Applying ancient yoga principles to enhance the sleep experience

kapok pillows, buckwheat pillows, body pillows. eye pillows


Restorative Yoga can be practiced in everyday life with a firm surface and proper pillows

Restorative Yoga can be practiced in everyday life with a firm surface and proper pillows

It’s sort of a standing joke–sometimes people cheer when it’s time for the last part of the yoga workout–Shavasana–that is–laying down to relax, breath and let the mind release.  There usually is no pillow and very little padding. This is a chance to feel the body in a natural setting, without the furniture which surrounds us in everyday life, pushing us this way and that way.

One way to integrate yoga into everyday life is to design one’s resting and sleeping environment around yogic principles. These minimalist principles are not what modern bedding designers use. Actually, modern bedding is over-designed. It is a case of taking technology too far.

The current trend is to make you feel no ‘pressure points’. In other words, numb your body so you are not aware of gravity or anything touching you. For decades the bedding industry has been claiming that is what creates the best sleep. First it was waterbeds and now it is memory foam.

Side sleeping with rectangular buckwheat pillow folded in half. Keep neck in alignment with spine.

Side sleeping with rectangular buckwheat pillow folded in half. Keep neck in alignment with spine.

But this reasoning is counter to yogic principles. In yoga ‘Sensory Awareness” is everything. The sleep surfaces and gravity can be used as a tool for getting in touch with the body and creating a biofeedback system to put the body in a natural relaxation response.

How can you be aware of the sensations of breathing when you feel no pressure points? How can you feel the weight of the body sinking into the ground when you can’t feel the weight of the body OR the ground because you are on a surface that takes the pressure points away?

Rather, use gravity to FEEL the pressure points. Then relax INTO the pressure points so your body is completely relaxed like a cat sprawled out in the sun. Then the pressure points are evened out and Wa La¡–no longer there except when you need them.

Side sleeping with lower arm outstretched and buckwheat pillow.

Side sleeping with lower arm outstretched and buckwheat pillow. An American fluffy pillow used like this would block the air passages.

With a little thought, the bed and pillows can become powerful tools for deep relaxation and a more effective sleep experience.

Here are the principles

1–Spine neutral

Keep the natural curve of spine including neck in the same position it would be in if you were standing upright. There should be no pressure on vertebral disks. This Rule Number One is broken in just about every pillow and bedding commercial where the pillow pushes the head up cutting off airflow through the throat.

2–Open air passages

Make sure the area around the nose is clear. During side sleeping, if a pillow sinks in it can hamper airflow through the nose. A firm buckwheat pillow works best.

3–Widen and expand lungs and diaphram to optimize circulation and breathing.. Flat firm sleep surfaces and props as shown for the shoulders and hips.

Side sleeping with body pillow widens and expands lungs.

Side sleeping with body pillow widens and expands lungs.

5–Change Positions. It’s a good idea to rotate your body to different positions when you feel like it so circulation is better distributed.

Remember to Breath through your nose. This sometimes has to be a conscious CHOICE that turns into a HABIT. You may need a yoga teacher or bodywork therapist to help train you in this.

The ‘relaxation response’ is a physical state of deep rest that changes the physical and emotional responses to stress… and the opposite of the fight or flight response. Part of the Relaxation Response is when pulse and heart rate slow down, muscle tension decreases and the brain gets quiet and the chatter stops. This approach to the sleep environment promotes the Relaxation Response by at least two main factor’s.

1–The breathing and circulation enhancment

2–The biofeedback system of FEELING and then RELEASING each part of your body.

Stomach sleeping is a nice change of position when care is taken to avoid twisting the neck. Spine neutral is achieved with malleable buckwheat pillow placed under front of neck and head slightly twisted to one side.

Stomach sleeping is a nice change of position when care is taken to avoid twisting the neck. Spine neutral is achieved with malleable buckwheat pillow placed under front of neck and head slightly twisted to one side.

Another important way to promote the Relaxation Response in your bedroom is to create a sanctuary from electromagnetic fields that keep our bodies in a state of tension. Stay tuned for more on this in another article.

Side Sleeping

Most people sleep on their sides most of the time and believe the bed should sink in to accomodate for the hips and shoulders. This is considered a great position in yoga and by chiropractors alike. I have always felt that it might be the ultimate position because it feels to me like the craniosacral fluid would move freely and be kind of pumped by the breathing action.

When laying on a firm surface that doesn’t sink in, there is a different approach to establishing spine neutral–as illustrated by the photos. The head pillow should prop the head so it is not pushed up or leaning down. This opens the air passage in the throat. And pillows can be used to open the lungs and hips. Most people who try this feel an immediate wave of relaxatioon.

