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Yoga Nidra and Sleep

Updated: May 3

There was a time when sleeping less was some sort of badge of honor, “I only need four hours of sleep a night.” There is still a lingering sense of working harder to get farther that seems to underlie most of our habits and actions, but at the same time, the tides seem to be slowly and deliberately turning toward an era of self-care. There is a growing recognition that it is not selfish to want glowing health and measured energy throughout the day. We’re becoming more conscious of the food we eat, the practices we enjoy, and the company we keep. But what about sleep? That necessary, but previously underrated time of repair and restoration?

We’re living in a time of acceleration, everything is moving and changing faster than it ever has before. Our bodies feel this. Even with a long luxurious list of self-care practices we promise ourselves, our nervous systems still take a hit and need more restoration than an herbal bath or long walk in nature. We need consistent, productive sleep. Hours of it.

Over 60 million Americans suffer from some form of insomnia.

The Mayo Clinic describes insomnia as “a common sleep disorder that can make it hard to fall asleep, hard to stay asleep, or cause you to wake up too early and not be able to get back to sleep.” Insomnia can be sporadic – lasting a short while or only once in a while, short-term – lasting up to six months, or chronic – lasting longer than six months. It most obviously affects energy and mood, but it can also chip away at overall health, work performance and quality of life.

Common causes of insomnia:

  1. Stress and anxiety – any current concerns about work, health or finances can keep the mind active at night. Stressful events or trauma may also lead to insomnia.

  2. Poor sleeping environment or habits – irregular bedtime schedule, napping, blue light before bed or the humming of electronics in the bedroom.

  3. Schedule – traveling, especially over time zones, can disrupt sleep in the form of jet lag. So can shift work or frequently changing shifts.

  4. Eating habits – consuming too much food before bed can affect sleep. As the body struggles to digest, it can also create heartburn resulting in interrupted sleep.

  5. Mental health conditions – Anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and depression are strongly linked to insomnia and may disorder the sleep pattern.

  6. Physical health - heart conditions, cancer, diabetes, asthma, GERD, overactive thyroid, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, sleep apnea or physical pain can all contribute to interrupted sleep.

  7. Medications – many prescription drugs interfere with sleep, some anti-depressants, medications for blood pressure, over the counter cold and allergy medications and any weight loss products that contain caffeine.

  8. Caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol – consuming caffeinated drinks late in the afternoon or evening can make it difficult to fall asleep. Nicotine is also a stimulant that can interfere with sleep. Alcohol may help one fall asleep, but it prevents deeper stages of sleep and typically causes awakening throughout the night.

  9. Aging – sleep patterns change as we age. Alpha brainwave activity, associated with our ability to fall asleep generally decreases. For women experiencing menopause, sleep is often difficult and inconsistent.

Of all the causes of insomnia, stress continuously tops the list. Stress and anxiety have become so normalized in our culture that we don’t even realize how much stress we are under on a chronic level. Many of the diseases and disorders listed above have their roots in chronic stress. Stress taxes the nervous system causing insomnia which affects overall immune health leading to some of the diseases listed, causing insomnia. It’s a harmful cycle that, once recognized, can be broken.

Many of the causes of insomnia seem to be within our control, but if stress is so pervasive and common its symptoms are also becoming normalized making it difficult to identify. How can we know if stress is the underlying condition of insomnia? Here is a short list of diseases and issues linked to stress:

  1. Asthma

  2. Insomnia

  3. Depression

  4. High blood pressure

  5. Diabetes

  6. Digestive disorders

  7. Low back pain

  8. Fertility

  9. Heart disease

  10. Migraines

  11. Anxiety

  12. Immune Response

  13. Heart disease

The list is exhaustive and includes many more maladies. Perhaps, if we simply assume that we are affected by stress - that it is the underlying cause of our health concern or insomnia - we can begin to make positive changes in mitigating that stress.

Adequate sleep matters.

Consistently sleeping soundly and enough helps restore the body and nervous system. Getting a good night’s sleep can positively affect overall health in following ways:

Brain function – In a word: clarity. With a proper night’s sleep problem-solving and decision making become easier. Memory and cognitive thinking improve, and new neural connections are made. Lack of sleep creates a fogginess in the brain and consistently sleeping poorly can lead to poor judgment, mistakes, and slow reaction time.

