July 6, 2011

Yoga for Peaceful Sleep – Counting Sheep. ~ Sara Elizabeth Ivanhoe

Photo: Sasha Wolff

Just because we may have been practicing yoga and meditation for years doesn’t mean that we have perfect sleep patterns.

From a young age, I was advised that these practices would help a severe sleep disorder that I was born with, so I began meditation at the age of 9 and yoga asana at 14. I have practiced consistently, but it is hard to say whether this has affected my ability to sleep or not. My insomnia is erratic. Sometimes I have months with hardly any sleep at all, and other times I drift off into dreamland with no problem.

For those of you who have a similar struggle, there is good news and bad news – I like bad news first. Insomnia is a disease with no cure. Like alcoholism, we can work on how we relate to the disease on a daily basis and like other incurable diseases we can work on how to manage symptoms. But there is nothing that “fixes” insomnia, assuredly or permanently. As is the case with all psychiatric disorders, there is treatment but no cure.

The good news is there are many healthy and natural things we can do to either aid us in winding down or to help us feel rejuvenated if a full night’s sleep eludes us.

A couple of helpful hints:

  1. Avoid caffeine after noon each day. Caffeine is one of the strongest substances on the planet and even though you think you may need it to stay awake after a night of insomnia, it will keep you in a sleepless cycle. This is the number one thing you can do for yourself to balance your energy.
  2. After 8pm avoid strong light including bright lights of the TV, phone and computer. If you must be on the computer keep it on a low brightness. Television is known to agitate the mind, so go “old school” and read a book at night.
  3. Make sure your bedroom is at a proper temperature. The body temperature needs to drop for sleep, if your room is too warm, it can be relaxing, but prevent you from falling asleep.
  4. No guarantees, but melatonin can help. Whoever says that a “low dose does the same as a high dose,” has never had a sleep disorder. On many nights, a sledgehammer couldn’t get me to sleep. Take 5 milligrams about an hour before you want to be sleeping. It does not hit like a pharmaceutical sleeping pill, so try to wind down and get into bed.

Yoga and meditation may not directly put you to sleep, but they can be a great aid. Please do not do invigoration asana in the evening. Make sure to check in with a teacher before you start creating a yoga practice for yourself. Yoga can be strong medicine and you don’t want to “self prescribe.” Make sure that the sequence you are doing is appropriate to you, the time of day you are practicing and that it is creating your desired effects.

An evening asana practice should consist of slower, relaxing postures.

Take long twists, gently hip openers (if you crank on them too much it will agitate you) and passive inversions. The best “wind down” pose I know is “Legs Up the Wall.”  Lie down and place the legs up a wall and rest with your eyes closed for 5-10 minutes. Focus on lengthening the exhale to slow the body down.

Some meditation can actually energize the mind, make sure that you practice slowing down. I recommend doing a “countdown” meditation that I learned from my teacher Erich Schiffmann:

Sit or lie down comfortably. Begin by watching the breath for a few moments. Then, in silence, to yourself, count “50” on the exhale. On the inhale count 49 and continue this way until you get to 20. Then change the pattern. Count 20 on the exhale, then on the inhale, nothing, then 19 on the exhale and so on. This can take between 5 and 15 minutes and I find the counting down and nice way to slow and still the mind.

It’s not an original concept – this is much like the old school version of counting sheep. Funny as it sounds, with all of our modern medicine and technology, our best bet still comes in the form of this creative “counting sheep” meditation.

When we find coincidences like this, we can see that people have been having trouble sleeping for many generations, affirming that there is nothing “wrong” with us.  Even though our ancestors may not have known they were yogis, they discovered their own form of mediation in counting sheep. Somehow the rhythmic mental focus became their natural sleep aid. We may think that we are breaking ground in being the new generation of meditators in the west, but a certain amount of credit goes to those innovative “old wives” who came up with their own method that we have been using for years.

Turns out, they were on to something…


Sara Elizabeth Ivanhoe began teaching yoga in 1995 while receiving her BFA from New York University. She holds a Yoga Philosophy degree from Loyola Marymount University as well as their Yoga and Ecology degree completed in accordance with the Green Yoga Association. She has completed teacher trainings with Erich Schiffmann, Yoga Works and John Friend in the Anusara tradition.

Sara is the instructor for the “Yoga for Dummies” series, the “Crunch Yoga” series as well as the collaboration with Russell Simmons “Yoga Live,” altogether selling 4.3 million units worldwide. She is currently on Fit TV’s “All Star Workouts” and her self-produced “Yoga on the Edge” runs on Exercise TV. Sara has been a regular on Vh1’s “Dr. Drew’s Celebrity Rehab” and is featured as one of the “Titans of Yoga” in the new, critically-acclaimed documentary.

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