December 7, 2014

Combat Insomnia with Yoga & Breath Work: a Guide.



“Sleep like a baby.”

Just the thought of it at over 50 years old, baby no way.

Here are some practical yoga suggestions with clear explanations about what is going on with your hormones and nervous systems. Yogic techniques will help you sleep better—through physical exercise (asana), breathing techniques (pranayama), and meditation.

Exactly why we need to sleep is still a bit of a mystery. We all know how difficult it is to function when we are tired. Moreover, long-term sleep deprivation is unhealthy for your body. Some of the latest research has found evidence that during sleep, special cells in the brain—part of what is termed the “glymphatic system”—flush out metabolic waste products.

Fluids in the brain surrounding the glymphatic system increase by as much as 60 percent during sleep. This process in unique to the brain. The brain does not have a lymphatic system to perform the metabolic waste removal function, like other parts of the body.

Most sleep loss is stress related and each person’s stresses are unique. Sources of stress that keep us awake include family issues, money, health, too much activity, too little activity and many others. A pragmatic approach to a resting process starts with identifying any underlying stress. Then remind yourself that you will undoubtedly better deal with that stress after a good night’s sleep.

Try one of Colin Powell’s personal rules: “It ain’t as bad as you think. It will look better in the morning.”

So what to think about instead of those stressors? Yoga has some pragmatic advice: think about the things you are grateful for, and go after contentment like a lover. Further discussion is outside the scope of this article, but if you’re interested in further exploring yogic philosophy, you’ll find lots of pragmatic advice about how the mind works and how to relax and be content with your lot in life.

Some adults are fine with six hours of sleep and some need nine every night. That’s genetics. If you are waking up at 4:00 a.m. and can’t get back to sleep, try getting up—many find the early hours to be very productive. Or maybe you wake up every night at 3:00 a.m. and lie awake for an hour, then go back to bed (what was called in the Middle Ages a “second sleep”).

There are a wide variety of sleep patterns, and it’s important to accept your own pattern. Enjoy the peace of being awake for an hour in the middle of the night, rather than letting that hour add to your stress.

Yoga is an individual experience, and part of yoga is finding the style that works best for you. This also applies to sleep! Read and experiment with some of these ideas, and find out what works best for you. Maybe it’s a regular yoga practice during the day. Maybe it’s a short sequence before sleep. Whatever it is, let it become familiar and secure. You know what’s coming, and that routine that will help you sleep.

Our Sleep Cycle: Hormones and Neurological Systems


The pineal gland in the brain secretes melatonin. Melatonin induces drowsiness and lowers body temperature. The human body naturally begins to release melatonin in the early evening. Humans produce less melatonin as they age, so we get less of this hormone as the years go by.

Melatonin is inhibited by “blue light” (what comes from your TV, computer, and phone). So if you’re having trouble sleeping, try limiting your exposure to blue light, especially before bedtime.

Another hormone that can cause unwanted stimulation is cortisol. Cortisol is released by the adrenal gland when you are stressed by a perceived threat. It is part of the fight or flight response governed by your sympathetic nervous system. So one way to reduce the cortisol being released is to reformulate the stress your body is processing, from a threat into a challenge.

A challenge versus a threat is considered a non-adrenaline vs adrenaline hormonal response. After asking yourself what the underlying reason is for your stress, the next step is to make that threat into a challenge. A challenge is something we can have control over. For example, if you know that your job is the primary cause of stress, convert that sense of threat into the challenge of creating a positive outcome in your career.

Neurological Systems

Our discussion about sleep involves two parts of the autonomous nervous division. The autonomous division of our nervous system regulates systems like metabolism, heart rate, blood pressure, breathing rate and muscle tone. The two nervous systems we talk about with sleep are the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system.

The sympathetic nervous system is the one responsible for arousal, fight or flight—when a stress threat is in your mind at 3:00 a.m., it’s the sympathetic nervous system that releases cortisol.

The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for rest, digestion, and repair. The vagus nerve, which comprises 80 percent  of the parasympathetic nervous system, can slow the heart rate, open airways to the lungs, and lower blood pressure. The vagus nerve starts from the main nervous activation centers of the brain and branches into many tributaries touching organs and conveying information to and from the brain about the functioning of organs.

The sympathetic and parasympathetic autonomic branches of our nervous system work independently. Both can move toward arousal or relaxation, or they can move in opposite directions.

With an active yoga practice, you can cultivate your nervous system for better sleep. Yoga positions (asanas), yogic breathing (pranayama), and meditation help you develop more control over your body’s response to its environment—and thus rest easier.

There is substantial clinical evidence that seasoned yoga practitioners have better control of the autonomous nervous response. Clinical research has shown the remarkable ability of seasoned yogis to willingly slow their resting heart rates, change body temperature, and go into a state of near hibernation. All that bending, twisting, strengthening, and stretching we do in yoga develops a healthier parasympathetic response.

The Best Yoga Positions for Sleep

These yoga positions can be done before bed or, in bed if you wake and are having a hard time getting back to sleep.

