Sleep, elusive sleep. For some, the challenge is turning off the brain to get to a full night of rest.  For others, getting to sleep is not the issue. If you wake up after a few hours of going to bed, it can be hard to get your brain to quiet down to get back to sleep. Lying in bed, watching the hours tick away on the clock can feel like a form of torture.

We’ve recently learned that chronic sleep deprivation causes the brain to rewire itself, creating a barrier to attaining deep restful sleep. Recent studies have shown that getting fewer than eight hours of sleep a night increases your risk of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and can shorten your life span. Sleep deprivation also reduces the ability of your immune system to fight off illness, such as the common cold. (Follow this link to the Harvard Medical School Healthy Sleep website for information on sleep research.

How much sleep is enough? According to the National Sleep Foundation (2008 Sleep in America Poll), most adults need between 7.5 – 8.5 hours of sleep per night. However, your needs could vary. To assess if you are getting enough sleep, start keeping a sleep diary. Pick a typical week and track when you start to get tired, when you go to bed, when you wake up, how many hours of sleep you get, how many times you wake and for how long you are awake. Record how many naps you take during the day or when you fall asleep involuntarily. Track if you feel rested or tired at different times in the day. Here’s a sample sleep diary from the Harvard School of Medicine’s Sleep Division.

You can test the number of hours you need by picking a two week period such as a vacation where you don’t need to be up at a particular time. Go to sleep at the same time every night and don’t set an alarm. Record how long you sleep. If you are sleep deprived, you may sleep longer for the first few days or for a week as your body catches up on the rest you need. You should start to see how much sleep your body naturally needs.

Improving your sleep starts with setting up an environment that is conducive to attaining deep restorative rest. Here are some simple changes you can make:

  • Keep a regular bedtime schedule.

  • Turn your screens off (phone, TV, computer) at least an hour before going to bed.

  • Refrain from checking your smart phone at night.

  • Exercise daily, but not in the hour before going to bed.

  • Get adequate natural light during the day to stimulate your body’s natural wakeful/sleep rhythm.

  • Only use your bed for sleep. Read, knit, work on computer or talk on the phone in another room.

  • Go to bed when you start to get tired.

  • Avoid caffeine, alcohol or nicotine. Many people use alcohol to get them to sleep. Although a “nightcap” can make you sleepy, your body will wake up 2-3 hours later as it metabolizes the sugars in alcohol leading to interrupted sleep.

If you still have trouble sleeping even with a regular routine, you may need to work to train your brain to go to sleep. Yoga Nidra is a state where advanced practitioners can consciously enter a state of deep non-REM sleep, yet remain fully aware. In modern practices, we use the term Yoga Nidra to describe the exercises used to relax the body in preparation for moving into the state of Yoga Nidra.

There are four levels of brain activity that are passed through on the way to the state of Yoga Nidra. (Parker, Bharati, & Fernandez, 2013)

Level 1 – deep state of relaxation where the brain produces alpha waves and sometimes theta waves. This state is useful for self-healing, such as lowering blood pressure, reducing migraines and improving sleep.

Level 2 – is a state of creativity, dominated by theta waves that may transition into delta waves (the state of deep sleep)

Level 3 – is level of deep non-REM sleep where the participant remains aware of their environment while the brain produces theta waves and delta waves. It is advised to only remain in this state for 10 minutes.

Level 4 – is achieved after transition through the first three phases. The participant is in a deep state of sleep, but at the same time maintains full conscious awareness. The brain alternates between theta and delta waves.  Unlike level 3, this level can be maintained for up to several hours.

At this stage we only have documentation of advanced practitioners of yoga achieving the deep non-REM sleep delta waves. Be aware that training your brain may take time and practice.

What does the research show? There is evidence that relaxation with music has a moderate effect size on reducing insomnia, and there is evidence that that guided relaxation and progressive muscle relation can reduce insomnia. (de Niet, Tiemens, Kloos, & Hutschemaekers, 2009) Unfortunately, there is limited high quality research in the area of insomnia and non-pharmacological treatment.

In the modern practice of Yoga Nidra, we use body scans, progressive muscle relaxation, guided imagery and auto-suggestion (a form of self-hypnosis) to take the brain into a state of deep relaxation. The goal is to give the wandering mind tangible exercises to perform that cause relaxation, to teach the brain how to relax again. Many people report that after a yoga Nidra session, they feel like they just had the equivalent of 3-5 hours of rest, and they sleep better that night.

Anyone can practice Yoga Nidra. Our sessions at Evolution Yoga, begin with a gentle stretch to prepare the body to lie down comfortably for an hour, followed by 60 minutes of guided relaxation exercises. Participants are asked to pick a resolve or short positive statement that they wish to come true in their lives and repeat it in their head at the beginning and again later in the state of deep relaxation. This form of auto suggestion allows your brain to receive instructions when you are fully relaxed. People often choose phrases such as “I feel healthy, I feel well rested or I sleep well.”  The beauty of Yoga Nidra is that it is accessible to anyone. Once you learn the basic skills you can do it at home.

Our next Yoga Nidra class is on Friday. October 3rd from 6-7:30.  Cost: $15 or use your class card or unlimited pass. Instructor – Janet Carscadden DPT, ERYT 200

References and Resources

de Niet, G., Tiemens, B. G., Kloos, M. W., & Hutschemaekers, G. (2009). Review of systematic reviews about the efficacy of non-pharmacological interventions to improve sleep quality in insomnia. International Journal of Evidence-Based Healthcare (Wiley-Blackwell), 7(4), 233-242. doi:10.1111/j.1744-1609.2009.00142.x

Parker, S., Bharati, S. V., & Fernandez, M. (2013). Defining yoga-nidra: Traditional accounts, physiological research, and future directions. International Journal of Yoga Therapy, 23(1), 11-16.

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