ourselves and the external world and empowering us to take these lessons into our lives. Over time, yoga can help us learn to self-regulate and return the nervous system to a healthy equilibrium.
When it comes to toning the nervous system, not all yoga is created equal. Strength-based “yang” or sympathetic practices such as Ashtanga, power, and vinyasa may exhaust the body, which can make sleeping at night easier. However, if you want to re-balance a nervous system predisposed to hyper-arousal, what you need is a softening and relaxing parasympathetic practice. Below are several yogic practices I recommend for a calm, balanced nervous system. These practices best serve you when viewed as an opportunity to unwind and relax, and NOT as a means to an end. If you are expecting the practices to help you sleep and become frustrated or worried if you do not feel relaxed during the process, then you may perpetuate hyper-arousal which is counter-productive to better sleep. Aim to soften into the practice, release effort, and surrender to your experience.
Try These 7 Yoga-Inspired Practices for Better Sleep
1. Restorative Yoga: The type of yoga I most recommend for this is restorative yoga. Restorative yoga involves surrendering the body into postures held by props. It is not a class devoted to stretching or strengthening, but rather surrendering. In restorative yoga, the body is completely held by props, allowing the student to achieve deep states of relaxation. When the mind stays in the body and the body is completely held, the brain can re-build neural connections to painful and tense places which may have been severed, the body gets the message to let go of deeply-held tension, and the autonomic nervous system calms down enough to allow deep healing and regeneration to occur. In restorative yoga, you are invited to perceive and investigate what is going on inside your body, accept what is there, and relax in order to mindfully connect more with the self and build a bridge towards healing and renewal.
2. Natural breathing: The breath has a relationship with the stress response system. A stressed state causes rapid and shallow breathing. Relaxing and allowing the natural breath to deepen can bring the nervous system into a more balanced state. To assess your natural breath rate, lay on the ground, supported by any props you need. Bring your awareness to your breath. Notice if it is confined only to the chest, or if it deepens into the belly. After you’ve observed your breath in this way without judging, see if you can relax the muscles around the chest, ribcage, and abdomen to allow the breath to deepen. Do NOT force! Forcing is a sympathetic process that will make you more stressed!
3. Pranayama: Pranayama literally means “controlling life force energy,” and refers to yoga breathing exercises. Use pranayama to empower you to gain more influence over your energy, breath, and nervous system states. To balance, use balanced techniques such as alternate nostril or square breathing. To facilitate relaxation, emphasize parasympathetic breathing by extending the out-breath or by breathing in and out of the left nostril only.
4. Grounding: Use grounding exercises to connect with your body in the here-and-now. Racing thoughts can carry us away into a hyper-aroused state. But by connecting to a present-moment sense of safety in your body, you can calm your nervous system down.
5. Chant or Hum: chanting helps tone the vagus nerve, the primary nerve that connects the brain to the face, heart, lungs, and internal organs, and is responsible for regulating the autonomic nervous system. The vibrations from chanting are also soothing. Try a simple “om” or hum.
6. Yoga Nidra: Yoga Nidra means “yogic sleep.” Rather than fully going to sleep, this practice guides you into deep relaxation through verbal instructions which take you deep into your inner world.
7. Journaling and Reflecting: Increase awareness of your personal experience and note the changes that occur for you as you begin to introduce these practices into your life.
Insights of this blog are inspired by my personal practice, professional qualifications, and the work of:
Dr. Arielle Schwartz’s Blog at https://drarielleschwartz.com/
The Little Book of Yoga Breathing by Scott Shaw
Restorative Yoga with Assists by Sue Flamm
8 Keys to Brain-Body Balance by Robert Scaer