Forward bends: A simple forward bend stretches out the hamstrings in your legs. Through a biomechanical process, this stretch sends signals up the spinal cord to urge your parasympathetic nervous system into a rest and digest mode.

While lying in bed, try a simple seated forward bend. Start sitting up with your legs extended, exhale, then pull your stomach in and reach toward your toes or the back of your calves. Hold this for 10 breaths. You may need to experiment with the bend in your knees until you can feel the stretch in your hamstrings.

Hip openers: Like the forward bend, gentle hip opens can also urge your parasympathetic nervous system to rest and digest. Hip openers, such as the “Fixed-Firm” position or “Pigeon” are best learned from a qualified yoga instructor—these are complicated poses that can hurt your back, knees, and hips if you do not try the right way.

You can do a simpler hip opener by sitting cross-legged, then taking one foot and placing it on top of the opposite knee. Do this slowly and you may need to lean back on both hands or even extend the opposite leg to get into the position. Go slow and feel the stretch in your hip while holding it for ten breaths on both sides. Then switch sides.

Gentle inversions: A gentle inversion, such as lying on your back with your legs up a wall, can trigger a biomechanical response to relax. An inversion causes increased blood volume to the heart chambers, largely due to the effect of gravity. In response to the increased blood volume, the heart releases a hormone called the atrial natriuretic hormone that decreases blood pressure, resulting in the corresponding relaxing effect. A few minutes of a gentle inversion before bedtime can lower your blood pressure.

Yogic Breathing for Sleep

There are some simple yet highly effective yogic breathing techniques (pranayamas) that capitalize on normal body rhythms. Your heartbeat naturally speeds up a little when you inhale and slows when you exhale. (This phenomenon is called sinus arrhythmia.)

To help our body relax and prepare for sleep we can make use of this natural pattern: by extending the exhalation, we push the nervous system to parasympathetic dominance, to rest, repair and digest.

A simple technique is to exhale twice as long as you inhale. Try this in bed in the middle of the night when you want to go back to sleep. Just count your inhale, and double the count on the exhale. Do this 10 times. Breathe normally for a few breaths. Then repeat the sequence twice more.

A variation of this exercise with more rigorous emphasis on the exhale is Viloma. This pranayama emphasizes exhalation interrupting the breath. While lying down, take in a breath, then exhale in three parts. So to start, breathe in all the way and pause, exhale part of the way and pause, exhale again and pause—then exhale all the way.

There is no count in this breathing exercise, so go with the flow of your breath. Do this staggered exhale breathing pattern three times, then breathe normally for a few breaths and repeat, for a total of three times. Chances are you will feel more relaxed after three times and possibly start to drift off to sleep. But if not, there’s no reason not to repeat this or any other breathing that emphasizes the exhale.

man meditating in forest

Meditation That Helps You Sleep

There is real clinical evidence showing the effectiveness of meditation to reduce anxiety and depression, and generally calm the mind. Our best universities have been studying meditation for more than 30 years, and we now have substantial science-based evidence supporting its health benefits.

Science is finding that meditation strengthens the anterior cingulate cortex part of the brain. The ACC is also known as the bridge between the heart and mind, the part of the brain that is the “overseer of attention and willpower.” When we consciously calm ourselves down, we are using this part of the brain.

Like learning to play a musical instrument or drive a car, meditation requires repeated effort and is best learned from a carefully chosen teacher or books by established writers like John Kabat-Zinn or Andrew Weil. Kabat-Zinn and Weil have been working for decades in conjunction with some of the most established universities in the world. It’s important to consider you source when learning meditation; don’t get turned off by flaky dogma out there that could discourage and misguide you in developing a meditation practice.

One of the most fascinating things about meditation is the commentary from people who do it: most who have cultivated a meditation practice will tell you it has dramatically changed their lives, for the better.

Meditation for sleep is letting your mind settle into stillness, purposefully learning to calm the fluctuations of your mind. Your state of awareness can become the still point in a turning wheel. Meditating is not the absence of thought, because your mind is always thinking. Meditation helps us to not be attached to thoughts, but to just be there as a calm observer without judgment.

I have heard those who grew up in the homes of great yoga teachers describe the yogic disciplines as “cultivating concentration.” If we’re able to choose what we concentrate on, then we can choose to relax. By extension, learning to concentrate at will means we have to choose to concentrate on worrying!

One Last (and Simple) Relaxation Strategy:

A quick and pragmatic suggestion for creating a relaxation response is to trip the oculocardiac reflex by using an eye bag. Turns out these do a lot more than shutting out the light. The pressure of an eye bag activates a neurological relaxation response in the parasympathetic nervous system.

Next time you are restless, try some yoga positions and breathing. Maybe start with a seated forward bend and then some exhale focused breathing. Find out what works for you.


Dr. Loren Fishman

Ellen Saltonstall

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Author: Mark Anthony

Editor: Catherine Monkman

Photos: Kah Wai Sin/Flickr, Used with permission from YogicPhotos.com



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