Standard pillows can be used like a body pillow. They don't offer as much support but they can work.

Standard pillows can be used like a body pillow. They don’t offer as much support but they can work.

Back Sleeping

Every time I go to the acupuncture clinic my therapist says, “oh yea, you don’t like pillows” and moves the pillow off the table. That pillow pushes my head, neck and shoulders forward and out of alignment. I am the only patient who doesn’t want it. I’ve talked with fellow body workers who agree, the way most people use them–PILLOWS ARE NOT GOOD FOR YOU. They push us out of alignment, cut off circulation to the head, and block air from entering the lungs. They can possibly cause or contribute to sleep apnea and snoring, which are problems related to lack of oxygen. So why in the world do people use them?

My theory is: people are ‘front loaded’ — meaning the muscles in front of the body are tighter and causing the body to hunch forward. So when a person who is tight in the front lays on his or her back and a firm surface, those tight muscles are being stretched. The firm surface doesn’t allow the back to sink in and bow. It meets resistance and it must stretch,  and that stretch is what is perceived as uncomfortable. So a pillow which pushes the head, neck, and shoulders forward and out of alignment further bows the back, and could be perceived as ‘comfortable’ because there is no stretching and realigning going on.

What I have just said is way understated. This is a PREVAILING CULTURAL NORM and even health care practitioners and the medical community are unaware of what normal human alignment is. So how did ‘front loading’ become the norm? Probably due to a prevailing cultural lifestyle of sitting. The interplay of waking activities and sleep ergonomics is very well illustrated by this brave soul who tried out my ideas and reported on his blog. Basically he describes the reason most people feel discomfort when first trying out the radical new concepts of The Chair Free Lifestyle and some tips for getting through the initial transitional phase.

“…Once I began changing my life into that of one primarily standing up I noticed my bed became increasingly uncomfortable. My neck, most of all, felt atrocious, as I wanted it to align with my back, but my heavier torso sunk into the mattress while my head was elevated, so not even ditching pillows helped any. Sleeping on my side made me feel like everything was out of whack too. Given my bad experiences with the floor in the past I was hesitant to try it again, but one aggravating night pushed me to try it once more. I slept wonderfully: Without pillows my body felt in harmony when laying flat down, and on my side I found I only need my arm or hand underneath my head for everything to feel perfect. I’ve never enjoyed sleeping on anything less than a hard surface since then.

Succinctly, depending on the structure of your body as determined by your lifestyle will determine how you respond to a particular surface, and an unhealthy structure may be the cause of discomfort when trying to sleep on a hard surface since the body tries to adjust one way there while one’s everyday posture makes it adjust otherwise. People, then, might be only evaluating negatively the transitional phase in adjusting to sleeping on the floor, and give up on the practice before they have adapted or otherwise keep their body in a state of flux by constantly changing posture.

In my own life I think this points out the essential changes I’ve made to my life that makes sleeping on the floor wonderful whereas it was unacceptable in the past. Nowadays much of my waking life is spent standing up. While trying to conduct my studies one day I was enormously frustrated with how bad my neck felt and how restless my legs were, as I was sitting down, and then spontaneously set up boxes in the laundry room to make a stand-up desk. It took weeks to adjust to — my feet and legs hurt often in adapting — but it’s been consistently great since then. The posture of my standing up was so comfortable that I rarely sat down from then on and even converted my computer area to a stand-up desk. Combined with standing up my entire shifts at work (I work in a restaurant), I virtually don’t sit down anymore except for meals and reading.

I think that in choosing to stand up I’ve altered my body into a state that it holds comfortably when laying on a hard surface, which a soft surface disrupts. The floor was probably uncomfortable before because I was sitting down all the time with my reading and studying, so my body had adapted into a certain structure consequently and felt the pain of trying to adjust to another when sleeping on the floor. The bed probably only catered to my bad posture, which is probably why it was comfortable back then, only becoming uncomfortable when I started standing up. Finally, I never adjusted to sleeping on the floor back then probably because I was undoing all the transitional work my body was doing by switching from bad sitting posture to laying on a hard surface, so my body was always experiencing the discomfort of trying to adjust one way and then another.

I theorize that my comfort in sleeping on the floor has to do with daily posture because there was positively no transition period the second time I took to it. I just hopped out of the bed, laid some blankets on the floor, and felt comfortable since then. The transition pain was felt in the form of my standing up, where my feet, hips, and lower back hurt for about two weeks in trying to get used to it, but now have strengthened to the point that I can stand up literally all day without discomfort. Once my body adapted to my standing posture, there was nothing to change in laying on the floor and therefore no pain.”

Read Full Account Here

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