Research has found that 33 percent of Indians suffer from insomnia. This is a high number, given that sleep is a natural process programmed into our system. Science and medicine have given us pills for relaxation and sleep but yoga can combat relaxation and insomnia without any negative side effects.
Firstly, yoga practice begins with instructions to relax the whole body, remove all tightness and drive awareness throughout the body. This dual act of looking inward and self-induced relaxation is a simple act, but one that sets new paths in the mind, which is always extroverted. While most of the time the brain controls the motor actions and position of our body, this act of relaxing the body establishes a circulatory effect opposite to the body relaxing the brain. Substantial studies, research now establish that the clarity and output of a calm mind is far better than one under chronic stress. A little stress is a good incentive. Constant stress is destructive and destroys your immune system.
The instructions for relaxation are followed by invoking Om chanting with breath synchrony. Chanting Om has been proven to reduce stress, relax the body, lower BP and regulate the heartbeat. It is said that it stimulates the vagus nerve through the auricular branches which intensifies the power of the brain.
Also, before the beginning and end of each asana, the teacher instructs the students to relax their bodies. During the practice, the student is asked to observe the synchronicity of the breath with the asanas and to observe the effect of the asanas on different parts of the body, organs, muscles, etc. inward. So, relaxation and introversion are integral parts of asana. While it’s not all that easy, over the course of a period, relaxation, introversion and breath awareness become the default setting, replacing the old, extroverted, stress-oriented default setting.
Yoga is progressive. You don’t just stop at physical problems. The asanas culminate with the powerful Suryanamaskar practice, followed by Shavasana, a complete relaxation exercise. In fact, its name, shava (dead body) posture enhances the level of relaxation.
After the shavasana, there is pranayama, which is sitting still. This itself brings about drastic changes in the physical-mental structure. Again, a stable body produces a stable mind. One-point awareness is achieved when the mind is calm and still.
Patanjali’s sutras on pranayama describe it as widening the gap between each inhale and exhale. This is contrary to the popular belief that pranayama is only about regulating the exchange of O2 and CO2 in your breath. It does this but its main focus is to regulate the pranic force, the life force within the body, which is separate from the breath. We try to increase the interval between inhalation and exhalation because this is how we achieve the breathing cycle of turtles and elephants and thus delay aging. There are six basic forms of pranayama that calm the mind, activate your mental 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 leads to sound sleep.
Let us now look at some of the exercises that help in relaxation and achieving restful, deep sleep.
In pranayama, both Kaphabhati and Bhastrika create a state of calmness and thoughtlessness that is a far cry from your daily life. Kapalbhati literally means pumping the bellows on the frontal lobe, cranium or forehead.
The exercise involves sitting still but comfortably. With the eyes slowly closed, practitioners should focus internally on the frontal lobe, forehead, and exhale forcefully repeatedly. Breathing is involuntary and almost imperceptible. Start with 11 rounds in the beginning and gradually increase to 50 rounds. Between each round, pause for a few seconds. In the pauses, you will feel that there is almost no breathing and a kind of emptiness is felt.
Bhastrika is similar but both inhalation and exhalation are vigorous. While doing Kapalbhati and Bhastrika, you should not strain or exercise your body, especially the back. If you feel light-headed, stop because you might be doing something wrong. People with BP, heart disease, ulcers or other chronic diseases should seek expert guidance.
1. anulom vilom/alternate nostril breathingSit in Padmasana or Vajranasa. If neither of the two is possible, then sit in the easy-crossed posture. Place the index finger, middle finger in the center of the eyebrow, 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 the seconds, then exhale through the left as you count. Then inhale from the left and exhale from the right. This makes a round. Do five rounds. As you breathe in and out, count the seconds to the rhythm of how many seconds you inhale and exhale. In the beginning let it be according to individual capacity. Lastly, aim to inhale and exhale for at least 5-10 seconds.
2. brahmari pranayama: Sit in a comfortable position as described earlier. Then close your ears with your fingers, close your eyes, take a deep breath and as you exhale, say a short “a” and a “o” of “um” and a long “m.” Feel the vibration inside your head like a bee. It is very relaxing pranayama, induces sleep, lowers blood pressure and refreshes the mind.
3. Sheetali Pranayama: Sit in any comfortable position. Stick out your tongue, make a funnel of your tongue. Breathe in through this funnel and feel the cool air entering your body and then exhale through the nose. Do 10 rounds.
4. Sheetkari Pranayama: Sit in a comfortable position and keep the upper and lower teeth tightly against each other. Then inhale through the sides of the mouth and again feel the cold air entering your body. Exhale through the nose. Do 10 rounds.
Shavasana and Yoga Nidra can be done along with your yoga practice while lying 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 Mind. Published by Penguin)