The Benefits of Yoga

The virtues of yoga have long been acknowledged and spoken about. The benefits of yoga for overall health and wellbeing, weight loss, fitness, stress relief and more recently, as a way to counteract the effects of several so-called ‘lifestyle diseases’ such as high blood-pressure and diabetes, have formed the basis of endless studies, and have also been translated into practice with high levels of success.

In Pursuit of Sleep

Insomnia, difficulty sleeping, restlessness and not getting enough sleep are common complaints in today’s fast-paced world. Increasingly, people have been turning to yoga in order resolve sleep issues and improve the quality of sleep. There are many studies, including one that demonstrates the effect of yoga to improve the sleep of cancer survivors. The participants in the study practiced a specifically designed programme of breathing exercises, certain postures, restorative yoga and mindfulness or meditation.

Despite the endless caffeine-free herbal teas and ayurvedic concoctions, a plethora of “relaxing” foods and even medication available and widely touted in the market, sleep remains an elusive target. The lifestyle of most millennials, and even those who are fast approaching middle and older age leads to a never ending game of catch up with sleep

Studies and Research

While the actual mechanism of yoga’s effect on sleep is still being researched, one researcher at the University of Rochester School of Medicine in the United States suggests that the practice of yoga leads to enhanced relaxation and eventually induces sleep. (http://jco.ascopubs.org/content/early/2013/08/12/JCO.2012.43.7707.abstract)

Another study, published in the Journal of Ayurveda and Integrative Medicine (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3667430/), focused on the quality of sleep as well as the quality of life among practitioners of yoga who are aged over 60. The participants in the study, themselves reported improvements in both areas, as a result of their long term practice of yoga. In an experiment conducted on a test group of 120 residents living in a home for the aged, the participants were divided into three groups on an arbitrary basis: a yoga group that practiced postures, relaxation techniques, and pranayama or breathing techniques, and were given lectures on yoga philosophy; an Ayurveda group that was given a herbal preparation; and a control group. The groups were evaluated over a one-week period and again after three and six months respectively, based on their own observations of their sleep patterns. The yoga group showed an average decrease of 10 minutes, in the time taken to fall asleep as well as an average increase of one hour in the total time spent asleep. Members of the yoga group also reported feeling more rested in the morning. The Ayurveda and control groups reported no significant changes.

Yoga is also widely known to reduce stress, a common cause of sleepless nights and restlessness, and this also helps to induce restful sleep.

Yoga for Better Sleep

Several yoga postures or asanas can be practiced before bedtime in order to calm the mind and the body and assist in inducing more restful and satisfying sleep. The more common asanas for sleep include:

i. Viparitkarani – Legs up the wall pose

ii. Supta Baddha-Konasana – Reclining bound angle pose

iii. Balasana – Childs Pose

iv. Uttanasana – Forward bend

Additionally, breathing techniques or pranayama have been shown to improve the quality of sleep. A simple exercise of pranayama involves slowing down the breath and consequently the heart rate in order to take the body into a restful state. The exercise involves inhaling for four counts, holding the breath in for seven counts and exhaling for eight counts. This can be done for a few minutes, with normal breaths taken in between as necessary.

P. Murali Doriaswamy, a professor at Duke University suggests a gentle yoga practice in the early morning, in order to experience its benefits on sleep an overall health. A 20 minute practice in the evening, focused on the asanas which specifically target improved sleep will also show great results. (http://www.sonima.com/meditation/sleep-science/

As with everything, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, but as a practitioner of yoga myself, and someone who also had great difficulty in having a restful night’s sleep, I can honestly say, that the benefits of a gentle yoga practice, whether early in the day or just before bedtime far outweigh the time and effort taken to achieve it. 

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