Research has revealed that 33% of Indians suffer from insomnia. This is a high number considering that sleep is a natural process programmed into our system. Science and drugs have given us pills to relax and sleep, but yoga can induce relaxation and counteract insomnia without any negative side effects.
First, the practice of yoga begins with the teacher’s instruction to relax the whole body, release all tension, and let awareness flow through the whole body. This dual action of inward looking and self-induced relaxation is a simple act, but it opens up new pathways in the ever extroverted brain. While most of the time the brain controls the motor actions and state of our body, this relaxing action of the body establishes a reverse communication impact, from the body which relaxes the brain. There are many studies, researches now that establish that the clarity and output of a relaxed mind is far superior to that of chronic stress. A little stress is a good boost. Sustained stress is destructive and destroys your immune system.
The relaxation instructions are followed by an invocation of the Om chant with synchronization of the breath. Chanting Om itself has been proven to reduce stress, relax the body, lower blood pressure and regulate heartbeat. It is said to stimulate the vagus nerve through the auricular branches, which sharpens brain power.
Also, before the start and end of each asana, the teacher asks the students to relax their bodies. During the practice, the student is asked to follow the synchronization of the breath with the poses and also to look inward at the impact of the asanas on various parts of the body, organs, muscles, etc. Thus, relaxation and introversion are an integral part of asanas. While all of this isn’t easy, over time relaxation, introversion, and breath awareness become the default setting, replacing the chronic, outgoing, stress-driven default setting.
Yoga is progressive. You don’t stop at bodily issues alone. The asanas culminate with the powerful practice of suryanamaskar, which is followed by Shavasana, which is a practice of complete relaxation. In fact, its name, Shav (dead body) asana amplifies the level of relaxation.
Shavasana is followed by pranayama, which is sitting still. This itself leads to enormous changes in the physical-mental constitution. Again, a still body begets a still mind. Single-pointed awareness is achieved when the mind is calm and still.
Patanjali’s sutra on pranayama describes it as lengthening the gap between each in-breath and each out-breath. This is contrary to the popular belief that pranayama is simply regulating the exchange of O2 and CO2 in your breath. It does, but its main purpose is to regulate the pranic force, the vital life force, in the body, which is separate from the breath. We try to lengthen the gaps between inspiration and expiration because in this way we reach the respiratory cycle of turtles and elephants and thus delay aging. There are six basic forms of pranayama that quieten the mind, activate your psychic centers in the brain and body, and bring balance to the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. All this harmonizes the body, mind and emotions, which further leads to good sleep.
Now let’s move on to some of the practices that help with relaxation and getting deep, restful sleep.
In pranayama, Kapabhati and Bhastrika induce a state of tranquility and carelessness which is an experience quite removed from your daily life. Kapalbhati literally means pumping bellows at the frontal lobe, kapal or forehead.
The practice is to remain seated but relaxed. With eyes softly closed, practitioners should internally focus on the frontal lobe, forehead and perform repeated forceful exhalations. Inhalation is involuntary and almost imperceptible. Start initially with 11 rounds and slowly increase to 50 rounds. Between each round, pause for a few seconds. In the pauses you will feel that the breath is almost not there and a kind of vacant expansion is felt.
Bhastrika is similar but in this the in-breath and out-breath are forceful. While performing Kapalbhati and Bhastrika, you should not strain or use your body, especially your back. If you feel dizzy, stop because you may be doing something wrong. People with high blood pressure, heart disease, ulcers or other chronic conditions should seek expert advice.
1. Anulom Vilom/Alternate Nostril Breathing: Sit in Padmasana or Vajranasa. If neither is possible, sit in a simple cross pose. Place the index, middle finger in the center of the eyebrows, use your thumb to close the right nostril and ring finger to close the left nostril.
Close your left nostril and inhale through the right nostril counting to the rhythm of the seconds, then exhale through the left while counting. Then inhale through the left and exhale through the right. It takes a turn. Do five rounds. As you inhale and exhale, count in seconds to measure the number of seconds you inhale and exhale. At first, whether according to individual ability. Finally, try inhaling and exhaling for at least 5-10 seconds.
2. Brahmari Pranayama: Sit in a comfortable position as described above. Next, cover your ears with your fingers, close your eyes, take a deep breath and as you exhale say a short “A” and “O” of “Aum” and a long “M”. Feel the vibrations buzzing like a bee in your head. It is a very relaxing pranayama, induces sleep, lowers blood pressure and refreshes the brain.
3. sheetali pranayama: Sit in one of the relaxed poses. Stick out your tongue, make a funnel with your tongue. Inhale through this funnel as you feel the cool air entering your body and then exhale through your nose. Do 10 rounds.
4. sheetkari pranayama: Sit in a relaxed position and place the upper and lower teeth firmly on top of each other. Then inhale through the sides of your mouth as you again feel the cool air entering your body. Exhale through your nose. Do 10 rounds.
Shavasana and Yoga Nidra can be done with your yoga practice and also when you lie down to sleep at night.
(Kamini Bobde is a Kundalini practitioner who follows the Swami Satyananda Saraswati yoga tradition. She is the author of Kundalini Yoga for All: Unlock the Power of Your Body and Brain. Published by Penguin)