By: Virginia Iversen, M.Ed
Deeply restorative and refreshing sleep can be quite elusive for many Yoga practitioners. With the frenetic pace of many Yoga teachers and students’ lives, winding down for a good night’s sleep is frequently challenging, if not impossible. As we all rush to squeeze in one appointment after another during our already fully scheduled days, the fight or flight response is often locked on overdrive and anxiety and stress levels can stay high well into the night. When this happens, the body and mind are physiologically unable to unwind and ease into a peaceful state of being, rather than constantly doing.
Turning off an overactive mind at the end of the day is crucial to being able to rest deeply. An overly anxious or busy mind that is always in “doing mode” drives the sympathetic nervous system to remain on as the mind simultaneously continues to plan what to do next. This is all too true for many Yogis and Yoginis even after a modern day mini-crisis, such as making it to the bank or post office before the stroke of 5, comes to an end. If you find that you often operate on the adrenalin rush that your own body produces in response to an unending series of crises throughout the day, you probably have difficulty falling asleep and sleeping uninterruptedly throughout the night.
By creating a soothing bedtime ritual for yourself, you will cue your body and mind to begin to unwind from the day and to enter into a state of peaceful being, rather than staying stuck in a state of constant “doing” by planning for the next day and rehashing the day you have just lived. Ruminating about the past or the future will keep you in a state of doing and will prevent you from sleeping restoratively. There are a number of ways to create a soothing bedtime ritual for yourself. A few tried and true ways of demarcating a time of rest are taking a hot bath, drinking a calming cup of herbal tea and reading a good book in bed. Practicing restorative Yoga poses and quieting Yogic breathing exercises are also wonderful ways to support your body and mind in letting go of the concerns of the day.
* Dirga Pranayama or Three Part Breathing
In terms of creating a regular rhythm to support you in resting well, practicing a calming Yogic breathing exercise just prior to turning in for the evening will quickly and effectively calm your mind as the sympathetic nervous system, which drives the fight and flight response, comes to a barely perceptible idle. Dirga Pranayama is a simple and highly effective Yogic breathing exercise for establishing a regular rhythm in the body and calming the thought waves of the mind. Practicing Dirga Pranayama helps you to become deeply aware of your own breathing patterns and to breathe fully, deeply and completely.
To practice Dirga Pranayama, come to prone position on your Yoga mat or sit on a chair with your feet resting flat on the floor and your spine erect. You can also practice this calming Yogic breathing exercise just prior to drifting off to sleep as you lie cozily in your bed. When your are ready to practice Dirga Pranayama, place your right hand on your lower abdomen and your left hand on your heart. The placement of your hands will help you to be aware of each inhalation and exhalation.
The practice of Dirga Pranayama is also known as the Three Part Breath. Each inhalation is divided into three parts. The first part of the inhalation fills up your lower belly. The second part of the inhalation fills up your abdominal area to your lower ribs, and the third part of the inhalation fills up your chest cavity completely, all the way up to your collar bones. The exhalation is long and continuous and should ideally be the same count as all three “mini” inhalations put together.
In other words, if you counted to three with each part of your inhalation for a total of nine counts, your exhalation should be a total of nine counts at the same pace. A series of three “mini” inhalations followed by a long, continuous exhalation is one round of Dirga Pranayama. Practice this soothing Yoga breathing exercise for at least five rounds. The regular rhythm of this breathing exercise will help your body and mind come to a quiet place of rest and repose in preparation for the night ahead.
© Copyright – Virginia Iversen / Aura Wellness Center – Publications Division
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Yoga and Sleep