Getting a good night’s sleep

Research has highlighted the impact of poor sleep on our well-being.  Heart disease, obesity, diabetes and poor brain function have already been linked to poor sleep patterns but now researchers at the University of Surrey have shown that when we only sleep for a few hours a night the pattern of activation of over 700 genes is changed in the body.  Key findings were changes in the body’s response to damage and stress through the immune system.  In addition, research at Yale University has shown that our natural body clock is disturbed and it has already been shown that our immune system is stronger at certain times of day than others, so these changes can also affect our ability to ward off disease.

Common suggestions to help get a good night’s sleep often include avoiding a heavy meal, caffeine or alcohol late at night.  Ensuring the room is well ventilated, dark and not too warm can help to convince your body it’s time for sleep.  Yoga may also have a beneficial effect and I have often been told by students that they sleep well after a class.  This may be because of the relaxing effect of yoga, created by our concentration on controlled movement and on the breath.

This focus for our practice can result in a change in the balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems of body, moving us away from a ‘fight or flight situation where we are fired up for activity to a relaxation response where the body’s systems emphasise rest and repair.  This is associated with a lower heart rate, reduced blood pressure and slower breathing.  In fact, it is not uncommon for people to ‘drop off’ during the final relaxation in class, even if it is only 5 minutes long.  It’s as if the class has primed them for sleep.  By lying down they give their body permission to rest…and off they go.

A  yoga class can act as a ‘breathing space’ in the day or week, a time to let go of all the thoughts that are keeping your mind busy and allow both mind and body some time to be restful.  If sleep can be a problem for you, aim to maximise the benefits of this relaxing effect when you get home.  Late night chores, surfing the Internetor other activities are likely to break the mood and wake you up again.  Instead, aim to devote the remainder of that evening to quiet time and take advantage of the benefits of a restful night’s sleep.



Time to relax part 2: I’m in position, now what?

When it’s time for the final relaxation in class you may well think “Aha! time for a snooze!”  Indeed, you may feel like dozing off, as the physical practice has eased bodily tension and encouraged your breathing to slow down.  If the body is very relaxed this may sometimes happen, but the idea of this practice is that while the body relaxes the mind stays in the moment and maintains an awareness of the breath, or any guided practice we may be using that day.

In this pose, we are looking to find a stillness of body, mind and senses, linked by a calm, even breath.  If there is too much tension remaining (mental or physical), we will be unable to keep the mind or the body still.  If there is insufficient attention, we will doze off.

The initial part of the relaxation practice will encourage you to release remaining tension from the body.  We will often seek a sense of weight, as the body feels heavier when it relaxes.  We will focus on the breath, as it settles into a steady, even rhythm (this is probably the point at which you want to drop off!).

We may stay with awareness of the body during the practice or sometimes use a visualisation, such as a healing light or imagining g a journey to a relaxing place.  Visualisations give the mind an anchor to focus on whilst you relax and can boost your creativity as you practise envisioning the scenes described.  They can also harness the power of positive thought to help you feel rested, healed and peaceful.

Savasana is known as the corpse pose, and here we allow ourselves to rest completely, as we might after death, free of all tension in mind and body.  At  the end of the practice, we move to the recovery position.  This gives us some time to realign ourselves with the present moment and its similarity to a foetal position also symbolises a new beginning, ready to start again without the weight of previous tensions holding us down.


Time to relax part 1: finding savasana

“Bring the body down to the mat in savasana or semi supine for our relaxation.” It’s the end of the class, the last few minutes and it’s time for our relaxation.  This is an opportunity to allow the body to completely relax and absorb the benefits of the previous hour or so.   Before we can do our relaxation practice, we need to bring the body into a suitable position, generally savasana (corpse pose) or semi supine.  In Light on Pranayama, Iyengar dedicates a whole chapter to the practice of savasana, complete with figures to show the detail of the alignment, indicating the importance of this posture.

When we settle the body down to the mat in savasana it is important to position it in a balanced way, with the spine aligned along the length of the mat.  This will mean that the energy can flow evenly and we are not restricting the blood supply to any part or imbalancing the muscles, eg with the feet crossed.  In savasana the legs are straight.  Some space between the feet will make it easier for the legs to relax, and the feet can just flop to the sides.

If this is not comfortable for you, you could try semi-supine instead or place a support such as a folded blanket under either the lumbar spine of the top of the thighs.  You may also wish to place something under the head so the forehead is slightly higher than the chin.  It is best to close the eyes, as we want the awareness to be with the body and breath rather than with the surroundings.  The eyelids should be soft and the gaze of the eyes behind them relaxed.  This helps to draw the awareness inside, towards the inner world.

