Extended excerpt: Yoga for Better Sleep
From Yoga for Better Sleep, by Mark Stephens
Sleeping well is all about sleep health. There are many things that come into play in how we sleep, both in what naturally makes us sleep and what can disturb our sleep. Yet for every consequence of poor sleep, there are inestimable benefits of good sleep. With our brain nourished, heart in rhythm, emotions attuned, immune system strengthened, metabolism functional, and energy balanced, we simply feel better—and we are better. Even with aging and other changes in life, sleep health improves our overall health as we literally sleep ourselves well.
Difficulty with sleep has led to a vast array of proposed sleep solutions, some of which work (sleeping pills, all of which have significant side effects and can be habit forming) and some of which are modern-day snake oil (there are many, the main effect of which is less money in your bank account). There are also several effective ways to sleep better using healthy solutions.
Before making choices in healing your insomnia or other sleep disorder, it’s important to understand what’s causing the sleep difficulty. In the book, we begin with assessment, then discuss the leading conventional approaches of sleep medicine. Next, we cover sleep hygiene practices, which have a close affinity with yoga approaches to better sleep and are often offered along with medication and CBT. Finally, we look at how yoga—in conjunction with safe and healthy conventional approaches—offers deeper self-assessment tools and a set of interrelated practices for bringing greater balance into our lives and directly improving the quality and quantity of our sleep. An introduction to appreciative assessment and some insights into how we can get better sleep with yoga are included below.
The first step in sleeping well is to understand why you might not sleep well. Recognizing that sleep is a behavior, we can appreciate that sleeping well is a unique experience shaped by physical, mental, emotional, and environmental conditions, including our personal and social relationships and how our lives are organized around the 24-hour clock. A one-size-fits-all approach to improving sleep makes no sense. Instead, it is important to address what causes you to have problems getting healthy sleep.
Better sleep with yoga
In the yoga perspective, the key to health and well-being is homeostatic balance and equanimity (samatvam). Although our lives are conditioned by our genetics and accumulated life experience (samskaras), we can cultivate balance through the actions (kriyas) we take in our daily lives, starting with sleep hygiene practices. We can build on and reinforce the benefits of sleep hygiene and elements of CBT-I with simple yoga techniques that can be tailored to have a directly beneficial effect on our sleep.
Increasingly strong evidence—much of it presented in comprehensive texts on yoga therapy—shows the benefit of certain types of yoga in helping to heal a wide array of health conditions, many of which pertain to sleep. There are three primary types of yoga practice in part II of this book in support of better sleep:
- Postural: Postural practices involve bringing the body into various positions that release tension and allow the body to optimally function. Postures can be selected to target specific areas of tension, reducing embodied stress in ways that translate to greater emotional balance and peace of mind.
- Breathing: Conscious breathing is an integral part of postural practice. It also forms the heart of pranayama, which consists of several specific breathing techniques that are relatively calming or stimulating.
- Meditation: Postural and breathing practices invite being mentally present—mindful—in ways that help to settle and clear the mind. Several meditation techniques—breath-focused, yoga nidra (the yoga form of progressive relaxation), counting, and chakra-based—expand mindfulness in ways that root out deeply held tension and empower us to embody healthier mental and behavioral patterns.
The Path of the Yoga Sūtra of Patañjali
Self-assessment and a clear understanding of our conditions are an essential part of knowing what actions and practices are most beneficial. This starts by gaining clearer and far deeper self-awareness than we can get from the conventional assessments discussed earlier. ū
But as the Yoga Sūtra points out, we often lack accurate self-understanding (pramānāmi), which is mediated by our sensory perception (pratyaksa), our ability to think (anumāna), and the insights of others who influence us (āgamāh), all of which can be accurate or distorted. One aspect of this is how illness, mental lethargy, doubt, haste, apathy, and lack of perseverance disturb us—our breathing, our mind, our body. With refined sensory perception, clear thinking, and informed guidance, we more naturally come into balance. We can cultivate self-understanding through steady, intense, and brave self-observation of thoughts and behavioral tendencies, the yogi’s approach to cognitive behavioral self-therapy. It is a method that involves abhyasa, “persevering practice,” over a long and uninterrupted period, this while free of attachment to the fruits of this effort (vairagya, “nonattachment”). How one fares in this tends to vary based on temperament, whether gentle, tender, and slow (mrdu), moderate (madhya), or lively, strong, and rapid (adhimātratvāt). It also depends on our kleshas, those persistent afflictions that disturb our body, mind, and spirit, clouding our self-awareness.
