By: Virginia Iversen, M.Ed
With the Autumn Equinox only a few days away, the warmth of the sun’s rays are beginning to cool as the seasons are shifting. During the mid-afternoon, the temperatures are warm enough to enjoy a quick swim. Towards the evening, the temperatures are dropping significantly and indicate the imminent arrival of much colder temperatures. During this time of the year, many Yogis and Yoginis find themselves busily savoring the final warm days of summer by participating in many of their favorite warm-weather activities, such as sailing, swimming and or practicing Yoga on a paddle-board.
Additionally, many students and Yoga teachers are busy during the fall season beginning a new school year or Yoga teacher training program. The combination of squeezing in every last ounce of summer with a new course of study or professional development program can create a hectic pace of life, which can increase persistent feelings of pressure, stress and anxiety. When stress and anxiety levels are heightened, difficulty sleeping often develops at the same time. The physiological reason for this is that when anxiety and stress levels are high, your sympathetic nervous system, also known as the “fight or flight” nervous system, is stuck on overdrive!
One of the propelling forces of an overactive sympathetic nervous system is high cortisol levels. When cortisol levels remain consistently high, it is very difficult to unwind, calm down and fall asleep. In addition, unremittingly high cortisol levels raise inflammatory markers in the body and lower the functioning of the immune system. High levels of cortisol are also linked to unbalanced blood sugar levels, hormonal disruption, depression, and gastrointestinal problems. None of these conditions are optimal for your physical or emotional well-being.
Cortisol levels and the balance between your sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems can be optimized by a healthy diet, regular exercise and healthy sleeping patterns. One of the primary ways of enhancing your ability to sleep deeply and restoratively is to exercise moderately at least five times a week, spend an adequate amount of time in the sun daily and to keep a regular bedtime schedule. Practicing Yoga asanas, Yogic breathing exercises and mediation techniques several times a week will further support you in creating a state of optimal physical and mental health.
The breathing exercises of Yoga are known as pranayama practices. The term “prana” in Sanskrit refers to the breath of life, and the term “yama” is translated as restraint. So the term pranayama refers to the control of the breath through restraint. There are a wide variety of pranayama techniques in the Yoga toolbox. Some pranayama exercises are very detoxifying and increase heat or tapas in the body. Other pranayama exercises cool and relax the body and the mind. If you find that your are struggling to fall asleep at night because you are so wired you cannot relax, practicing cooling and soothing Yogic pranayama exercises prior to going to bed will calm down the flight or fight response as it turns on the relaxation response by enhancing the functioning of your parasympathetic nervous system.
In Pantanjali’s Yoga Sutras, he describes the process of practicing pranayama exercises as making the breath long and smooth by breaking the unconscious shallow breathing patterns related to stress and anxiety. Take the example of finding a snake slithering in the grass just outside your front door. What is your first response? For many of us it would be to gasp and hold our breath in anticipation of the snake’s next move. This unconscious response to something that creates fear is the same response many of us have to situations that upset us, such as a traffic jam when we are late for work or a long line at the bank if we are late for a doctor’s appointment. The list of situations that can cause stress and anxiety are almost endless.
Of course, our own individual response to these situations also determines the effect these situations have on our physical and emotional health and well-being. By recalibrating the balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, through a steady and regular practice of Yoga poses and pranayama exercises, you will help to nourish the health of your body and mind. In turn, this balance will help to nourish your entire being by generating a state of equipoise, lightness and energy. Releasing tension and stress through a daily Yoga practice, including breathing exercises, will allow you to fall asleep with less difficulty and to sleep more restoratively.
© Copyright 2014 – Aura Wellness Center – Publications Division
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