Rest and restoration through therapeutic yoga
By Shirley Telles
The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically changed our social and work environments. Most people are increasingly spending time online to get in touch with their workplace, to teach or learn new skills, for other work-related activities, and for social interaction.
The light emitted by our computers, devices, and phones can negatively affect the production of melatonin, which is a natural hormone that “dims” our alertness and creates a mental state conducive to sleep. Excessive screen time, anxiety, and a sense of too many tasks to complete can make it difficult to unwind and relax, and even more difficult to fall asleep. Our neurochemistry gets out of balance, distorting the signals to the brain’s sleep centers.
Therapeutic yoga practice is useful to improve the quality and quantity of sleep. (See, for example, Positive Impact of Cyclic Meditation on Subsequent Sleep and Impact of Long Term Yoga Practice on Sleep Quality and Quality of Life in the Elderly.)
While asleep, we go through stages of (1) light sleep; (2) slow-wave, logical dream sleep; and (3) rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, during which we have illogical dreams. These cycles are repeated throughout the night.
Yoga practice appears to increase slow-wave sleep, keep REM sleep intact, and reduce light sleep. This is a really good thing, as light sleep is not restorative. Slow-wave sleep is when growth occurs in children and healing and repair occur in adults. REM sleep is also important because this is when unnecessary memories (e.g., the color of the wallpaper in a corridor we passed through) are “wiped clean” and our brain is made “fresh” for new and important memories to get consolidated.
We also need periods of rest during the day.
Here are a few of my favorite ways to mindfully restore:
- periodically stretch your arms, wrists, and fingers;
- practice full diaphragmatic breaths, sometimes referred to generally as yogic breathing, for at least 3 minutes at a time;
- gently (not vigorously!) rub your palms together and place them over the closed eyes and forehead;
- have a 10-minute guided relaxation in savasana (corpse pose) around mid-day, before a meal; and
- try to follow the natural daylight cycle of the place where you live.
Therapeutic yoga practices can help in restoring restful sleep, too.
The following practices are suggested partly based on research and partly on observations I’ve made through the years.* (Find an IAYT-certified yoga therapist who can offer detailed instruction and practices tailored to your situation.)
First, asana (yoga postures) should be practiced with awareness, synchronized with the breath, and with attention to comfort in the final position. Asana should always be practiced with proper instruction and awareness of any contraindications. Suggested asana for rest and better sleep include
- lateral arc posture (standing side bends)
- cow-face posture (a seated pose that stretches the large muscles of the hips as well as the upper arms/shoulder)
- mountain pose (yogic standing)
- cobra pose (a gentle backbend from lying on the belly)
- locust pose (a stronger backbend from lying on the belly, lifting the legs)
- fish pose (an upper-back bend and throat-opening pose from lying on the back)
- lateral supine stretches (sidebending while lying on the back)
Pranayama (yogic breathing exercises) can aid rest and reduce arousals during sleep. (One starting point for research on yogic breathing is The Effect of Diaphragmatic Breathing on Attention, Negative Affect and Stress in Healthy Adults). Suggested practices include
- anuloma-viloma (staged breath)
- brahmari (bee breath)
- OM chanting
Research has shown that even for experienced yoga teachers, guided relaxation (in a voice other than their own) is more useful than auto-suggestions (self-guided practice). I recommend lying in savasana.
Yoga also includes many lifestyle suggestions that are helpful for rest, restoration of balance, and good sleep. These include a sattvic diet (foods that are both soothing and nourishing), rising at dawn, completing most activities by dusk (which may seem difficult but is not impossible), using natural light as much as possible, and tuning in with nature and ourselves.
Shirley Telles, MBBS, MPhil, PhD, director of Patanjali Research Foundation, has degrees in conventional medicine and neurophysiology. With more than 30 years of yoga research experience, she has authored nearly 200 papers and books. Dr. Telles’ video on Yoga and Change during stressful times includes a short practice.
*As with any yogic practice, please do what’s best for your own system and follow recommendations from your personal healthcare providers.