Emotional health – A rested mind better controls emotions and reactive behaviors, and overall manages stress levels.

Heart health – During sleep, the heart rate slows and blood pressure decreases, allowing the heart to rest. When sleep is insufficient and irregular it can lead to extended periods of elevated blood pressure and even heart disease.

Blood Sugar regulation – A good night’s sleep helps keep insulin levels in check. Sleeping less than seven hours a night on a regular basis is shown to increase the risk for Type 2 Diabetes.

Weight control – Proper sleep allows the body to regulate hormones by sending clear signals to the brain. In addition, during sleep the body produces the appetite suppressor leptin while reducing the appetite stimulant ghrelin. A poor night’s sleep will have the opposite effect.

Immune System – Many restorative functions are carried out during sleep. The body produces growth hormones during sleep that repair tissues and cytokines that support immune function in fighting infections. Lack of sleep can lead to a higher risk of common infections like the cold or flu. Consistently inefficient sleep can lead to a higher risk for immunodeficiency.

What if it isn’t lack of sleep that’s an issue, but oversleeping?

Studies have shown that sleeping more than nine hours a night on a consistent basis can be equally as harmful as not getting enough sleep. Some of the issues associated with oversleeping are consistent with issues suffered when not getting enough sleep:

  1. Cognitive impairment – brain fog, slow reaction time

  2. Higher risk of Diabetes, stroke, or heart disease

  3. Increased inflammation

  4. Increased pain and a higher rate of headaches or migraines

  5. Higher risk for degenerative diseases like dementia or Alzheimer’s disease

  6. Increased depression and anxiety

  7. Weight gain

There is so much evidence on the importance of adequate sleep. But what if you’re doing everything you believe you’re supposed to do and still struggling with sleep? There are many reasons why you may not be getting the sleep you need, and some may not be fully in your control.

New parents – a newborn’s sleep and eat cycles take some time to regulate, but it is usually temporary and baby and parents can settle back into appropriate sleep cycles once regulated.

Fatigue – fatigue and lethargy can be mental or physical and lead to longer sleep times AND longer sleep times can lead to more lethargy. You need energy to sleep.

Artificial lighting – working in an environment without natural sunlight can send mixed signals to the brain, disrupting natural rhythms, creating a less than optimal environment for sleep.

Underlying disease – Obstructive sleep apnea, depression or generally failing health can lead to longer sleep times

Shift work – working overnight shifts deprives the body of important functions that only happen during specific times of the day. Over time this can lead to unproductive sleep during daylight hours and create health issues as a result.

There is hope for a better night’s sleep. We know now the benefits of proper sleep and the harmful effects of insomnia and we’ve investigated some possible causes, but the question remains, how? If your schedule and lifestyle are not affected by the issues listed above, it may be as simple as leaning into the cycles of nature.

There’s more to rhythm than dancing...

Nature elegantly operates in cycles. We have seasons, longer and shorter daylight hours throughout those seasons, sunrises and sunsets and we have the Circadian Rhythms. Circadian rhythms are physical, mental, and behavioral changes that follow a 24-hours cycle of biological processes. They affect all living things including plants, animals, microbes and, of course, humans. These are processes that affect the body by responding to light and dark.

Circadian rhythms broadly influence important functions of the body, such as: hormone activity, digestion, sleep-wake cycle and body temperature. When we are living in harmony with these natural cycles our days follow a natural flow and sleep comes easily and soundly. But for various reasons, humans have drifted away from this recognition and instinctual lifestyle.

Following is a list of these processes in four-hour blocks to better understand how we can honor these rhythms to create a more peaceful and easeful body and mind.

6:00 AM 10:00 AM

Cortisol (a necessary stress hormone) begins to rise as the sun rises to naturally wake the body. Melatonin, our sleep hormone, stops secretion. During this time, we also experience the sharpest rise in blood pressure. All of these processes combined create the perfect time to engage in some form of physical activity. It doesn’t have to be strenuous; a long walk will do. Movement just after waking and close to sunrise, gets fat cells burning and infuses the metabolism, allowing the body to burn calories more efficiently for energy throughout the day.

10:00 AM – 2:00 PM

Around 10 AM we experience our highest level of alertness, leading us to feel our most productive and focused during this time. As the day reaches its peak – about noon – so do the digestive processes. The digestive fires are being stoked making this the ideal time of day to consume our largest meal, enough to provide fuel for the rest of the day. This is not the ideal time to exercise, but a leisurely 10-minute walk after lunch helps in the digestive process.

