Why Yoga Might Be the Ultimate Insomnia Cure
According to a book by award-winning author Roy Parvin, counting breaths could help us stop counting sheep
A few years ago, I forgot how to fall asleep.
I’d slept in late on a Sunday, and spent the day staring at a variety of screens while wearing grey sweatpants. When I returned to bed, around 11:00, I was intent on getting at least eight hours of sleep ahead of a busy week. But I only managed two. The tips of my ears grew hotter each time I rolled over and grabbed my phone from the nightstand. The night was racing away — 2am, 3am — and still, I couldn’t fall asleep. I felt angry, and then hopeless. I went to the bathroom multiple times, just for something to do. I eventually fell asleep, with a couple hours to spare, and spent the next day on hollow fumes, feeling both strangely responsible for the night, and terrified it could all happen again.
Thankfully, I’m no chronic insomniac. My experience was a textbook example of acute sleep onset insomnia, an isolated incident where the act of falling asleep became nigh impossible. I’ve had other, similar episodes over the years, and taken careful note of similarities for each. Lack of activity the day preceding (screens, sweatpants) plays a role. Stressful activities the day proceeding (work, tests) plays a role. Both serve to disquiet my brain and keep me unnaturally aware of exactly what I’m trying to accomplish. They gamify sleep, and make it abundantly clear when I’m “losing.”
I’ve managed to keep these troubles at bay with a few reliable methods. I exercise every day, eat earlier and keep the blue light exposure to a minimum. Melatonin is a nice fail-safe. But I’m always on the lookout for sustainable solutions, lest my difficulties return. So I was intrigued to hear that award-winning author Roy Parvin was publishing a yoga guide, after the practice helped ease his tight cyclist’s hamstrings, and later, unexpectedly, cured his insomnia. The book, which is called Yoga for the Inflexible Male (he wrote it under the pseudonym Yoga Matt), takes a punchy look at three hour-long routines. There are illustrations for each move therein, and you should definitely pick up a copy. It drops on November 19th.
I reached out to Roy, meanwhile, to get the backstory on the relationship he’s discovered between his insomnia and yoga practice. Below, he dishes on how his sleeplessness began, which positions are most effective at encouraging rest, and how many hours he aims for each night.
How did your insomnia start?
“My attack of insomnia came out of the blue. It was the oddest thing. One night I was sleeping, then I abruptly stopped. For the next 338 days I went without REM sleep, which was later confirmed by a sleep test. At first I tried to simply ignore and power through it, not the wisest strategy, but for a while it worked. Eventually, however, the nightly failure to drop off caught up to me and the subject of wakefulness took over my life. At the time, I was trying to finish a long-overdue novel, except the fallout of my wakefulness— anxiety and panic attacks — eventually became the primary narrative of daily life.”
What methods did you try at first to address it?
“The ignore-and-power-through phase lasted for about five months, during which I tried a number of cures: apps, herbal supplements, melatonin, GABA. When those couldn’t solve the problem, I tried acupressure. I didn’t want to see a doctor because I was leery of taking prescriptive medicine for the issues. Around this time I got my first introduction to the notion of sleep hygiene, the idea that I had to prepare my body for sleep by turning off electronic devices and the TV in the evening. I turned to mindful meditation as well, the idea of maintaining focus on the small real estate of the here-and-now, and that proved the most successful in chasing the stressful aspects of the insomnia for a little while.”
How did yoga enter your life?
“I’m an avid cyclist and have tight hamstrings, so yoga seemed like a possible solution to that. I was self-conscious at first, fearful that I was the absolute worst in class. But all the guys were like that. It took us a while to realize it wasn’t a competition, and after that we kind of celebrated our yoga ineptitude in a reverse form of bragging. “I’m the worst at eagle pose,” someone would say after class. “No, I am,” someone else would argue. I incorporated that spirit into my book with the “Good,” the “Not-so-Bad,” and the “Ugly” examples of most poses, in order to address the relative lack of male limberness. Of course, it’s all good because it’s yoga.”
And when did it become clear that yoga was improving your sleep?
“It took a number of sessions to realize that yoga was also helping with the insomnia. Once I relaxed my sense of athletic competitiveness, I realized yoga was kind of the physical version of mindful mediation. Both are all about being rooted in the present. The lightbulb kind of went on at that point. I stopped glancing around the room to see how I matched up doing happy baby, and turned my focus instead on my own progress. Combining the physical and mental together is genius. Elements of mindful meditation are woven throughout every practice, from focus on the breath to Savasana.”
If you skip out on yoga now, do you have trouble falling asleep?
“Yes. Yoga can be habit-forming in terms of getting to sleep. For a while, I was a daily practitioner of legs-up-the-wall before bedtime. Five minutes of the inversion is sufficient to chill you out. Fifteen minutes is sublime. On the days, I didn’t do it, I noticed it took a little while longer to drop off, often 20 minutes longer, which was enough time for worry to enter the picture. Worry is insomnia’s best friend.”
Which poses are most effective?
“Besides legs-up-the-wall, there are a number of great poses for sleep. Savasana, or corpse pose, is someone basically doing an imitation of sleep. Breathing exercises are great, too, for slowing down both body and mind. Modern life doesn’t always provide the opportunity to do legs-up-the-wall for 15 minutes every night before bed. So simply following the intake and out of breath is a terrific method for shedding the drama of our waking hours. There’s also something called restorative yoga, which is very gentle stretching that sort of looks like you’re just lying around on the floor. Ideally, if you’re doing yoga several times per week, every third week you want to throw in a restorative yoga session. Anyone who buys my book can download an entire restorative session. It’s yoga’s version of a sleeping pill.”
How many hours of sleep a night do you aim for now?
“Sleep is like clothes: one size doesn’t fit all. Eight hours is a good rule of thumb, but not necessarily a must. My sleepless experience yielded a medical memoir about my crisis entitled My Year of Sleeping Dangerously which about to make the rounds of publishers, and what I’ve learned from talking to sleep experts like Dr. Chris Winter (The Sleep Solution) is that people who aren’t sleeping get overly worried about sleep. It only makes the vicious circle spin more out of control. With insomniacs, the body naturally wants to fall asleep until the mind gets in the way. In this way, sleep is actually a lot like yoga and mindfulness meditation. It’s an activity that works best when the mind is quieted. For me, seven hours of sleep per night seems to be my magic number. On nights where I find myself awake in bed, I try not to worry about it. I know now that my body will be naturally tired for getting to sleep the next night. When that doesn’t do the trick, I lie back and do some mindfulness meditation or maybe some breathing exercises. After that, usually, I do succeed in falling asleep.”
Have you tried yoga before a flight?
“Yoga before travel is an excellent idea. I’m planning on checking out one of those yoga rooms they have at airports. San Francisco International now has one. Failing that, though, a yoga session the night before leaving can tackle those pre-travel jitters and help accentuate the flexibility you’ll need to cram yourself into tight seating assignments.”
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Cover image reprinted with permission from Yoga for the Inflexible Male: A How-To Guide by Yoga Matt copyright © 2019. Illustrations copyright © 2019 by Richard Sheppard. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC.