Each night, in an effort to coax my one-year-old to sleep, I whisper this old nursery rhyme: “Early to bed and early to rise makes a person healthy, wealthy and wise”. My daughter will suck her thumb, close her eyes and settle in for a deep slumber. I, on the other hand, tiptoe into the next room, turn on my computer and start work for the day.
My sleep cycle has changed dramatically since giving birth. Before, I would wake early most mornings and head to the yoga studio for a dynamic two-hour asana practice. In the evenings, I’d be in bed asleep by 10.30 p.m. I was fit, energetic and easily able to cope with the competing demands of work, friends and family.
These days, I’m lucky to be in bed before 1 a.m. and still asleep at 6 a.m. I’ve started drinking coffee and rely on the caffeine to lift the veil of tiredness that covers me most mornings. My eyes are bloodshot, my memory jumbled and my energy reserves consistently low. The lack of sleep is starting to show.
Of course, I’m not alone. Most new parents experience some form of sleep deprivation. High-powered executives are susceptible, as are shift workers, the elderly and adolescents, who often struggle to balance schoolwork with social media. In fact, according to experts, in our fast-paced, work-centric, 24-hour world, most people’s sleep is at risk.
Society of Insomniacs
A recent report commissioned by the Sleep Health Foundation found that around 1.5 million Australian adults (around nine per cent of the population) have been diagnosed with a sleep disorder. Many thousands more go undiagnosed.
“Insomnia is on the rise,” says Marc Cohen, professor of Health Sciences at RMIT University. “More than 80 per cent of the population will have a sleeping problem at some stage in their lives.”
Over time, chronic partial sleep deprivation can cause a raft of health problems including low immunity, poor digestion, low sex drive, hormonal imbalance, obesity, addiction and depression. It’s also often a contributing factor in workplace injuries and can impede our ability to tune in to our spiritual selves.
Medical-based sleeping disorders aside, “The most common sleep disturbance is either difficulty initiating sleep or difficultly maintaining sleep,” says Moira Junge, a health psychologist specialising in sleep disorders and spokesperson for the Australasian Sleep Association.
In most cases, stress and anxiety are at the root of the problem. Lifestyle and diet also play an important part. “We’re very confused, we’re very time-poor, we’re very stressed out and don’t know our place,” says naturopath, herbalist and homeopath Anthia Koullouros of OVViO Organics.
“I see five to eight clients almost every day and have done so for 20 years. All I see are people who are stressed out and fearful, with thoughts that keep them up at night and the inability to switch off their mind.”
There’s long been a culture of pharmacological intervention in Australia. “In around 2008–2009, our statistics were that more than 90 per cent of people presenting to a GP who mentioned a sleeping problem were prescribed a pill,” says Junge. But that is changing as the body of evidence grows around non-pharmacological techniques such as yoga.
Recently, a clinical trial overseen by Professor Cohen found that yoga had a positive effect on reducing insomnia, and improving sleep and quality of life in the elderly. A 2009 study by the Australian Institute of Yoga Therapy and the Centre for Adult Education yielded similar results.
That said, not all yogic practices are appropriate for treating insomnia and, practised at the wrong time, certain types of asana and pranayama can make things worse.
The first thing yoga practitioners or yoga teachers must do to support a student’s sleep is “educate themselves about sleep”, says Philip Stevens (Swami Samnyasananda), a consultant neurophysiologist, sleep scientist and certified yoga teacher.
As we are told in the nursery rhyme, the ideal is to rise with the sun and wind down again with the sun. Between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. during sleep, the body undergoes physical repair; between 2 a.m and 6 a.m. it undergoes psychological repair. “It’s all about circadian phase and adjusting your activity levels to be consistent with the circadian phase we all share from being on this particular planet,” says Stevens.
Circadian phase (also called circadian rhythms) is a daily rhythm that exists in all of nature. It is generally 24 hours in duration, and involves distinct patterns of brainwave activity and hormone production that govern sleep and eating habits.
The biggest influence on circadian rhythms is light. When the sun rises, serotonin and the stress hormone cortisol are released. As darkness descends, the hormone melatonin is released, sending out the signal that it’s time for sleep.
The trouble is that high levels of stress throughout the day, along with caffeine, as well as the electromagnetic fields and ambient light of television and computer screens all work to suppress melatonin and increase cortisol levels. Aerobic activity, including energetic or hot styles of asana taken at night under lights, works in a similar way.
“Vigorous yoga practices and energetic pranayama may have a stimulating effect on the body and drive cortisol levels up,” says Jennifer Schrader, a yoga therapy teacher and president of the Australian Association of Yoga Therapists. “Save these practices for the morning when cortisol levels are naturally higher and the body is primed for activity.”
After lunchtime, “It’s really important that you don’t do a thoracic form of pranayama,” says Stevens. “It needs to be slow-rate abdominal breathing, which is the most efficient way of breathing.”
Better practices include Nadi Shodhana, ujjayi breath with a gentle gluttural constriction or Brahmri pranayama, also called bumblebee or humming bee breath. “The fingers are placed in the ears and you do the ujjayi breath on the in-breath,” explains Stevens, “then you’re humming a long ‘mmmm’ on the out breath with your eyes closed.” Yoga Nidra is also ideal (see breakout box on the opposite page).
Asana performed after lunch must be intended for rest and release. “Any poses or ways of doing practice that encourage a balancing or slowing down response may be beneficial,” says Schrader. And while no pose on its own is a magic panacea, “My favourites to encourage sleep include restorative postures, particularly supported forward bends, which encourage opening the back of the body and taking the squeeze pressure off the adrenal glands”.
Constructive rest position is another good option. “This helps release the psoas muscle, which is implicated in our flight/fight stress response,” says Schrader.
This theory of winding down at night also ties in with the Ayurvedic practice of ratricharya (routines of the night). “The idea is to try and do things that are more mundane, like folding clothes,” says Shaun Matthews, a medical doctor, and Ayurveda and yoga therapist.
Conflict, confrontation and emotional issues are also best dealt with earlier in the day, as these can cause imbalance in the doshas, particularly Vata, the wind dosha, which controls the nervous system.
To temper Vata dosha, Matthews recommends keeping a journal, talking through problems with a friend or seeking help from a counsellor or psychotherapist.
Eating smaller amounts of easily digested food, meditation and massage with oils, especially to the feet, are also practices that can help correct a Vata imbalance.
He also advises surrendering to tiredness rather than trying to override it. “It takes a lot of energy to hold yourself above fatigue,” says Matthews. “If you let yourself touch the fatigue, that alone will give you a lot of energy.”
In return, sleep can and will change your life. “Extraordinary things happen on better quality sleep,” says Koulloros. “When people are feeling like they have more energy and awareness of their own body, they start becoming more aware of their surroundings; they stop living in a reactive state and start living life by choice.”
Catherine McCormack is a freelance writer and Ashtanga yoga practitioner in Sydney.
The Ideal Sleep Diet
The essential ingredient for good quality sleep, according to Anthia Koulloros, is healthy, whole fats. “We need fats that ground us, quality fats from both animal and plant materials because we’re omnivores,” she states.
Her recommendation is to include olive and coconut oil in your diet, as well as servings of good quality, grass-fed meat and wild, non-farmed fish that’s high in omega-3. “Clients who don’t have the animal fat tend to fuel themselves with a lot of processed, industrialised polyunsaturated fats and there’s a tendency for a higher carbohydrate intake—fruit, vegetables, grains, beans, alcohol and sugars—which is very stimulating and keeps clients in a perpetual state of grazing, even at night-time.”
Koulloros often suggests fermented cod liver oil be taken as a supplement and, for those who aren’t intolerant to dairy, incorporating organic, full-fat milk, butter and cream. “They contain amino acids that are nourishing and soothing for brain and nerve function, and contain vitamins A, D, E and K that help transport minerals inside the body.”
In the evenings, a few cups of chamomile tea or OVViO Organics’ Peace Night Chamomile Tea, $16 for 45g, which blends chamomile with lavender, passionflower and hops, will assist in relaxing and calming the nervous system to help induce a good night’s sleep.
In English, Yoga Nidra translates as ‘yoga sleep’. This meditation and relaxation practice is ideal for reducing stress and helping to induce sleep. Taken in Savasana, it often involves, “Slow-rate abdominal breathing, meditation practices of mindful awareness or introspection, and the Yoga Nidra practice, which is awareness of the body parts,” says Philip Stevens. He’s offering a free 10-minute Yoga Nidra download on his website, www.yogalinks.net. Scroll to the bottom of the page and click on the link.