Last updated on November 28th, 2023.
Sleep is an essential aspect of survival. During sleep, the mind and body recover from the previous day and prepare for the next. It is during this time that the body undergoes amazing processes that keep you healthy, safe, and happy:
- Cognitive functioning helps to process information to enhance memory and learning.
- Children and adolescents need sleep to develop according to their needs. Important hormones are released that ensure muscle growth and healthy puberty.
- Proper sleep allows the body to heal and repair itself. It is an important factor for immune function.
- Adequate sleep helps the body to regulate hormonal release that helps maintain a healthy weight and blood sugar levels. It’s a critical component when trying to lose weight naturally. Sleep helps to prevent obesity and diabetes, and encourages healthy eating habits.
- A well-rested body and mind maintain physical and psychological safety. Sleep is an important aspect of performance.
Whether we experience difficulty with sleep or not (or think we don’t), we could all improve our sleep quality. Sleep is an unconscious process, in which we are unaware participants. Yoga is the practice of focus and awareness. To live the yogic lifestyle is a calling to be more present and in control, even in sleep. Mastering the heart-mind through being more mindful about our sleep is a crucial step forward.
How Does Sleep Affect Your Health?
Sleep deprivation is the leading cause of many ailments, which include kidney and heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke, depression, illness, and a range of chronic issues that can interfere with your daily life. Poor sleep patterns can also lead to mood issues and inept social interactions. More immediately, loss of sleep can lead to risks, such as auto accidents, poor work and academic performance, and other injuries.
So many times we do not experience sound sleep. Receiving the necessary amount and quality of sleep is not as simple as closing your eyes. Many situations can interfere with a good nights’ sleep:
- Anxiety or stressful thoughts can keep you from falling asleep and maintaining adequate sleep.
- Physical symptoms and illnesses, such as colds, allergies, pain, obesity, and pregnancy can make it difficult to experience healthy sleep.
- Sleeping at the wrong time of day can impede sleep cycles.
- Sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea, prevent you from experiencing all the sleep cycles that are necessary for rest and repair.
- Blue light, diet or time of meal, and bedtime routine can impact healthy sleeping patterns.
Although you may believe that you achieve adequate amounts and types of sleep, the truth is that many of us are living with some level of sleep deprivation. It is recommended that adults sleep for at least seven to nine hours per night, and children and adolescents should be receiving up to at least 12 hours per night. But more important than quantity of sleep is the quality of sleep we receive.
The Importance of the Sleep Cycle
Good, quality sleep consists of experiencing the full cycle of sleep. Being able to participate in deep sleep levels helps to heal the body and allows the mind to process important information. Because of the many reasons people do not achieve deep sleep, many go through life literally starving for sleep (and often without realizing it).
Each night, the human brain should experience sleep that includes Non-Rapid Eye Movement (NREM) and Rapid Eye Movement (REM) stages of sleep.
Stage 1: A person experiences the lightest levels of “sleep” during this stage. Typically, we are still conscious and can awaken easily. It is during this time that the brain experiences alpha wave patterns (8 to 12 Hz), which exist during relaxed, present, and meditative thought processes.
Stage 2: NREM sleep technically starts during stage 2. Here the brain experiences theta wave patterns (3 to 8 Hz), in which the mind undergoes processes that help it integrate memory and learning. In stage 2, arousal rarely occurs, and we withdraw our senses. Subconscious thoughts, feelings, and intuitions can emerge during this time.
Stages 3 and 4: Stages 3 and 4 of sleep are the deepest NREM stages. Here, the brain experiences delta wave patterns (.5 to 3 Hz) that enable deep healing and restoration. While stage 4 is a deeper level of sleep than 3, they are both where the unconscious mind exists. It is extremely difficult to wake during this period.
Stage 5: REM sleep occurs during stage 5. The brain experiences brain wave patterns similar to that of wakefulness (typically beta, 12 to 38 Hz). It is during REM sleep that people dream, which can contribute to important information and emotion processing.
You can incorporate different methods to your night routine to get a good night’s rest. Listening to meditation music can help you relax, sleep and relieve stress allowing the body to reach all stages of sleep.
“Mental stability also comes from observing dream and deep sleep states.”