2:00 PM – 6:00 PM

The nervous system is active just after lunch. The brain uses a large percentage of the body’s glycogen, or energy supply, during this time which can lead to that sleepy feeling and the perceived need to caffeinate. Instead, engage in some form of physical activity, the body is primed for it. Around 2:30 our coordination is at its peak, followed by our fastest reaction time an hour or so later. At 5:00 PM we have our greatest cardiovascular efficiency and muscle strength.

6:00 PM – 10:00 PM

After sunset, digestion and cortisol levels decrease, making it difficult to digest a large dinner and potentially impeding sleep. Our blood pressure is at its highest around 6:30 PM and our body temperature is at its highest around 7:00 PM. At 9:00 PM the systems of the body begin to prepare for sleep. Digestion slows, the mind becomes less active and melatonin secretion begins.

10:00 PM – 2:00 AM

This is a crucial time to be asleep. The liver is activated for cleansing. During this time most of our blood circulation concentrates in our liver as it undergoes the detoxification process, increasing metabolic activity to cleanse the blood and repair damaged tissues. If the body is awake, the liver cannot perform this function smoothly or it does not happen at all. Over time this depletes the system and lowers natural immunity.

2:00 AM – 6:00 AM

Our deepest, most restorative sleep typically comes around 2:00 AM. Our body temperature is at its lowest at 4:00 AM. The very early morning hours between 4:00 AM – 6:00 AM are also a time believed to be the most conducive to prayer and meditation in many spiritual traditions.

The elegance of this system is, if followed, the body can regulate and heal itself with ease. However, current lifestyle choices typically dictate that we stay up late to get more done, eat lunch quickly on the run or at a desk, have our biggest meal in the evening, usually in front of the TV, around 8:00 PM, and wake up with just enough time for a cup of coffee and a shower before heading to work. Or perhaps we don’t have the choice to follow the healthiest and most natural protocols for the body because we work in a field that requires overnight shifts.

A few small changes can begin to reset our biological sleep clocks. For shift workers this may be more challenging but working toward honoring the circadian rhythms on days off will begin to help reset the body clock.

  1. Begin going to bed by 10 PM

  2. Sleep in a dark room without electronics (as much as possible)

  3. Plan the biggest meal for the middle of the day

  4. Eat earlier and lighter in the evening

  5. Wake with (or before) the sun and move the body

If this all still seems impossible to overcome, have no fear. Yoga Nidra (NSDR, Non-Sleep Deep Relaxation) to the rescue!

Yoga Nidra consists of a series of body, breath and awareness techniques designed to take you into the same brainwaves as in sleep. Yoga Nidra gently moves the body and mind out of stress response into relaxation, that sense that we are content with things as they are in the moment. So many of us plan on relaxing at some point in the future. In the meantime, we drive ourselves to get more done so we can take a break, so we can finally relax. Only there is always more to do, and relaxation gets pushed further away.

We are creating more tension by setting the goal of relaxation that always seems just out of reach. Tension by itself is not bad, it has a necessary place in our daily lives. Tension between where we are and the goal we want to achieve drives us toward that goal. Tension in the body while holding a yoga pose strengthens muscles and improves movement. Setting an unrealistic goal or holding a yoga pose for too long creates harmful tension. Promising yourself you will relax when everything is done and everyone else is taken care of becomes harmful tension because everything is never done and those you care about always have needs you want to meet. It’s a goal that cannot be met.

However, if we view Yoga Nidra as a healthy habit, as we would drinking enough water every day, brushing our teeth, or as a form of meditation or exercise to maintain good health, the resulting relief and sense of peace will become a long-term health benefit that will be easier to maintain.

How does Yoga Nidra help you sleep?

  1. Yoga Nidra increases the release of melatonin and slows its breakdown. That means that it not only helps you fall asleep, it helps you stay asleep.

  2. It reduces excess stress hormones that keep us on high alert when it is time to sleep

  3. Yoga Nidra increases alpha brainwave activity which is necessary to fall asleep

  4. The practice takes you down into the same brainwaves as sleep, assisting in the process of fragmentation of thoughts until we can fall into the gap between them. In Yoga Nidra we practice gently resting with awareness in that gap. But we can also use this gap to fall asleep.

