Practical mystic and yoga guru talks about the importance of sleep.
Sleep is the healing phase for the body. The ancient rishis or researchers knew its regenerative properties and hence the shava asana was a conscious way of going into a deeply relaxed state. The yoga nidra (yogic sleep) is a practice that accesses the parts of the brain for healing and creativity. The benefits of sleep are felt though the person is conscious in the yoga nidra. The classical yoga nidra is different from the guided relaxation done during shava asana.
Why it’s important
Sleep is the time for regeneration, repair and growth. Sleep is very important as the parasympathetic nervous system is dominant during sleep time, especially the deep sleep stage. The parasympathetic nervous system facilitates the phase of “rest and digest”. It triggers the relaxation response as opposed to the stress response. That is why the shava asana or the corpse position is important in yoga as it helps assimilate the practice as well as life.
Without assimilation one feels fragmented, rushed and disjointed. Hence it is worth looking into our sleep patterns.
Are we sleep walking? Lack of sleep makes us groggy; concentration is affected as well as functioning of the entire system is impaired. Decision making and reaction time becomes slower.
It is interesting to see the number of road accidents due to lack of sleep. Falling asleep while driving is responsible for at least 100,000 crashes, 71,000 injuries and 1,550 deaths each year in the United States, according to the National Highway safety Administration Report. There are no definitive statistics in India but one can see that it would contribute to many accidents here as well. Sleep deprivation impacts factory workers as well causing damage.
Lack of sleep affects every area of our lives affecting the capacity for emotional depth too. This means relationships with oneself as well as others get affected and we are susceptible not just to physical accidents but emotional accidents as well.
Sleep and adrenaline
Many Type A personalities drive themselves, being high on caffeine or any other drug induced state so that they can be more productive. This creates an adrenaline rush that makes it more and more difficult to fall into deep sleep.
Adrenaline is the stress hormone. Driving ourselves on adrenaline is not healthy on a long-term basis as this stress hormone was meant only for emergency purposes. This causes long term problems like fatigue, depression and inability to cope with changes.
Degrees of sleep disorders range from mild inability to fall asleep like insomnia to a range of complications. Sleep apnea is the obstruction of the airway passage. There can be many reasons and many degrees of obstruction resulting in snoring, gasping and obstructed breath. As a result there is obstructed sleep.
In the West I see many with TMJ problems. When they tell me they have a TMJ problem they are talking about temporomandibular joint or the joint in the jaw.
When I see some peoples jaw I know why. The expression square jaw or clenching one’s teeth is used if someone is aggravated by something. It is a natural reflex to tighten the jaw when one is stressed or angry. As a result of the tight jaw there may be tightness in the neck and back as well. At night there is involuntary grinding of teeth or clenching of jaw due to this. This is classified as a sleep disorder and the symptoms are morning migraine and headaches, irritability, achy jaw, depression, eye and ear irritation, sinus pain.
Sleeping pills are not the solution as it causes slurred speech, slowed reflexes and poor judgment. Herbs are good natural relaxants. Most important is lifestyle and attitudinal changes that address the root issue.
Herbs like gotu kola, skullcap, passionflower, hops and valerian root are used as sedatives. A good natural, plant-based B complex will also help to strengthen the nervous system and brain. Nutmeg and chamomile teas are very soothing and relaxing. Relaxing body therapies and massages to release tense muscles are useful.
Create external and internal spaces that allow you to wind down. A yoga practice of the asanas, deep breath work, chanting and meditative practices is important. Asanas are good to release nervous agitation and soothe the system. Let the practice be gentle and awareness based. Move the body consciously to heal the mind. Value and set aside time to regenerate.
Breathe well to sleep well
Allow your mind to focus on the breath. Gently keep bringing it back to being with the breath watching the breath move in and out. After five minutes of doing this simple practice you will see a significant reduction in the number of thoughts. You will find yourself more relaxed. Practice this during the day giving yourself relaxing breaks every hour or every two hours. The yogis or ancient researchers discovered this many years ago. There are many deep breathing practices that access the three lobes of the lungs and can be learnt in a yoga class. It alleviates many conditions including anxiety and depression.
I’ve known many people with sleep disorders who have seen improvement in the length and depth of sleep due to the yogic practices. One banker who had sleep apnea said that he had not slept in 20 years but after the practices slept for the first time like a baby.
Cultivating a balanced approach to life is one fundamental principle of Yoga. Do enough activity as well as plan for restful time. As mentioned in the Bhagvad Gita, a yogi is one who does not eat too much or eat too little, he does not sleep too much or sleep too little. So see that you can get 7-9 hours of sleep. Even if the external balance sometimes tips over maintain internal balance or equanimity.
Through cultivating loving kindness towards all one finds that the nerves are soothed and the sleep is deeper. When we hold onto anger and resentment we are in fact blocking not just prana or energy but brain activity as well. I have seen many students are resistant to changing their emotions as they identify deeply with what they feel and hence don’t want to let go of the acid even if it corrodes them. Be aware of corrosive emotions as, apart from affecting many organs, it also affects sleep. This does not mean that you expose yourself to the abuser or abusive situation. This means making time for practice and quiet time.
Yogacharini Maitreyi is a practical mystic who teaches yoga and creates conscious community around the world. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; www.arkaya.net
Relaxation in shava asana
Shavam means corpse. Lie on your back, palms facing upwards. Feel like a dead body, which cannot hold onto anything. You cannot hold on to wealth nor worries. Completely let go of your body weight feeling it being borne by mother earth. Now bring your awareness to the back of your body and the points of contact between your body and the earth. First bring your awareness to your heels. Feel the weight of your heels melt and sink into the earth. Systematically bring your awareness to your calf muscles, thighs, bottoms, back, back of the arms, shoulders, back of the neck and head and feel the weight of each part melt and sink into the earth. Feel any heaviness, pain or tightness in the body melt away. Bring your awareness to your breath and simply watch your breath for 5 to 10 minutes. If the mind wanders gently bring it back to your body and your breath.
Do this before going to bed for a deep restful sleep.