If it’s stress causing your sleeplessness, there is a Yogic solution. Here’s how it works:
Your body comes ingeniously supplied with its own regulatory system for reacting to danger. It then, ideally, chills out once the danger has passed. When we perceive threat in our environments the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) is automatically activated. This prepares our bodies for action; floods our systems with cortisol, shuts down all ‘non-survival in the moment’ functions such as digestion and directs blood to our muscles preparing them for action. Our temperature changes, our heart rate quickens and our muscles tense. Back in the day, we needed this to survive (and yes, to a certain extent we still do). The evolutionary glitch, however, is that these days everything seems to activate SNS. Hence, we feel constantly stressed.
Enter the Parasympathetic Nervous System. This is our basic state (or at least it should be). In this mode, our bodies rest and carry out their daily ‘keep us alive and well’ functions. Blood flows freely to our digestive and reproductive systems and to the endocrine and lymphatic systems helping us (amongst other things) to absorb nutrients and eliminate toxins. SNS and PNS should work to balance each other out. One prepares us for action, the other allows us to restore. If our Sympathetic Nervous System is always going full throttle, however, our heart rates are fast, our muscles tense, and the likelihood is we won’t get no sleep.
Yoga practice helps to balance the two systems. Sessions often combine rigorous asana sequences such as sun salutations (which activate SNS) with restorative poses and meditation to restore your mind and body to equilibrium by activating PNS. With repetition, you will instinctively track bodily sensations and consciously promote the Parasympathetic Nervous System when peace and calm need to be cultivated.
Not there yet? Never fear, on sleepless nights there are some particular postures and breathing exercises you can do to send a message to the Sympathetic Nervous System that it’s work is done and it’s time for the PNS to take over. You can do these postures on the floor or in bed.
Viparita Karani (or Legs Up The Wall Pose):
Inverted poses are great for deactivating stress. In this position the blood will flow back towards your heart. As you slow down, and take deep breaths, you will feel a release in mind and body. Lie with your bottom flat against the wall and your legs directly above. With your arms to the side, and hands facing upwards, close your eyes. Use an eye cushion to deepen the relaxation. You can stay in this position for as long as you can. Five minutes at a minimum is best.
Supta Baddha Konasana (or Reclining Butterfly):
This releases tension throughout the body and aids concentrated deep breathing. Whilst lying on your back bring the soles of your feet together, close to your bottom, with your knees dropped out to the side. Put a blanket under your knees if your hips feel tight. Rest one hand on your heart and the other on your belly. Breathe deeply. It can be especially restful to pause between each inhalation and exhalation.
Balasana (or Child’s Pose):
Stretch out any tension and deep breathe by expanding through the back of your body. Move onto your knees and sit back. Lean forward over your knees so your arms are stretched in front. Rest your forehead on the floor (or mattress). In this position you may also gently massage any tension from your temples.
Pranayama, the yoga of breath, constitutes different breathing techniques. The following practice can induce immediate sleepiness. Sit cross-legged (use a cushion if you want to make it easier). Rest your left hand in your lap and cover your right nostril with the thumb of your right hand. Splay the fingers outwards. Take ten long breaths out of your left nostril. This can be repeated if necessary and will calm your mind.
With advanced practice, Yoga Nidra (or Yogic Sleep) induces the brain waves associated with deep sleep but you are still consciously awake. Less advanced, it is still sleep inducing. Lie in a comfortable position as its very effective and you may drop off. This practice is vocally guided. Find a recording by a practitioner whose voice you find soothing. Listen and enjoy.