The Yoga Sūtra presents an eight-step practice, ashtanga (“eight limb”), to reduce our kleshas and to come into greater balance and equanimity. It is a set of self-transforming practices
that give yoga much of its efficacy and its increasingly mass appeal, beginning with a set of practices called yama and niyama that are squarely aimed at the kleshas. Here we describe each of the eight limbs, offering literal translation, liberal interpretation, and generous embellishment to integrate ashtanga with holistic (rather than dualistic) qualities that can make this path more effective in sleeping well in the modern world.
Yama: Cultivating a Moral Life
The first limb, yama, “to contain,” is about creating a moral container such that our choices and actions are honorable. It consists of five principles for how we interact with others, all of which can reflect and reinforce the causes of our sleep issues:
Ahimsa, to be free of hostility and violence. Hostile thoughts and the perception of hostility near or around us interferes with the calm and light qualities of being that allow us to sleep well.
Satya, to be truthful. Being honest with ourselves and others makes everything in our lives simpler, clearer, and more authentic. Dishonesty creates complication, confusion, and hubris, which play into the stress and anxiety that disturb sleep.
Asteya, to be honest in the realm of material things and having probity in our relationships. When honest and with integrity, we do not take what is not ours, and we do not proclaim things about ourselves that are not true. As a result, we are freer of the cognitive dissonance that can pervade and disturb the mind.
Brahmacharya, to exercise moderation in one’s emotional, sensual, sexual, physical, and mental energy. Through moderation we establish more harmonious relationships in our bodymind (we are more in balance) and with others; when it is time to sleep, we more naturally sleep.
Aparigraha, noncovetousness such that there is no impatience or worry about what one wishes to have in one’s life. Free of greed, we naturally are more patient and at peace with our lives as they are in the moment.
Rooted in this foundation of moral action, we come to the second limb, niyama, “next to yama,” which consists of five qualities that you can directly apply in sleep hygiene and self-guided CBT-I:
Saucha, the cultivation of purity in body and thought. In taking care of ourselves, in part by ingesting only what is healthy (whether food, medication, conversation, or other things), we develop and maintain better health; and the purity of bodymind we cultivate with saucha allows our spirit to blossom, and with it we find better sleep.
Samtosa (the complete aphorism is samtosādanuttamah sukhalābhah) conveys the idea of gaining happiness , a quality of psychological well-being that arises from saucha and frees oneself of kleshasthrough contentment, a quality of psychological well-being that arises from saucha and frees oneself of kleshas.
Tapas, the self-discipline and austerity that allow us to maintain intense, focused action directed to this path of self-awareness and healthy living. Making changes in our life—regarding food, exercise, work, and everything else that affects our sleep—involves confronting habits that can seem perfectly natural. Letting go of what we do not need while focusing on what is truly important opens us to creating and sustaining new, healthier daily routines.
Svadyaya, self-study, whether through self-reflection or study of insightful writings that shed light on one’s condition. We are all unique beings, with different ideas, feelings, and even genetics. Getting to know ourselves in any and every way we can generates the self-knowledge that empowers us to take more sensible action in our lives. This applies on multiple levels to matters of sleep, starting with the sleep-related assessments discussed at the beginning of this chapter.
