Will yoga help me sleep?
“Will yoga help me sleep?” – This question is posed to me A LOT.
I’ll preface this by saying I’m not a medic or a sleep research specialist. I don’t sell beds or mattresses, herbal supplements or anything else sleep-related for that matter.
What makes me qualified to talk about sleep?
Yoga has helped me and many of my students to find more restful, deeper sleep, and helped us with how to cope with disturbed sleep, but that’s the extent of it.
I sleep so deeply after class, it’s the best night’s sleep of the week! But does that enable me to answer your question of ‘will yoga help me sleep?’?
My experience of sleep is limited to not having had very much of it. Not enough, that’s for sure, and for a variety of reasons over the years:
- I can’t turn my washing machine brain off to actually get to sleep
- I am woken up by a child/snoring husband/something banging outside/a bad dream/my own snoring/being kicked for snoring
- Not going to bed early enough because I’m working
- I’m desperate for some time to myself, even if that can only happen between midnight and 2am!
- Not getting quality sleep because I’ve had a few glasses of wine (shock! horror! I *do* like a drink!)
- Not getting quality sleep because I’m worrying
I’m mindful that not everyone reading my posts is a parent, but it has a bearing on my experience of sleep.
Neither of my children really got the whole sleeping thing, for a loooooong time. That said, my eldest child could now sleep through a hurricane (she has, in fact, slept through several minor earthquakes), and my youngest is getting a lot better at sleeping (huzzah!). Anyhow, it occurred to me today that I have Googled ‘How to help your child sleep’ an awful lot over the last six years. But not once did I ever Google ‘How can I sleep better?’ over the 40-odd years I’ve walked this planet and slept pretty badly, despite practising yoga for many of them.
Why do I sleep well some nights?
In my experience, the nights I’ve gone to sleep as soon as my head hits the pillow and – equally as importantly – stayed asleep until morning, it’s normally a combination of:
- I am physically tired from having been outside. It could be that we’ve been walking on the beach or up a mountain all day
- My children have had a physically and mentally stimulating day and have had wind-down time before bed, so don’t wake me up!
- Work is not worrying me
- Nothing I have said or done is worrying me
- I’m not worrying about something that might happen in the future
- My mental health is in check
- I’ve been to a yoga class
Which neatly bring me on to the purpose of this post…
Will yoga help me sleep?
I would say, hand on heart: yoga helps me sleep better. There are two caveats here… firstly there are plenty of types of yoga that invigorate and revitalise, raise the heart rate and awaken your mind and body. Clearly, this is not the sort of yoga I do when I’m trying to improve my sleep. And secondly, this is simply my experience with my yoga.
When I attend a yoga class that involves all aspects that I value: centring, postures, breath work, and a relaxation/meditation, this is always followed by good quality sleep.
But, I’m not going to a yoga class every day
Who is?! I’m not in the position whereby I can go to a led-class every day. I try to go to at least one class (as a participant not a teacher) per week and I try to practice some form of yoga every day. For me, there is a difference between my personal practice and being told what to do in a class, particularly when it comes to relaxation of my body and mind. But when it comes to all things sleep there are a few things that help and I call on time after time. So I thought I’d share one with you here:
This is my go-to breathing technique when I can’t sleep or when I can’t get back to sleep. It involves being aware of my breath and visualising it, and counting and breathing. That’s usually enough to occupy my mind sufficiently so that I don’t fixate on one worry or another. Couple that with the relaxing effect on my body of controlled breathing and after a few minutes I’ve either drifted off or my mind has calmed to a state where I can purposefully go to sleep.
So, how do I do box breath?
A lot of breath work is done sitting up, but for the purposes of getting to sleep, it is fine to do this lying down. I do it lying on my back with my body nicely straight with my arms by my side or rested on my abdomen.
So check out the girl in the picture. She has numbers on the following:
- right hip
- right shoulder
- left shoulder
- left hip.
There are arrows too – the light pink arrows represent pauses and the dark pink arrows represent inhales and exhales.
So here’s how my practice goes:
I lie still with my eyes closed and breathe with consciousness. I’m not trying to alter my breath, I’m just noticing it coming in and out of my nostrils (as opposed to my mouth).
Now, I simultaneously start to take my awareness to my right hip (1) and I inhale as I imagine my breath rising up to my right shoulder (2). Without pausing, I start to exhale as I notice my breath leaving my left shoulder and lowering towards my left hip. So for now, I’m trying to match the journey between hip and shoulder to either an inhale and exhale. It’s gentle and unforced and there’s no need to do really long breaths.
Then I add in a count, so I might start by counting to two as I inhale and two as I exhale.
I might then notice a little pause at the end of each inhale and exhale as I picture my breath travelling across my body (2 to 3 and 4 to 1). So it goes inhale (for two), pause, exhale (for two), pause, inhale… And I just keep going.
Sometimes that’s enough, and if you haven’t done much breath work before then start with that. Just keep repeating the circuitous route for a few minutes as you inhale and exhale in a smoother, regular pattern.
If you want to take it further then you can start to adapt your counting, keeping your breath pace the same: you’re counting at the same speed but the inhales, exhales and pauses are lasting a little longer. So you might do the following patterns using the same pathway around your hips and shoulders:
- Inhale for 3
- Pause for 1
- Exhale for 3
- Pause for 1
- Inhale for 4
- Pause for 2
- Exhale for 4
- Pause for 2
After a few minutes in total, just let that practice go and allow your breath to settle into its natural rhythm, and your mind to stop counting as you observe your breath coming in and out of your body.
I’d recommend that’s all you do to start with and see how you feel. If it helps to calm your mind and relax your body then it’s working. However, if you feel light headed or any discomfort then stop. If you are keen to try more then I’d strongly suggest you head to a class and experiment with breathing techniques under the supervision of someone that knows what they are doing. There are plenty of tutorials on YouTube but nothing beats the attentiveness, knowledge and experience of a real life yoga teacher.
Let me know how you get on, do you like it? Do you settle into a ratio that feels comfortable? Does it help you sleep? What else helps you to sleep? Get in touch, I’d love to hear from you.