Thursday, June 17, 2010

yoga and zzzzzzz's

Ah sleep, wonderful, elusive sleep. It's not uncommon for students to ask me about yoga poses to help them sleep. In answering I often feel a little like the blind leading the blind as I too occasionally suffer from insomnia. In fact, as I write this I'm a bit sleep deprived. The insomnia fairy has paid me a visit this week.

Experience has taught me that often the major cause of insomnia is more mental than physical. Often it's our desire to get a good night's sleep that suffocates our ability to sleep. In other words, we try too hard and think of sleep as something fragile that requires effort to produce and maintain. You might go to bed early thinking that you will sleep better only to find yourself awake long after your normal bedtime. Then frustration sets in and you've doomed yourself to a night of sleeplessness. Or perhaps you didn't sleep well one night and the next you're anxious to get to bed then lo and behold you're wake all night again. The following day you scour the Internet for solutions and ask your yoga teacher for advice because you think something is wrong with you.

Here's my best advice; accept it and don't worry about it. If it's transient and not caused by physical pain, grief or depression, you're fine. Trust that your body knows how to sleep and will do it all on it's own without your intervention. There's nothing wrong with you.  If you don't sleep well for a few nights it won't hurt you and insomnia isn't dangerous. Sure, there are plenty of health and wellness articles about how important sleep is for the body but those are directed at people who intentionally don't sleep. Those of us who are occasionally visited by the insomnia fairy should ignore them because you'll only fret more about not sleeping.

While you are waiting for your body to do it's thing, avoid focusing on the problem. Don't try to sleep, instead rest. Avoid watching the clock, hide it if necessary. Don't get up and down all night thinking it will help. A lot of doctors recommend getting up after 20 minutes if you don't fall asleep right away but I find that only adds to the problem. Keep the same bedtime each night and get up at the same time every morning. Don't watch TV before bed or spend time on the computer. Read something boring before bed.

And yes, there are a couple yoga poses that do help. "Legs up the wall" is a wonderful pose to help ease stress and anxiety. Lay on the floor with your legs up the wall and your hips as close to the wall as possible. Put a pillow under your lower back. This lowers your blood pressure and heart rate and has a calming effect on the body. Laying in savasana before bed is also very helpful to put your mind and body in a state of rest and relaxation.

The breath can be a key component in helping you rest as well. Make your exhalation twice as long as your inhalation such as a 4 count inhalation to a 8 count exhalation for 20-30 rounds before bed. This should calm you down and make you sleepy.

Finally, I'm reminded of a story about Martin Luther, the founder of the Protestant movement. He was apparently confronted by a demon in the night. Luther looked at the demon and said, "Oh, you again," and rolled over and went back to sleep. Perhaps we should do likewise.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Don't Forget to Breathe

We take breathing for granted. In, out. It happens so naturally and without any thought that we hardly notice our normal breathing patterns. In fact, most of us breath very shallowly because we don't pay attention to our breath. This leads to both physical and psychological stress. The reality is we need to learn to breath properly.

The diaphragm, the muscle that surrounds the base of the ribcage, is designed to move the lungs up and down for respiration. It is the only muscle that originates on itself and attaches on the inside of the ribcage. Since the lungs can't move on their own, the diaphragm is necessary to move them.

However, many people chest breath and don't use the diaphragm. Chest breathing creates feelings of anxiety, doesn't fully expand the lungs and doesn't allow for ample oxygen to flow in. In chest breathing the diaphragm is used as a lid to hold down emotions. Notice the next time you are stressed where your breathing from and how tight your diaphragm feels. Simply moving the breath down to the diaphragm can create a calming sensation.

In a diaphragmatic breath, the base of the ribcage expands out and the lower ribs flare to the sides. The chest and the lower abdomen remain still. In the three part breath, taught in most yoga classes, this is also true with the exception that the top of the chest lifts. Because students are often unfamiliar with diaphragmatic breathing, many teachers, including myself, will say "let you stomach expand out when you breath in." This is also referred to as belly breathing. It's actually inaccurate. It's the diaphragm that should expand not the stomach. However, to keep things simple we say stomach.

Sometimes when we become aware that we need to relax we try taking a deep breath. This is a good idea in theory but most likely we inhale too deeply and forget to exhale fully and slowly. The breath comes out more like a sigh. Deep inhalations are stimulating. It's the exhalation that calms the mind and the body. The slower the exhalation the more the body move away from the flight or fight response.

The breath should also flow in and out through the nose. Mouth breathing can create panic, feelings of heaviness in the body and dehydration. Some forms of exercise do require exhaling from the mouth and that's fine, but the inhalation should come through the nose. The nose is designed to filter the air we breathe, not to mention to avoid swallowing things like bugs and germs!

The breath is a very powerful tool for changing both our emotional and physical response to stress and life events. It also has very profound spiritual implications too. I love that the spirit of God is sometimes referred to the breath of God. When God breathes on people they come to life both physically and spiritually as in the case of Adam. When we recognize that the breath is God-given, breathing becomes not only a physical act but a spiritual one as well.