When I was 6 years old, I managed to sleep through the fire alarm. While my siblings awoke in a panic and my parents rushed to get us out of the house, they had to carry me, sleeping, down the stairs and outside. After the firefighters came and told us there was no danger, my parents carried me back upstairs and put me to bed.
In the morning, I didn’t remember anything. I hadn’t woken up at all and thought my siblings were playing a prank on me when they told me the story. I could have slept through anything. And then, when I was 13, the insomnia started. Any noise could wake me. I tossed and turned in bed and woke up in the middle of the night from nothing but my own thoughts. I often stayed up until 4am, unable to sleep. And when I woke up in the morning, I felt as if I hadn’t slept at all.
I struggled to get to school on time, was tired during the day, and couldn’t concentrate. I went to a sleep specialist and tried medication after medication, but none of them had a lasting effect. And then I joined an 8-week yoga course.
Yoga is what finally helped me improve my sleep and my life.
It goes without saying that being and feeling tired all the time is no way to live. Through this yoga course, I learned how a yoga practice differs in the morning and in the evening. I learned what postures and breathing exercises I could do before bed to help me fall asleep. Within just a few months of practicing yoga, I started weening off the sleeping pills (which weren’t really working anymore, anyways).
At the time it seemed like a mystery. How was a bit of exercise and breathing helping me to sleep better than all of those medications??
Now, as a yoga teacher, I’m obsessed with following the research that’s going on in this field to explain why yoga can help with insomnia and so many other chronic conditions. Here’s what I’ve learned about the many ways yoga can help you sleep.
1. Yoga reduces stress.
If there’s one thing yoga can do for you, it’s reduce stress. And don’t be fooled, stress shows itself in many different ways. Getting married to the love of your life or landing your dream job can be both happy, and majorly stressful events. Yoga has been shown to lower cortisol levels in the brain (ie. "the stress hormone") which helps reduce stress.
Mindfulness is also shown to reduce levels of cortisol. If you’ve ever spent the night tossing and turning in bed thinking about the future, yoga might be a big help for you. Once I developed a regular yoga practice, even if I didn’t practice every single night before bed, I was still able to relax more easily.
2. Yoga regulates the nervous system.
Many insomniacs suffer from hyperarousal. That means your ‘fight or flight’ response that was prompted by something that happened to you earlier in the day (like trying to meet a work deadline or fighting with a partner) is still elevated. Even if you feel exhausted, your nervous system may still be wide awake.
Yoga can help people come back to homeostasis quicker than people who don’t practice yoga. Activating your parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest) is going to help you get to sleep and stay asleep. While you may 'pass out' from exhaustion when your fight-or-flight system is aroused, it won’t be a very restful sleep.
3. Yoga helps you create a regular routine.
When I first started struggling with sleep, I received pamphlets and advice on sleep hygiene. Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, they said. Don’t watch television or look at your phone. Make sure your room is in complete darkness, etc.
While these things helped a little bit, they didn’t have a significant impact on my sleep. Yoga helped me create a routine and learn sleep practices that actually worked for me. Since yoga encourages you to experiment and listen to your body, I was able to find something that worked for me—including taking a shower and doing a gentle yoga practice (but I still often watch TV before bed! Comedy shows can help me relieve stress and wind down for the night).
Sleep hygiene is important, but you might not benefit from the traditional advice. Use yoga to help you find your own path.
4. Yoga helps you handle uncertainty.
One of the most frustrating things about not being able to sleep was stressing out about all the things I had to do the next day and how I was going to be too tired to do them. But now that I’ve adapted a yogic philosophy to sleep, I don’t get so frustrated when I can’t sleep. I get up and do something else—enjoying the quiet time in the night.
Sometimes I meditate (which can actually have some of the same benefits of sleep) and just accept that in this moment, I'm awake. This acceptance of not sleeping actually helped me sleep better because I wasn’t so stressed out about not being able to sleep, thus I was able to relax more. I was also able to enjoy my time awake as 'me time' rather than just feeling angry that I wasn’t sleeping.
Yoga can be an amazing tool for sleep and stress reduction. If you struggle to sleep, developing a regular yoga practice, ideally twice a day, can make a huge difference.
How yoga helped YOU sleep better to? I'd love to hear all about it in the comments!
Image credit: Aneta Gab