-The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, 1.38
Physically and psychologically, the body and mind need to experience all levels of sleep. To live according to yoga is to alter the ways in which we experience typical life. When we sleep and dream in sub- and unconscious ways, we allow any form of information, memory, or emotion to affect our heart-mind. We can experience nightmares or dreams that affect our wakefulness. Even in dreamless sleep, we are subject to the whims of the physical and psychological body. These impressions (samskara-s), can cause us more harm than we realize.
According to the teachings of yoga, four levels of sleep exist:
- Wakefulness (which is really sleep if we are neglecting internal awareness)
- Dream Sleep (in which emotions and thoughts are unconsciously experienced)
- Deep Sleep (that includes involuntary processes in which the seer is not actively involved)
- Beyond (which is where the seer experiences absolute nothingness)
In all actions, the yogic practitioner attempts to make all mental action sattvic. In Sanskrit, sattva refers to “purity”, and its application is to increase that which brings light and health, while discarding that which brings dis-ease. Sleep is also an action, and it can affect our bodies in profound ways. When we apply our focus on producing sleep that will bring purity to the heart-mind, we can improve the quality of our lives tremendously.
To live according to sutra 1.10, it is essential to control the senses by purposefully engaging with uplifting sensory experiences (sounds, smells, tastes, thoughts, etc.) and avoiding harmful activities (like over-sleeping, sleeping in an environment that negatively impacts sleep quality, and participating in mind chatter that does not bring sattvic results). This can be done through a number of purposeful activities, incorporated into evening and bedtime routines, and by participating in yoga nidra.
When we practice and protect our sleep, we safeguard the heart-mind. It is not easy to alter habits, especially in regards to a purely unconscious way of being; however, with practice and commitment, it is possible to not only alter our sleep, but we can obtain mental stability through keen observation (niyama) of our sleep and dream states. Through this observation, we can determine our needs and take control of what we allow to affect our peace and sattvic experiences.
How to Take Control and Manage Sleep
The last limb of ashtanga-yoga is samadhi. It is in samadhi that the participant experiences complete absorption, nothing. In this nothing, we can find bliss. Samadhi is a total surrender—complete attention and focus. Deep sleep is similar to samadhi, but when we are in deep sleep, we experience the opposite of complete attention and focus. Our minds and bodies seem out of our control. Thoughts, emotions, and memories spray in all directions, and our body relaxes, tenses, and experiences paralysis according to its own terms. The goal is to attain more focus in our sleep so that hurtful experiences do not lead to harmful impressions on our mind, body, and spirit.
Since we live in a contemporary society, and it is extremely difficult to adopt a complete yogic lifestyle, it is important to take control where you can:
- Be mindful of your habits during the day that may lead to difficulty sleeping at night.
- Participate in an evening and bedtime routine that prepares you for quality sleep.
- Create an environment that is conducive to healing sleep.
- Incorporate yoga into your routines and regularly participate in yoga nidra (yogic sleep).
Learning about and participating in Ayurveda (the sister-science of yoga), can help you to live a lifestyle that is conducive with the habits described below.
Day Time Routine
Everything you do in life affects all other aspects. Painful experiences, emotions, and memories can create lasting impressions on your body and mind. These samskara-s can affect your quality of sleep. The substances we consume during the day can also affect our ability to sleep. Exercise, screen time, and physical health can all attribute to sleep quality. Here are some tips for daytime activities that will help you enhance your sleep:
- Participate in a morning routine (dinacharya) that supports hygiene and health.
- Limit or eliminate caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol.
- Drink plenty of unadulterated water.
- Eat three well-balanced meals (last meal between 6 and 7 p.m.).
- Exercise for at least 20 minutes per day (asana counts.. you can lose weight doing yoga!). Enjoy cardio-focused aerobics a few times per week.
- Take periodic time outs during the day to relax, medidate, or do nothing.
Evening and Night Time Routines
How you spend your evenings preparing for sleep and dream time is important. By being mindful of evening activities that support or hinder sleep quality, you can build a routine that makes you feel cozy and satisfied.
- Limit blue light interaction (smart phone, computer, and television). Give yourself two hours without them before bed.
- Take a warm bath or shower. You can also incorporate a self massage with oil to make you feel relaxed and nourished.
- Eat a light meal for dinner and eat no later than 7 p.m.. (or try to eat 2 hours before bed).
