How did you sleep? Yoga for better rest – part 1

“How did you sleep?” I hovered above the sheets!

“How did you sleep?” Does the question fill you with dread? A family holiday or round the breakfast table at a yoga retreat, gave me the ignoble choice of a) lying or b) bearing sympathetic brow furrowing on the part of my host, who would often feel responsible if I’d had a rough night.

Since my early 20s I’ve had every type of sleep disturbance you can imagine, with the possible exception of sleeping too much. My friend Jeanne gets skin eruptions when life gets dicey. Daniel gets digestive problems when stressed. For me sleep is the ‘canary in the coal mine’. Most of us have a gauge of our physical or emotional imbalance. Bad sleep is, for many of us, a wake up call.

Here’s what I woke up to: that getting some basics of the digestive cycle, exercise and rest patterns related to my body-mind type would help create balance better rest. Unlike taking a sleeping pill – a short term and ultimately ineffective solution – I found a winning combination in yoga and ayurveda – a system that looks at your own natural body and mind constitution (guided by my highly knowledgable guide Jono Condous).

Two of my recovering insomniac friends’ stories may seem familiar to you – and may help you see how what you do all day and how you do it can help you boost your own sleep and rest without medication.

In this first post, we meet Tara, a classic vata type. In the second I’ll introduce Cathy, a classic pitta type. We’ll see how their constitutions need slightly different approaches to yoga, eating and daily habits to help them sleep better.

Tara is wrecked when she gets less than 8 hours of sleep but even then, can wake frazzled and exhausted. She struggles through the night disturbed by the slightest sounds or light, and wakes with a feeling of annoyance and anxiety if she’s roused. A light sleeper from childhood, the mind-chatter keeps going all night. A snoring partner drives her to distraction. Earplugs and an eye shade are her heroes.

She has slim long limbs and finds it hard to put on weight. She sometimes forgets to eat when she’s busy at work, doesn’t feel hungry like some people do and gravitates towards light raw foods. She finds it hard to stick to a routine and, buzzing with nervous energy, tidies her room before bed time, then reads until she can distract her mind and finally drops off. Usually in bed at 9.30pm she gets 8 fitful hours of sleep, waking groggy and jangled.

She needs a long wind down time before sleep and goes to bed early if she can. She’s got to keep warm and swears by her lavender oil. She burns candles instead of her bright bedside lamp and keeps her bedroom in digital detox mode. Intuitively after years of yoga, she’s started doing baddha konasana in bed, a hip opening pose that she feels calms her nervous energy.

Tara shows classic vata signs. Although reasonable in duration, her sleep feels light and un-refreshing. In yoga and Ayurvedic terms, Tara needs to warm and ground the cool energy of the vata air type. Ayurvedic wisdom would have her eating warming and grounding foods, like root vegetable soups in the evening and dense protein meals in the middle of the day, eaten at regular times. Bathing her feet in warm water with some cinnamon, clove and ginger at night, slathering on some sesame oil and popping on some woolly socks will help her bring energy downward, soothing and nurturing a jangled nervous system.

She is on the right track with her instinct for hip openers like bound angle pose (baddha konasana) and she’d do well to include some deep thigh stretches like a one legged reclining hero pose (eka pada supta virasana) accompanied by belly breathing to ‘ground’ vata in its ‘seat’ in the belly. Breathing out longer than the in breath will slow her heart rate and calm her mind. These poses and breath will bring her ‘down’ and out of her head. In addition, doing slower, longer-held postures, or keeping her higher speed yoga classes to the morning instead of the evening time, will help her to start settling her energy before bed.

As for me, I’ve used every practice I’d suggest for my friends – combining vata and pitta balancing practices at different times in my life so I can feel better adjusted whether I’m going a bit too airy-fairy or too fired up. Even the more kapha skewing sleepyheads (more earthy/watery types who might be out cold for ages and still not feel rested) can get a boost from specific Ayurvedic guided practices that help them to charge up and get the energy moving during the day to create the tiredness needed for deep and productive sleep at night.

Wait for our next post for a bit on the fiery pitta-dominant constitution and how this works with sleep. Learn more about your individual body-mind type (dosha) and how to balance it, sleep better, feel more alert and alive.

This post first appeared on the Triyoga blog.

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