Sweet Slumber: Yoga for Better Sleep

When sleep escapes you and fatigue is your daytime companion, it’s time to evaluate what action you can take to improve sleep. Your yoga toolbox has many tools but you need to know which ones to apply to your situation.

The roots of sleeplessness may be related to age, stress, hormonal changes, pain, digestive distress, anxiety, depression, sleep disorders, other health issues, treatments, medications, exercise (lack of or timing), diet, or lifestyle. Yoga is especially helpful for reducing symptoms of fatigue, stress, anxiety, depression, digestive distress and menopause, and creating awareness around the impact of lifestyle choices on the body’s natural rhythms of wakefulness and sleepiness.

The tools of yoga are skillfully applied based on the characteristics of sleeplessness. Some people have trouble falling asleep. Others wake in the middle of the night. The early risers may wake at 4 am even though the alarm is set for 6 am. And some individuals sleep for 8 hours yet never feel rested and refreshed.

Yoga tools that may be used for sleeplessness include yoga postures, breath adaptation in the postures, breathing practices, guided relaxation, meditation, or sound. Talk to a certified Yoga Therapist about how to apply the tools for your particular pattern of sleeplessness. A Yoga Therapist can help you with:

■ Setting the stage for better sleep with lifestyle and yoga techniques
■ Yoga techniques for falling asleep
■ What to do when you wake during the night
■ How to approach waking early
■ Quick and easy techniques for dealing with daytime fatigue
■ Changing your relationship with your sleeplessness.

One of the most common experiences of sleeplessness is not being able to fall asleep because of stress and repetitive negative or worrisome thoughts. Yoga tools that may be applied in this situation include lifestyle changes, and a short evening yoga practice of simple postures with breath adaptation, a short breathing practice that promotes calmness, and guided relaxation or meditation.

Whether you need better sleep, more sleep, or better energy during the day, your yoga toolbox has options for skillful action. You can learn how to use those tools for sweet dreams at night and vitality and clear thinking during the day.

Yoga for Upper Back Pain

The skeleton is an amazing chassis, the support structure for movement and a protector of our internal organs and glands.  Just like a car chassis, we may start out with our own unique skeletal attributes and over the years add wear and tear.  Upper back pain can occur due to our work or lifestyle, our structural/skeletal uniqueness, a medical condition, or trauma/injury.

Upper back pain is often felt around the shoulder blades or in or around the upper part of the spine.  Sometimes the pain relates to muscle tightness and tension caused by poor posture, work habits or hobbies.  For some individuals upper back pain is a daily part of their life, especially when it relates to scoliosis, osteoporosis or significant trauma or injury.

Yoga may be a helpful way to eliminate, reduce or manage upper back pain.  Yoga postures, guided by breath, improve posture by improving strength and flexibility in the muscles that support the upper back, neck, shoulders and chest.  Yoga practice can also help create healthier patterns of movement and increase awareness of how you are using your body.

The best yoga approaches for upper back pain use a combination of: 1) repetition in and out of postures guided by breath, 2) staying in some postures to create a deeper effect once the body is warmed up, 3) specific sequencing of postures and 4) adaptation of the postures to address the practitioner’s specific needs.

Try a few simple yoga postures (or the posture below) with awareness of your breath as you move in and out of postures.  Then relax, put your feet up, and make your breath smooth and long while you feel the wave-like movement of your spine as you breathe deeply.  Ease the effect of gravity on the spine and allow muscles to relax deeply.

Breathing exercises are also important for improving upper back pain.  Sit in a chair and spend several minutes breathing with an awareness of lengthening your spine with each inhalation and maintaining that length in the spine as you exhale.  See if you can feel an awareness of growing taller and creating space between the vertebral bodies!

Check with your health care provider about any movement restrictions that are recommended for your specific condition.  Osteopenia (low bone mass), osteoporosis and scoliosis require special caution.  It’s best to work with a certified yoga therapist to determine how yoga practice should be modified for these conditions.

Dvi Pada Pitham (Bridge Pose)

Benefits:  Helps strengthen leg, hip and back muscles.  Stretches the front of the belly and thighs and chest.  Promotes flexibility in the spine and often relieves stiffness in the upper back.

