Look across almost any species in nature and the pattern of sleep is present.
Sleep is key to our survival – it ensures rest and recovery. Sleep nourishes and reintegrates the brain, and restores the body for everything we do when we’re awake.
While so much around sleep continues to be a mystery, the study of sleep has deepened in recent decades. Time and time again, these studies show that sleep is the bedrock to all aspects of our health – it impacts our mobility, memory, learning, creativity, emotion and overall physiological function.
And despite all of that, so many of us still struggle to get a good night’s sleep. Tossing and turning not just in our beds, but in our minds as well. We finally rise the following morning, feeling disoriented, cranky/moody, and out of sync.
So what can we do about it?
Lucky for us, there are more resources than ever before – books such as Why We Sleep have played a key role in breaking down sleep hygiene & promoting healthy patterns around rest.
And as discourse on sleep grows, we are witnessing a societal shift away from the glorification of busy. We understand that burning the midnight oil is no badge of honour, as it is adequate rest & recovery that are the best gifts we can share with self and with community.
In lock step with this societal shift is a greater focus on practices such as mindfulness. Yoga & meditation are two deeply valuable tools to have in your belt when it comes to finding physical rest & inner calm.
What can we learn from yoga?
While yoga is not a solve-all for sleep disorders or other health concerns, it serves a great complement to other practices. Consider it an extra tool in your belt to assist with sleep hygiene.
Finding Stillness in the Body
Throughout the day, we are go-go-go whether it’s answering emails, running errands, or looking after our family. We are alert and on guard – signaling to our nervous system that we are in fight or flight response – quite literally as if we are ready for battle.
You then layer the reality that many of us may also be working from home, so there often isn’t a clear “context switch” for the body between work and home time, meaning our nervous system is running in overdrive.
In such cases, yoga may help to ease your body into a calm state, known as the relaxation response. This is the opposite of the fight-or-flight response.
A restorative or gentle yoga practice may help you to relax and ease into a lower state of arousal. These practices can guide the body into different shapes and positions designed to relieve tension and allow the body to optimally function. Postures can be selected to reduce embodied stress in ways that translate to greater emotional balance and peace of mind.
Beyond postural efforts, a key tenet of yoga is conscious breathing and a focus on the present moment.
Conscious breathing directs your attention to your breath, encouraging you to observe its pace, its qualities, or temperature with curiosity. This detaches your focus from other matters and slows the heart rate, guiding you into your parasympathetic or relaxation response.
Breath regulation tactics (such as boxed breathing) are known for the effects on relieving stress and therefore applied in contexts varying as widely as boardrooms to the Navy Seals. The benefits of a breath practice is its accessibility – no props or moving required – you can do this right from your bed before heading to sleep, or if you want to calm down an overactive mind in the middle of the night.
Focusing on the Present Moment
Mindfulness, or the ability to “be with what is”, is the practice of judgment-free awareness in the moment. Mindfulness can set the stage for sleep by allowing you to be more aware of your thoughts, thereby empowering you to tame or let go of those anxieties instead of getting stuck on them. It helps you break the train of your everyday thoughts to evoke the relaxation response, using whatever technique feels right to you.
This powerful tool not just for the moments before bedtime, but throughout your day. Like any muscle, mindfulness grows in strength with practice.
Some helpful pre-sleep practices centred on mindfulness include yoga nidra, and visualization or body scan meditations – each offering pathways to guide your body and mind into a desired state of stillness and calm.
Nafisa (she/her) is a Movement & Mindfulness Educator. Her journey with Yoga began when she found her mind was crowded and she couldn’t find the pause button. Yoga and Meditation trained her to slow down and it brought a sense of play back into her life.
As a teacher, she is most passionate about the relationship between movement and joy – how together they drive self-expression and heighten our mind-body connection.
Want to learn more about yoga & specific practices to help you find ease? Nafisa is a certified yoga teacher trained in the hatha, vinyasa, restorative and yoga nidra traditions.