May 29, 2010

Yawning in Yoga? Sleeping Well is a Prerequisite for Awakening.

There’s a young woman who yawns in every yoga class she’s taken with me.

It’s a gentle yoga class that I’ve been teaching for years on Tuesday and Thursday evenings. And when I say gentle, I mean gentle: if we’re getting up off the floor, we’re already doing a lot. So she yawns, not once, not twice, but several times in the class, in every class.

Now, I could conclude that she’s bored out of her wits with my classes (even if my ego resists this possibility), but the fact that she keeps coming back suggests that her yawning is tied to lack of sleep. As soon as I made that connection, I realized that no matter whether it was a gentle class or one of those intense go-for-broke classes, as things are winding down people yawn like it’s going out of style. Either sleep deprivation is endemic or I’m boring in both my gentle and my athletic yoga classes.

In case it’s the former and not the latter, and you find yourself struggling to stay awake through your class, I’d like to suggest that just like keeping the body healthy is a prerequisite for personal growth, sleeping well is a prerequisite for awakening. If it’s a question of not allocating enough hours for sleep, you can choose to cure that (current research suggests that 7 to 8 hours is really what we should be getting on a regular basis). Or if you’ve got a 9-month old, you can foist her onto your spouse on an alternating basis (why else do you think humans don’t have litters of babies? We typically have only baby at a time so the parents can outnumber the little sleep-disrupters). But if your sleep deprivation is unintentional because you’re having trouble falling asleep, here for your consideration are Ricardo’s Rules of Restorative Rest. Remember, these are just my rules, so I’ll write them first-person and you decide what you want to keep and implement and what you want to toss. (And needless to say, that goes for everything else I spout around here.)

First, I got the obvious things out of the way: if I was using the bathroom in the middle of the night, I tapered off my drinking mid-afternoon and shifted most of it to the morning. By “drinking,” I’m not talking gin & tonic, or coffee. (Actually, I’ve never drunk coffee. If I’m getting sufficient and sufficiently restful sleep, coffee isn’t necessary to feel awake and energized.)

Next, I stopped watching the nightly news (“All Wrongs, All the Time”). For that matter I don’t do morning news either, because the nature of news is that “Today, perfect strangers smiled with kindness at each other on the street” isn’t newsworthy; only the bad stuff is. I don’t need an unnecessarily lopsided and negative view of the world to awaken to or to carry with me into the night. With smaller and more manageable doses of headline-reading during the day I’ve manages to stay reasonably abreast of current events so I don’t sound entirely like an idiot at parties. Besides, it’s more important to make headlines of one’s own in one’s life. (“Ricardo writes blog entry on restful sleep.” Below the headline: “Blog readers find him fond of his own opinions.”)

If an overactive left-brain and churning stuff in my head seemed to be the culprit, I took a friend’s suggestion and wrote down everything that was in my mind prior to bed, preceding it by “I let go of…” It has the advantage that it’s on paper, I don’t need to remember it, and if I have to reference it the following day, it’s right there for me to read. Who needs the bad stories in the morning paper when I have something personally relevant like that?

As someone who dips his toes in the meditation pool, I also notice that if I’m lying awake thinking, it’s invariably rehashing the past or planning the future. In the present, there’s only awareness, silence. So to enhance my awareness of thoughts, I locate where in my brain I’m thinking. I notice that it’s mostly top-and-left-of-center, though occasionally it’s back-and-in-and-left. Now I “move” the thoughts over to my right brain. That is, I pretend to feel them coming from the right side of my brain. There’s no question I’m aware of thoughts at this point if I have to push them over to that location. Next, while exhaling slowly, I place short words in my right brain. “Sleep” is a favorite one. It’s not a command; it’s just an exploration of what happens when I say “sleep” every now in my right brain and then perceive all kinds of images that come up out of the blue. That’s the right brain’s language. I notice those random, fleeting images. I keep placing simple words in my right brain. I get images. Words in the right brain. Images. Wordszzzzzzz….

That’s it. Those are Ricardo’s Rules. Now, of course, you might find that there are other adjunct practices that help with better sleep, from sleeping alone (“Don’t worry, kids, mom and dad aren’t mad at each other. In fact, this may help us not to be mad at each other in the future”) to having a pre-bedtime routine that may include bathing or reading a little fiction, having your pajamas on with the lights out half an hour before you go to bed as your mind settles, and even maybe a little armchair meditation thrown in for good measure. (Just don’t fall asleep. Ha ha.)

I’m always curious what other people’s tricks are, but all of the above work well for me.

And by the way, you can use all of these practices to help center yourself before your yoga practice. I do, however, recommend skipping during yoga the part about moving your thoughts to the right side of your brain and noticing the images. Unless you don’t mind falling asleep in class, that is. The upside of that is that if you’re asleep, at least I don’t hear you yawning in my classes….

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