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It is a complicated world – gone are the days when it was enough to lie down on your mat, shut your eyes and drift off into a blissful relaxation after your yoga practice!
Living and working in a fast paced, technological world means that there is little distinction between day and night. Many people find it difficult to sleep and are looking for ways to restore their energy and alertness. Computer screens, shift work, 24-hour access to entertainment, long commutes are just a few of the challenges to sleep.
Lack of sleep is dangerous to health, leading to accidents and taking its toll on mind and body. Sleep science is a growing field of research increasing knowledge of the problems relating to insomnia and discovering more about the secrets of our nocturnal life.
It is important to recognise and differentiate between sleep and rest. In yoga, teachers traditionally end a practice with relaxation – usually around 15 minutes after a class lasting less than an hour and a half. This allows the body to realign, warm muscles to cool and the mind to calm.
This may be led by a guided relaxation where the teacher provides a soothing commentary – perhaps instructing physical areas of the body to release or using calming words to create a conducive environment to relaxation. Or, the teacher may decide to remain silent and just provide closing instructions at the end of the session.
Sleep can be divided into four stages and two distinct states – rapid eye movement (REM) and non REM (deep sleep). The REM state is when the eyes can be seen to move under the eyelids and dreaming occurs. During deep sleep the body slows down, the muscles relax, breathing and heartbeat become slower and blood pressure decreases.
The four stages can, for an adult, be divided into 90-minute cycles. This starts with some light sleep which is roughly half of all sleeping time, then deep sleep, accounting for about 20 per cent, and finally the lighter REM sleep when dreams occur which is about 20 per cent.
It takes around 15 minutes to awake from a deep sleep and become fully alert.
Napping is a useful skill to develop and can be used anywhere to build up resources when tired. A nap lasts around 15 minutes and leaves you feeling refreshed – any longer and there is a risk of falling into the early stages of sleep and feeling groggy when aroused.
All that is required is a supported position – either seated of lying still - in a quiet uninterrupted space.
Concentration can be seen as an entry point to a meditative state. Patanjali describes concentration as 'fixing the consciousness on one point or region’ and meditation as "the steady, continuous flow of concentration".
Concentration (or centering) is often used at the beginning of a class to encourage students to settle and connect with the start of the practice. Tools may include awareness of breath or sound or just sitting or lying silently for around 10-15 minutes.
There are many ways to meditate, but all have the same purpose – to increase awareness, acceptance and understanding of ourselves, experiences and wider connections in the universe.
Meditation trains the mind to focus on what is real, staying in the present and encouraging a clearer perspective on life and relationships.
Contemplation or meditation (dhyana) involves holding on to an idea in the mind without the mind wandering. This takes practice and time and may involve concentrating on a physical object such as a stone, apple, egg or picture, or meditating on an abstract idea or concept such as love or duty.
In Yoga Nidra, the mind is encouraged to drift and stay in its hypnagogic state which is the transition from wakefulness to sleep or from sleep to wakefulness. During this time, the mind is receptive to sounds and visual images. During Yoga Nidra the mind may also connect with unexplored creativity, intuitions and unexplored creativity.
Guided Yoga Nidra uses tools such as guided visualisation including rotation of consciousness and awareness of sensations. It is usually delivered at a speed that encourages the mind to move between images and concepts.
Yoga Nidra can be a profound experience and care should be taken
Restorative yoga uses props – bolsters, blankets, straps and eye pillows – to place the body in supportive positions for complete physical release. By staying supported in these positions for a longer period (up to half an hour or more depending on the pose) the body and mind are encouraged to relax and readjust.
Restorative yoga can be used as therapy or to provide a deeper relaxation experience.
There are a number of new studios worldwide providing excellent facilities with classes, workshops and training suitable for anyone who wants to learn or expand their skills.