How to Do the Posture:  Lie on your back with your arms at your side and your feet about 6 inches apart and comfortably close to buttocks.  On INHALE, press feet into the floor and raise hips while you press arms into the floor and keep chin slightly tucked.  On EXHALE, slowly lower the spine and hips back to the floor.  Repeat at least 6 times.  You can either lower the spine on exhale in a wave-like, vertebra by vertebra motion, or like a board, depending on what feels better for your back.  When you are done, bring your knees to your chest and take several deep breaths.

Urdhva Prasarita Padasana

Yoga for Healthy Aging – Body, Mind and Mood

Are you interested in better balance, improved reaction time, sound memory, and emotional calmness?   Through body-mind practices such as yoga, we strengthen all of these aspects of a healthy aging brain.

The physical practice of yoga, known as asana, helps strengthen muscles that are weak (remember, we lose muscle mass as we age so we have to use it or lose it!) and improves flexibility.  Even more powerful is how we practice yoga postures.   Combining the flow of the breath with movement strengthens the connection between the body and mind, trains attention and improves mental focus, all of these key to better balance.

Yoga “lights up” the brain.   Studies done at UW-Madison on meditating monks provided some of the initial evidence that these ancient practices activate and change the brain.   There is a lot of interest in the research community about how yoga may improve cognitive functions in seniors such as improving reaction time and short-term memory.  In my experience with teaching seniors, some of the most helpful aspects of yoga include adaptations of the physical practice and breathing techniques to utilize the right and left hemispheres of the brain, use of sound to train memory, and breathing and meditative practices to promote mental focus.

Emotional intelligence and calmness tend to improve with age.  We can stabilize mood and lift spirits with yoga.  A variety of yoga techniques typically provide the best results for improving mood, including yoga postures combined with breath adaptation, seated breathing practices, sound, and meditation.

One of the most powerful practices for mood is what is called “right association or relationship”.  This includes the people you associate with, the activities you engage in and how you live the values that are most important to you. 

While many people often come to yoga initially for the exercise, they often leave with a stronger body-mind connection, better balance, a “sharper” brain and improved mood.  Yoga is a powerful practice for healthy aging!

Mid-Day Yoga Break – Engage Your Brain 

Urdhva Prasarita Padasana Adaptation in a Chair

Sit in a chair forward of the back of the chair.  Rest hands on your thighs.  Take a few deep breaths, cultivating a smooth flow to your inhalation and exhalation. 

As you inhale, move your left arm/hand forward and up and spread your fingers on the left hand as you simultaneously straighten your right leg and press through the right heel and spread the toes on the right foot.  On exhale, slowly lower the left hand/arm and right leg/foot.

On your next inhale, do the opposite side – right arm/hand and left leg/foot.  Exhale and lower slowly back to the starting position.

Continue to do this for 5 more rounds (10 breaths total).  Rest and take a few more minutes to breath smoothly and deeply, making your inhale and exhale equal in length.

Staying flexible

Yoga for Boomers and Beyond

If yoga makes you think of pretzel poses, think again.  Yoga that is adapted for boomers and beyond offers many tools for optimal health.  It is a science that promotes physical fitness, physiological and emotional/mental health through yoga postures, breathing practices, deep relaxation, and other practices.

What are the tangible benefits of regular yoga practice?

Physical – Expect improved strength and stability, better flexibility, improvement in posture, better mind-body awareness, more functional movement patterns, reduced pain and stiffness, better balance and improved circulation from doing yoga several times per week.

Physiological – As we age, our physiology (organ and glands) benefits from the deep breathing practices so common in most yoga traditions.  Deeper breathing helps almost all of our organs and glands and can improve digestion, heart rate, blood pressure, stress, sleep, immunity, nervous system tone and energy level.  Deep breathing also has an important role in pain management and mental health.

Mental/Emotional — While Yoga does a body good in terms of physical and physiological fitness, it also improves what I like to call “attitude and gratitude.”  A yoga practice suited to your individual needs can increase self-confidence, happiness, focus, memory, compassion, and capacity to deal with life’s inevitable changes.  At its core, yoga philosophy teaches us not to identify with our body, that we are much more than the aging chassis that we walk around in.

Aging is not for wimps.  You need good tools to support your body, mind and spirit.  Even a small amount of yoga on a daily basis (10 – 15 minutes) can make a difference in how your body feels, your organ systems work and your mind functions.  Give it a whirl.  And if you have questions, we’re happy to talk to you about how to get started.