The position of the arms is very important to help the chest and shoulders relax.  The temptation is to have the arms on the mat, but unfortunately this is frequently a bit too close and tension is maintained in the shoulders.  The ideal position will vary from person to person but generally speaking you need to allow some space between the upper arm and the rib cage.  Then roll the arms outwards from the shoulder so the palms face up.  It may be helpful to scrunch the shoulders up to the ears to feel the tension and then let it all go, perhaps with a sigh, so they settle down.  If having the arms straight is not comfortable, an alternative would be to bend the elbows so you can place the hands softly on the belly.  It’s best not to link the fingers, as this can stop the movement of breath into the belly as you relax.

After a while, coming into savasana will become second nature, but as with any posture a little trial and error is required to find the best position for you.  You can always experiment at home so you can make the most of our relaxation next time you come to class.  Next time we will look at what we are actually trying to do during the practice.


Anatomy of a yoga class

If you have ever wondered what to expect in a yoga class, or have been plenty of times but still wonder why we do what we do when we do, this post is for you!

The class will invariably start with a few minutes of lying down, preferably in semi-supine (more of that another time!), focussing on becoming more aware of the body and the breath.  This opportunity to centre ourselves brings our attention to the present moment and allows our breath to settle into a steady rhythm that will guide our practice.

We are then ready to begin our physical practice of the postures, or asanas.  This starts with gentler movements and postures aimed at warming the body up in preparation for the main posture.  We might revisit postures covered in recent weeks or others that are directly relevant to the main posture.  The choice of postures will ensure that the spine is moved in all directions, helping to keeping the spinal column healthy and well-nourished.  The main posture is different each week and more time will be allocated to introducing and practising this posture.  Afterwards we will do one or more counterposes, which ease the body after the work of the main pose.

The physical practice helps to both concentrate our mind and to relax the body, preparing us for breathing and relaxation or perhaps just enabling us to go home feeling calmer than when we arrived.  In a one hour class we may move on directly to a few minutes of relaxation, or else sit for breathing or meditation first.  In a longer class this quiet practice will last up to half an hour.  And thats it! til next week…


Why do we start in semi-supine?

If you’ve been to my classes you will know that I encourage you to start the class in the semi-supine position rather than lying with your legs outstretched in savasana, or corpse pose.  So what is it that’s so special about this position?

In semi-supine, also known as the constructive rest position, we lie down with the knees bent up and the soles of the feet on the floor.  This position allows the spine to adopt its natural curves, which in turn allows the muscles around the spine to relax.  As a result, the shoulders can broaden and the spine may feel longer.  The ribcage is able to relax and breathing can become deeper and quieter.  By adopting a horizontal position, we can begin to undo the compressive effect that gravity has had on the spine over the time since we got up and fluid can begin to be reabsorbed into the disks between the vertebrae.

A particular benefit of this position over savasana, however, is its effect on the hip flexors, or ilio-psoas muscles.  These large muscles connect the thigh to the spine and pelvis and they tend to be both short and tense if we spend a lot of the day sitting down.  Over time, this can lead to pain in the lower abdomen, hips or back.  Having the knees bent up in semi-supine allows the hip flexors to soften in a way that is less likely to happen in savasana.  As the hip flexors release their pull on the pelvis and on the spine, the pelvis may tilt back a little and the lumbar curve become flatter than it typically is when standing.

Spending time in semi-supine helps to counteract some of the negative effects of too much sitting and standing on the body and forms an important part of our preparation for the physical part of our yoga practice.  As well as reducing the pull of the legs on the spine, by lying in this horizontal position we temporarily remove the compressive effect of gravity on the spine, and give this essential part of our body a well-earned rest before our physical practice begins.


The power of the pause

I seem to be having an exceptionally busy week, catching up with myself after being under the weather and not doing so much last week.  Dashing around all day, ticking off tasks from my ‘to do’ list, has reminded me of the benefits of taking just a few minutes now and then to stop and just ‘be’.

The power of the pause lies in taking just a few minutes to stop whatever we are doing.  It’s rather like taking a break at the motorway services.  After rushing headlong towards our destination, amidst the roar of traffic, we can appreciate the quiet when we switch of the engine and get out of the car to stretch our legs.

The pause enables us to briefly let go of our goals for the day and come instead to the experience of our physical being, our breath, our existence from one moment to the next.  The pause acts as a way of completely letting go of our need to achieve, just for those few moments.  And just like that break at the motorway services, it leaves us feeling refreshed and more able to complete whatever needs to be done afterwards.

For some of us, it can be a rare treat to be able to spend a whole afternoon or even a whole hour doing nothing in particular.  This is when those little pauses come into their own.  We can all find a few minutes to stop, perhaps sit quietly and focus on the breath.  You might be surprised by how much more you get done as a result.