Some people use Yoga Nidra to fall asleep with great benefit. However others get so much energy from the practice that they need to practice early in the day to set the stage for a deep restful sleep at night. Some use it when they cannot fall back asleep to get some form of restoration through the night – even if not through sleep. If you’ve experienced sleep loss at night and are tired during the day, consider a Yoga Nidra instead of coffee. 45 minutes of Yoga Nidra is said to be as restorative as three hours of sleep.

Yoga Nidra works both on reducing stress physiologically and psychologically.

By now you’re likely familiar with some of the benefits of Yoga Nidra, hopefully you’ve experienced the sense of profound calm that can come with a regular practice. But do you know what is happening on a physical level to help you achieve that feeling of ease?

Let’s talk evidence. What really happens in the nervous system with a regular practice of Yoga Nidra?

Melatonin levels balance. The sleep hormone in balance allows for sound and refreshing sleep.

Serotonin increases. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that influences both mood and behavior. It makes us feel good.

Oxytocin is released. This pleasure hormone initiates a sense of contentment which helps reduce fear and anxiety, creating a sense of calm.

Endorphins are released. These morphine-like neurotransmitters act as anti-depressants and may possibly act as anti-cancer agents in the body. A healthy level of endorphins contributes to reduced blood pressure.

GABA (gamma aminobutyric acid) is increased. This plays a key role in stabilizing mood disorders, anxiety and insomnia.

DHEA increases. An increase in DHEA helps relieve depression, sharpens the memory and is a boost to overall well-being. People with low DHEA levels usually don’t recognize they’re in a prolonged condition of chronic stress, it has become normal for them.

Human Growth Hormone is boosted. Throughout life, HGH regulates fat, muscle, tissue and bone in our bodies, as well as other aspects of our metabolism such as blood sugar levels. As we age, naturally boosting HGH levels helps to slow the aging process.

Cortisol levels become regulated. Cortisol usually gets a bad reputation for the being a “stress hormone” but it is necessary and helpful in small amounts when balanced.

Dopamine levels increase. Another pleasure hormone, healthy levels of dopamine are shown to be an antidote to depression. A motivator, dopamine creates a sense of focus and directed action.

Relaxation leads to restoration.

The effects of Yoga Nidra are profound. The deep restorative state of Yoga Nidra releases helpful neurotransmitters and hormones - while reducing potentially harmful hormones and chemicals - creating greater ease in the body and mind leading to stronger physical health, mental health balance, reduced inflammation, and an overall sense of well-being. Yoga Nidra nourishes the body with the neurotransmitters and hormones that will make you feel happier, more relaxed, stronger, and younger, and it all happens effortlessly through the process of lying down and receiving.

The benefits of good, consistent sleep are irrefutable and now within your control through the regular practice of Yoga Nidra. To get the best results from your regular practice, the following tips are recommended:

  1. Choose a time of day when you are least likely to be uninterrupted and able to relax.

  2. Position yourself comfortably on a flat surface, but not so comfortable you fall asleep (unless you are listening to a Yoga Nidra script specifically for that purpose).

  3. Cover yourself with a blanket as the body temperature tends to drop, and cover your eyes if light is disruptive.

  4. Allow yourself to receive the guidance given.

  5. Relax.

It’s helpful, but not necessary, to be consistent in the when and where of your practice. However, find what works best for you and stick with it. If you find yourself falling asleep the first few times, that’s okay. It is your body’s biological need. If after several days or weeks of continued practice you continue to fall asleep, try changing your position (maybe sit up) or location or time of day. Whether you fall asleep or stay awake, you still receive the many benefits of the practice.

The secret to cultivating adequate and restorative sleep lies in your willingness to embrace the present moment and engage in the radical, but simple, self-care practice of Yoga Nidra. Bring your rested and restored self to those you love and the work you do. A consistent practice will yield profound results and lead to many nights of productive, restful sleep.

Kamini Desai PhD is considered an expert in Yoga Nidra and its benefits for many conditions. For more information on sleep and the benefits of Yoga Nidra in general check out: Yoga Nidra: The Art of Transformational Sleep by Kamini Desai PhD. Get expert guidance in the practice of Yoga Nidra with these self-paced courses or download the app for Apple: Yoga Nidra App: IAM Being or Android.

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