Ishvara-pranidhana (the complete aphorism is samādhi-siddhih-īs ́vara-pranidhānāt) tells us that the state of clear awareness and the powers that arise from it come through devotion to something greater than oneself, a posture of supreme humility. In appealing to a source or principle greater than ourselves, we gain the power to more easily let go of the ego, to more easily and fully concentrate on what is most important in our life, and to thereby act with greater devotion to what most guides or inspires us in life.
Asana: Developing Steadiness and Ease
Best known as physical postures that most define yoga today, there is a growing body of evidence that asana practices—especially done in conjunction with breathing and meditation practices—can reduce anxiety, depression, pain, and other conditions that interfere with sleeping well. Ancient yoga texts say little about asana, the term typically translated as “posture.” All we get from the Yoga Sūtra is sthira, meaning “steadiness”; sukham, meaning “ease”; and asanam, from the root word as, “to sit,” which, in the context of the book’s focus on the mind and meditation, suggests being present. Yet there is profound wisdom residing in this concept of asana, especially when informed by not only ancient wisdom but everything we have learned since.
In keeping with the Yoga Sūtra’s main theme of meditation, asana was never intended to mean anything beyond sitting stably and comfortably. So, why go beyond a simple seated posture in doing asana?
Part of the beauty and benefit of a richly varied yoga asana practice is that each different posture is as though so many different windows onto ourselves. Each posture, with its
unique requirements for sthira sukham, highlights tension and other sensations in the body and reveals our relative strengths, weaknesses, and imbalances. With experience and mindful practice, we learn to sense how different postures stimulate different emotional and mental reactions; a certain posture done in one way, at a certain time, or in a certain circumstance tends to generate effects that differ from doing it differently or in a different situation. They bring to light what we gravitate toward or resist, what we find frustrating or joyful, and where we are tense or in balance. They are tools for revealing ourselves to ourselves; as such they are also, potentially, much more.
The experiences and insights in asana practice can help us in better understanding and transforming many of the conditions that give rise to poor sleep. Whether we are stressed out, anxious, depressed, fatigued, in pain, or out of sync, appropriate postural sequences in well-designed asana practices can not only address these symptoms, but generate insight into what gives rise to them, helping us to resolve them. Directly significant for better sleep, they can stimulate us or calm us down, help us relax, balance our emotions, and bring us more to a state of equanimity in which sleepiness and awakening happen in the healthiest ways.
Pranayama: Awakening and Balancing Energy
The breath is the transformative elixir at the heart of yoga. Whereas prana, “life force,” is mentioned in ancient yoga texts, the basic yoga breathing technique of ujjayi pranayama was first described in the fifteenth-century Hatha Yoga Pradipika. Ujjayi means “uplifting”; pranayama is from the root words prana and both -yama, “to contain,” and -ayama, “to expand.” Ujjayi pranayama allows us to cultivate energy in ways that not only contain or regulate it but also expand or liberate it. It allows us tohave a nuanced sensitivity to the movement of breath in and out of our body while enhancing our interoception—inner self-perception, which is perhaps the most essential aspect of yoga asana practice. Breathing happens naturally, involuntarily, and unconsciously.
The breath nourishes us and potentially guides us in asana practice and life. Along with food and sleep, it is the source of energetic awakening. Through conscious breathing—using ujjayi pranayama—we more naturally and easily open and sense things physically and emotionally, learning more about ourselves—our tendencies, habits, and self-limitations. But before we get there, we are naturally breathing—or breathing with inhibition.
Natural breathing varies considerably depending on our emotional, mental, and physical condition. Although the average human breath capacity is around five liters, the average actual inhalation is, habitually or symptomatically, around one liter. Our breathing is compromised by many health problems, with stress, depression, anxiety, tight or weak respiratory muscles, distraction, lethargy, flighty energy, and smoking making it worse. Under these conditions, the breath is typically shallow and inefficient, and overrelies on secondary respiratory muscles rather than the diaphragm, which is the primary muscle of respiration.
