Research has found that 33 per cent of Indians suffer from insomnia. This is a high number considering that sleep is a natural process programmed in our system. Science and medicines have given us pills for relaxing and sleeping but yoga can induce relaxation and counter insomnia without any negative side effects.
First, the yoga practice begins with instruction from the teacher to relax the whole body, remove all tightness and let awareness run throughout the body. This dual action of looking inward and self-induced relaxation is a simple act, but one which sets new pathways in the brain, which is ever extroverted. While most of the time the brain controls the motor actions and state of our body, this action of relaxing the body establishes a reverse communication impact, of the body relaxing the brain. There are ample studies, research now that establish that the clarity and output of a relaxed mind is far superior to one under chronic stress. Little stress is a good impetus. Sustained stress is destructive and destroys your immune system.
The relaxation instructions are followed by an invocation of Om chanting with breath synchronisation. Om chanting itself has been proven to reduce stress, relax the body, bring down BP and regulate heart beats. It is said to stimulate the vagus nerve through the auricular branches which sharpens the power of the brain.
Moreover, before the start and end of every asana, the teacher instructs students to relax their bodies. During the practice, the student is told to follow synchronisation of breath with the poses and also look inwards at the impact of the asanas on various parts of the body, organs, muscles and so on. So, relaxation and introversion are part and parcel of the asanas. Although all this is not easy, over a period, relaxation, introversion and breath awareness become the default setting, replacing the chronic, extroverted, stress-oriented default setting.
Yoga is progressive. You don’t stop at just the bodily problems. Asanas culminate with the powerful suryanamaskar practice, which is followed by Shavasana, which is a complete relaxation practice. In fact, its name, Shav ( dead body) asana amplifies the level of relaxation.
Shavasana is followed by pranayama, which is sitting still. This itself brings about enormous changes in the physical-mental make up. Again, a still body engenders a still mind. One-pointed awareness is achieved when the mind is calm and still.
Patanjali’s sutra on pranayama describes it as extending the gap between each inhalation and exhalation. This is contrary to popular belief that pranayama is just about regulation of the exchange of O2 and CO2 in your breath. It does this but its main focus is to regulate the pranic force, the vital life force, within the body, which is distinct from the breath. We try to extend the gaps between inhalation and exhalation because that way we achieve the breathing cycle of tortoises and elephants and thereby delay ageing. There are six basic forms of pranayama which tranquillise the mind, activate your psychic centres in the brain and body and bring about balance in the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. All this harmonises body, mind and emotions which further engenders good sleep.
Now let us get down to some of the practices which help in relaxation and achieving restful, deep sleep.
In pranayama, both Kapabhati and Bhastrika induce a state of tranquility and thoughtlessness which is an experience quite removed from your everyday life. Kapalbhati literally means pumping bellows at the frontal lobe, the kapal or the forehead.
The practice involves sitting still but relaxed. With eyes gently closed, practitioners must focus internally on the frontal lobe, forehead, and perform repeated forceful exhalations. Inhalation is involuntary and almost imperceptible. Initially start with 11 rounds and slowly build to 50 rounds. Between every round, pause for a few seconds. In the pauses, you will feel that the breath is almost not there and a kind of vacant expansiveness is experienced.
Bhastrika is similar but in this, both inhalation and exhalation are forceful. While performing Kapalbhati and Bhastrika, you must not strain or use your body, especially the back. If you feel light-headed, then stop because you might be doing something wrong. Those with BP, a heart condition, ulcers or other chronic ailments must seek expert guidance.
1. Anulom Vilom/Alternate nostril breathing: Sit in Padmasana or Vajranasa. If neither is possible then sit in a simple-crossed pose. Place forefinger, middle finger at the eyebrow centre, use your thumb to close the right nostril and ring finger to close your left nostril.
Close your left nostril and breathe in through your right nostril, counting to the rhythm of seconds, then breathe out through the left while counting. Then breathe in through the left and breathe out through the right. This makes one round. Do five rounds. As you breathe in and out, count to the rhythm of seconds to measure how many seconds you inhale and exhale. In the beginning let it be as per individual capacity. Finally, aim to breathe in and out for at least 5-10 seconds.
2. Brahmari Pranayama: Sit in a comfortable position as described earlier. Then plug 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 inside your head. This is a very relaxing pranayama, induces sleep, lowers BP and refreshes the brain.
3. Sheetali pranayama: Sit in any of the relaxed poses. Stick your tongue out, make a funnel of your tongue. Breathe in through this funnel feeling cool air entering your body then exhale through the nose. Do 10 rounds.
4. Sheetkari pranayama: Sit in a relaxed position and place the upper and lower teeth over one another tightly. Then breathe in through the sides of the mouth again feeling cool air entering your body. Exhale through the nose. Do 10 rounds.
Shavasana and Yoga Nidra can be done along 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 tradition of yoga. She is the author of Kundalini Yoga for All: Unlock the Power of Your Body and Brain. Published by Penguin)