- Set a regular and decent bedtime. Try to be in bed by 10 p.m.
- Participate in activities that prepare you for sleep (asana, aroma therapy, relaxing music, candles, or yoga nidra).
- Standing forward bend (Hastapadasana)
- Cat stretch (Marjariasana)
- Child pose (Shishuasana)
- Butterfly or Bound-Angle pose (Baddha Konasana)
- Legs-up-the-wall pose (Viparita Karani)
Bedroom Feng Shui
You don’t have to be a feng shui master to understand and implement some basic principles regarding your sleeping space. By acting intentional about your treasured sleep space, you can enhance the quality of your sleep and create room for more focused, yogic sleep.
- Place your bed in the center of the room and maintain balance (a table or lamp on each side).
- Avoid placing your bed near anything that will distract you (too close to a work desk, under a drafty window, or too close to the door).
- Remove electronics and exercise equipment from sight.
- Eliminate light, especially blue light, from your sleeping space.
- Use relaxing aromas to support sleep. Lavender, clary sage, peppermint, rose, and sandalwood are some options, and each person will be attracted to different smells. Use a diffuser and essential oils, or hang the plant/herb in your bedroom.
- Be mindful of clutter and colors. A clean space with warm colors can help induce relaxing sleep. Try light blues, greens, and purples.
What is Yoga Nidra?
To go further, into the Beyond, practitioners can participate in yoga nidra—a powerful type of yogic sleep that leaves one feeling refreshed, rejuvenated, and restored. Yoga nidra is a level of sleep that typically cannot be realized. In regular sleep, a person understands that he or she has slept, but whatever transpires during sleep and dreams occurs in an unconscious way, which can limit the benefits intended by sleep. Yoga nidra is a focused practice. It can promote deep healing, can prepare you for more intentional sleep, and can provide essential rest.
One 30-minute yoga nidra session can be the equivalent of 2 to 4 hours of normal sleep. You can either find a session offered near you, or you can practice it in the comfort of your own home with the use of guided sessions. In essence, yoga nidra is a deep state of relaxation that alters brain wave cycles. It is a practice that helps promote sleep but in a way that exposes the participant to single-pointed focus during sleep-like experiences. With continued practice, it is possible to turn these deep healing sessions into meditative methods to help enhance inner awareness. The practitioner can develop mental stability through awareness of the sleep state, but yoga nidra is also a great practice to promote sleepiness in preparation of normal sleep.
If you’d like to learn more about Yoga Nidra and to add it to your teaching practice, check out our recommendations for the Best Online Yoga Nidra Teacher Training. Regarding Yoga Nidra itself, we’ve outlined the tiered stages just below:
Stage 1: This level consists of relaxing the practitioner and guiding him or her into a meditative and focused sleep. Beta brain waves, experienced during wakefulness, slow down considerably.
Stage 2: This level consists of deep belly breathing, which helps to increase serotonin in the brain. At this stage, the brain wave patterns slow to alpha, theta, and delta, which are experienced during normal sleep.
Stage 3: During this stage, the brain increases in alpha wave activity. Alpha waves promote mindfulness, which aids in concentration, memory integration, and other prefrontal cortex executive functioning. Research also indicates that this activity helps to decrease symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Stage 4: The fourth and final stage of yoga nidra promotes consistent delta brain wave patterns. Because of the way in which the practitioner reaches this stage, he or she experiences this deep sleep while maintaining conscious awareness.
Yoga asks us to be more intentional about our sleep. Observing our deep sleep and dream states can lead to powerful insights about ourselves. In addition to the information above, we can use the power of intention to be more mindful of what thoughts and emotions flood our minds and bodies within the moments before sleep. Avoid negative thinking. Envision what you want to experience in your sleep and dreams. And most importantly, pay attention to your sleep and dream patterns for underlying issues that may need to be addressed.
Overall, sleep and dreams are important aspects of everyday health. By living intentionally, and using various methods to sleep intentionally, we can increase the quality of sleep we receive, supporting our health: physically, mentally, and spiritually.
Having this knowledge for ourselves as yoga practitioners is helpful but especially if you’ve been through Yoga Teacher Training and intend to not only teach the forms but instill the lifestyle amongst your students.