Yoga & Sleep

By Deena Sherman

For those devoted to the practice of Yoga, sleep is much more than a state of unconsciousness – it is an experience to be had just like any waking experience.

North Americans are chronically short of sleep according to the National Sleep Foundation. Before popping pills to cure your insomnia, you may want to try relaxation through Yoga.


Here are two techniques recommended by British Yoga teacher, Phil Aston. As a part-time insomniac, I didn’t try the second, only because the first actually worked.

The first is called “two in one breathing”: As you lie in bed, gently slow down the rate of exhalation until you exhale for twice as long as you inhale. You can coax a longer exhalation by contracting the abdomen slightly. Don’t try to fill or empty the lungs completely, says Aston, you are simply changing the rhythm of your breath. In the beginning it may help to count to six on the exhalation and three on the inhalation, or four on the exhalation and two on the inhalation (or any other two to one ratio you find comfortable). Focus on the smoothness and evenness of your breath, gradually eliminating any jerks and pauses.

The second technique is called counting breaths: Using the two to one pattern described above, lie in bed and pay close attention to your breath. It should flow smoothly, evenly, and continuously. When the pattern is well established, take: 8 breaths lying on your back; 16 breaths lying on your right side and then 32 breaths lying on your left side. Very few people, claims Aston, get to complete this exercise.

Advocates say practicing yoga will improve the quality of your sleep because of yoga’s beneficial effect on the nervous system, and in particular the brain. This results from certain yoga asanas (postures) increasing the blood supply to the brain, which, say Yogics, has the effect of normalizing the sleep cycle. You will need less sleep because of the improved quality of your sleep, and because yoga also apparently increases the elimination of toxins from the body.


Most people like to sleep on one side or their front. However, lying on your back can be a good way to start the night if it doesn’t cause you problems. The first reason is linked to the digestive system. Particularly if you have eaten before sleeping, lying on the back will avoid compressing the stomach and allow free movement of food during digestion. The second reason is linked to awareness. The classical Yoga “corpse” position is one in which awareness is maximized. Stresses on the body are reduced, and you’ll find it easier to breathe, and to relax deeply.


Another Yoga recommendation is to go to bed before 10 p.m. The reasoning is that between the hours of 6 and 10 p.m., the energy of the body will be more “earthy, heavy, slow, and quiet”, so it is the easiest and best time to go to sleep. Between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m., the subtle energy of the body becomes more “fiery”, and mental alertness increases. Around midnight, the internal fire of the body can arouse hunger. So, if you are awake at that time, you will most likely want to eat, and of course a full stomach can make sleeping deeply very difficult. Eat a light dinner early, and try to enjoy a relaxing evening. Spend some quiet time before bed. Enjoy inspirational reading or soothing music before you go to sleep, according to John Friend, founder of Anusara Yoga.

The Yoga Nidra is a widely used relaxation method that is usually done with a teacher. The practice takes about 20 minutes. I will not describe it in detail here, but advocates say Yoga Nidra is a qualitatively different relaxation. “It is a ‘sleep’ where all stresses and worries are cast off to attain a more peaceful state of awareness, a relaxation much deeper and more nourishing than that which can be achieved during ordinary sleep.” It has apparently been demonstrated in a sleep lab that advanced yogis can go directly to the state of deep sleep and stay there, thus avoiding other parts of the sleep cycle, including the dream stages. This allows them to reduce the need for sleep to 2-3 hours a night.

After you have conquered your insomnia while mastering some of these techniques, perhaps you will take a bigger step, like lucid dreaming as practiced by Tibetan Buddhists. Lucid dreaming is dreaming while knowing that you are dreaming. This fascinating state of consciousness supposedly allows you to control your dreams and experience anything imaginable.

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