Many people have managed to stay committed to their yoga practice, finding new ways - such as self practice, or joining remote classes online. For many the bliss of a good night's sleep has been challenged - with changed routines, including working from home and home schooling - and other demands and responsibilities. The mind may be distracted and anxieties keep us awake, as we try to make sense and adapt to a turbulent world...But, a good nights sleep is not only essential to health, but will also improve your yoga practice, bringing a sense of control and calm that is healing to mind and body. The following
7 tips will help you sleep better - taking your practice from mat to bed - to restore, relax and experience the changing levels of consciousness that make us aware of the transformative and healing power of yoga.
A good nights sleep restores the body and mind, ready for activity and able to enjoy the day ahead. Many people are unaware of the importance of sleep until their sleep is disrupted, either through insomnia or other challenges such as pain, anxiety, illness or external changes - a new baby, shift work or jet lag.
Sleep is a highly important function, essential for growth and development and for psychological processing. The quality and quantity of sleep we receive impacts on our health, relationships, work and society. By understanding what is happening during sleep, we are better able to adjust our lives to improve the quality of sleep, benefit from better health and feel more alert when we come to the mat.
Sleep can be divided into four stages and two distinct state: REM and non REM (deep sleep). The Rapid Eye Movement (REM) state is when the eyes can be seen to move under the eyelids and dreaming occurs. During deep sleep the body slows down, the muscles relax, breathing and heartbeat become slower and blood pressure decreases. The four stages can, for an adult, be divided into 90-minute cycles. This starts with some light sleep which is roughly half of all sleeping time, then deep sleep, accounting for about 20 per cent, and finally the lighter REM sleep when dreams occur, which is about 20 per cent.
As we fall asleep and lose consciousness there is a steady change in EEG measurements as brain activity slows. The four stages of sleep are identified by changes in the brain and muscle tone. The discovery of REM sleep (where the eyes make rapid movements and the muscles are deeply relaxed) was so important that the other stages are now called non REM sleep. During REM sleep activity in the brain is similar to being awake. This is the time when we have dreams and the body is relaxed and still. This deep muscle relaxation is believed to be nature's way of protecting us from 'acting out' our dreams.
The drive to sleep is mainly controlled by the time we spend awake. This is known as the Sleep Homeostatis, which strives to maintain balance in our body by satisfying our need to sleep. This internal control regulates the balance between being awake and being asleep. The longer you stay awake the sleepier you become and then, after you have had sufficient sleep, you start to wake up.
The other influence on when we sleep is the Circadian Timer (Circa Diem means 'around the day') which is the 'body clock' that influences how we function during the 24-hour day. Our desire to sleep during the night sets in sometime after 6 months, which explains why babies wake throughout a 24-hour period. The hormone melatonin regulates the body clock. This is produced by the pineal gland in the brain and production increases during hours of darkness and decreases during daylight. This circadian rhythm affects our amount of 'wakefulness' and there is a dip during the afternoon, which roughly coincides with the traditional siesta when the sun is at its hottest.
When the internal clock, the Sleep Homeostatis' and the external influence of the Circadian Timer work in unison, the body is programmed to sleep at night. This natural rhythm may be interrupted, or in some cases the automatic nature of the need to sleep challenged, causing insomnia and other disturbances.
Most of us assess our sleep in relation to the number of hours we spend asleep. Most people underestimate the amount of hours they sleep, probably because they are only conscious of the time spent falling asleep, difficulty staying asleep and early waking. The time when they are sleeping is not measured and the time spent awake seems endless.
Our need for sleep is such that it would be possible to survive three times as long without food than without sleep! Deprived of sufficient sleep it is impossible to function efficiently. Too little sleep or no sleep causes various degrees of irritability, memory problems, tiredness and eventually an inability to stay awake.
Insufficient sleep affects our emotions and may make us more excitable, anxious or depressed. Without sleep we are prone to accidents and physical and psychological problems. Insufficient sleep has been shown to impact on our physical, emotional and mental health.
Now that we understand why and how we sleep, we are better able to apply this to our yoga practice. The following tips will not only encourage a peaceful night’s sleep, but also help you feel more alert during your waking hours.
1. Adjust your practice to make the best of your natural sleep/wake rhythm. The earlier hours of the day are the best times for more energetic practice such as ashtangar, flow and inversions. From late afternoon, concentrate on stretching and more static poses.
2. The mind is more alert in the morning making this the ideal time for meditation and pranayama.
3. Avoid pranayama practises that include strong inhalations and retention in the later hours. Calm, natural exhalations will encourage the body to relax, lowering blood pressure and releasing anxiety.
4. Avoid caffeine, alcohol, spicy food, heavy meals before bedtime. Turn off screens such as mobile phones, TV and computers the hour before bedtime.
5. Naps of 15-20 minutes help to keep you alert, but they also count as part of your ‘sleep allowance’. Too many, too late will affect the way you sleep.
6. A regular routine encourages the mind and body to develop the relaxation/sleep response. This may depend on your body clock (lark or owl?) or your commitments, but by developing healthy habits you will train the mind and body expect and enjoy a good nights sleep.
7. Anxiety about sleep keeps you awake! Consider using the tools that enhance your yoga practice – affirmations and commitment – and apply these to creating the conditions that will help you sleep.