Yet even when otherwise healthy, the breath tends to fade when we are not aware of it, which happens frequently amid everything else that is happening in life. When this occurs amid yoga asana practice, we tend to lose focus, our attention drifting or leaping away from the here and now. It is more difficult to sense what is happening in our bodymind and to thereby refine what we are doing in sensible ways, thus limiting or disturbing our ability to cultivate and balance stability and ease. Pranayama practices give us a set of tools for developing and refining our breathing capacity, both quantitatively and qualitatively.
While ujjayi pranayama is essential in asana practice, and while asana practice lends to deeper and more refined breathing and sthira sukham, several other pranayama practices can be done independently of, or in conjunction with, asana, with significant effects on energy, mood, and awareness. These pranayama practices also further prepare us for concentration and contemplation practices.
Pratyahara: Letting Go of Distractions
Distraction and rumination can easily keep us from sleeping well. Even after we have done our best sleep hygiene practices and created a sleep space that is quiet, cool, and dark, we can still get swept up in what comes to our senses. This is where the yoga practice of pratyahara, which means to relieve oneself of external stimuli, can be helpful.
Recalling the purpose of yoga as liberation from an unstable mind, yoga offers practices for bringing sthira sukham to the mind. This revolves around chitta vrtti nirodha, “to still the fluctuations of the mind.” But mental fluctuations, rooted in samskaras, evident in the kleshas, and stimulated by everything around us, are exacerbated by bombardment of the mind by everything that comes to it through our senses. Pratyahara allows us to more easily dwell in the mind free of external distractions that otherwise disturb it through sensory overload.
Where the mind is hyperreactive to even the slightest stimuli, precluding concentration, pratyahara might be helpful. Pratyahara can play a central role in sleeping well, as it is one of the keys to deep relaxation. As we explore in chapter 4 with asana, pranayama, and meditation, pratyahara exercises help us in training our senses to be more attuned to inner sensations in ways that bring us to a state of deep ease.
Dharana: Focusing Your Mind
With the greater mastery of our senses attained through pratyahara, we are better able to concentrate our mind. As a prelde to a purely contemplative state, dharana, meaning “with concentration,” invites us to actively focus our attention on just one thing, even the most mundane activities, from making the bed to chopping vegetables. Dharana practice most sensibly begins simply sitting and focusing on one thing such as watching the breath, repeating a word (mantra) over and over, or gazing at a candle. Making the bed with dharana, we bring mindfulness to each task, from spreading and tucking in the sheets to placing the pillows, present in the experience of making the bed. As we practice this quality of concentration in the simplest of activities, we begin to establish the habit of being present, our mind increasingly entrained to our actions and situations, including the actions of relaxing and letting go late at night that let us slip into sleep. It is also a step into deeper meditation.
Dhyana: Opening to a Clear Mind
With a sense of peace in our lives, living in honesty, less attached to things, purer in bodymind, more disciplined in our daily life, with deeper self-understanding, and the ability to dissociate from the sensory world, the concentrated awareness practice of dharana can naturally bring us to dhyana, a more purely meditative state in which the effort to concentrate on one thing gives way to contemplative presence. In this cultivated state of mind, beyond memory and reflection yet fully aware, we are just in it, with uninterrupted awareness of whatever is still in our consciousness.
Samadhi: The Fruits of Yoga
Amid the fluid experience of awareness from pratyahara to dharana to dhyana, we can get glimpses of something that seems like nothing. Without effort, even the object of our concentration disappears. This is samadhi, an undisturbed contemplative state. At peace within and with the universe, at one in the moment, yet still in the fluid experience of awareness, we get glimpses of something that seems like nothing or the whole of it all. Perhaps it is only for a millisecond, as the fluidity of consciousness and the play of the senses and samskaras are nearby, so we keep coming back into the triad of samyama—dharana, dhyana, samadhi—in an exquisite dance of increasingly pure absorption in being. We are cultivating ourselves to be as clear and at ease as can be. Better sleep is going to happen.