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The Science Behind Meditation, Yoga, and Your Sleep

Mounting evidence shows that yoga and mindfulness can help improve your ability to rest, relax, and get a good night’s sleep.

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Decades ago, the worlds of modern medicine and science rarely considered things like meditation and yoga to be part of healthcare. In recent years however, experts in psychology, neuroscience, oncology, and other fields have started looking into potential benefits of these two practices, finding tangible evidence of sleep science support. One area of particular interest is sleep, where recent studies demonstrate measurable benefits for both meditation and yoga. Read on to learn how these two practices influence rest, and how you can apply current research to improve your own sleep.

The Effects of Mindfulness on Stress, Pain, and Sleep
Mindfulness meditation involves the practice of learning to be accepting and non-judgmental of your thoughts, emotions, and feelings, and developing awareness of the sensations you’re experiencing in the present moment. Studies have identified several benefits of practicing mindfulness, from improving stress and focus to aiding the immune system,. Recent research indicates it may help reduce insomnia symptoms and improve sleep.

David Black, Ph.D., assistant professor of preventive medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of University of Southern California, and director of the American Mindfulness Research Association, explains, “Mindfulness practice is recognized by the National Institutes of Health, and is considered an integrative health approach rather than an alternative approach.” This means that mindfulness is no longer considered something to be used in place of conventional medicine; rather, it is frequently incorporated into mainstream healthcare in a coordinated way.

A new study authored by Black showed significant improvements in sleep quality, insomnia, and fatigue among older adults who received mindfulness meditation instruction, compared to the control group receiving sleep hygiene instruction.

Stress reduction is one avenue by which mindfulness may support sleep. A Carnegie Mellon University study recently found that people who received mindfulness training reported feeling less stress than the control group when completing complex speech and math tasks.

Of the findings, J. David Creswell, Ph.D., study author and assistant professor in psychology at CMU says, “It is well-known that stress triggers many different types of sleep difficulties, and here we provide some initial evidence that mindfulness training may help individuals manage stress more effectively for better sleep.”

Mindfulness meditation may also help provide pain relief by increasing cognitive and emotional control and changing appraisal and evaluation of sensory input. Mitigating pain could prove helpful for rest, as the 2015 Sleep in America poll by the National Sleep Foundation found that 57% of Americans regularly experience pain. Polls associated both acute and chronic pain with poorer sleep quality, less sleep, and more fatigue.

Steven Hickman, Psy.D., director of the UC San Diego Center for Mindfulness, says, “Often what keeps people up is rumination, going over and over things that they have no control over. Mindfulness has been shown to be effective at reducing rumination, meaning people experience less mind wandering and more focused attention. People that practice mindfulness meditation may find that they can more easily drop out of the rumination loop, relax, and sleep.”

Practicing Mindfulness Meditation for Better Sleep
For people interested in mindfulness meditation, Hickman suggests patience, persistence, and keeping in mind that relaxation is often a benefit of practice, but not the direct goal. He says, “Meditation is about cultivating a way of being with one’s full experience of self. You aren’t trying to achieve a certain state—you’re working on becoming aware of your current state.”

Hickman describes a simple mindfulness exercise that beginners can try: “Ask yourself, “Where are my feet?” It brings your attention into the present moment since you have to notice the sensation and placement of your feet in the bed. It’s a quick drop-into-your-body mindfulness practice, not necessarily a meditation but a way to get in touch with the sensation of your present body.”

For those new to meditation, David Black offers, “Structured mindfulness-based interventions are likely to be the best place for beginners to gain a solid foundation in mindfulness practice. Recognized and structured programs such as Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) or Mindful Awareness Practices (MAPs) are available in many communities and online.”

Other helpful resources included free guided audio meditations on the UCSD Center for Mindfulness website, the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center website, and the Chopra Center’s 21-day Meditation Experiences (periodically offered for free).

Yoga and its effects on health are also receiving considerable research in recent years. Yoga encompasses a broad range of exercise forms, from intensely cardiovascular to relaxingly meditative, offering a variety of ways to incorporate into daily life.

Valencia Porter, M.D., director of integrative medicine at the Chopra Center, explains, “Yoga and meditation can help us handle stress and improve our general sense of well-being. With yoga, we can also release stress and tension that accumulates in our body. An increased sense of self-awareness that can be attained by practicing yoga and meditation can also help us understand how we respond to the cycle of natural rhythms through the day. Aligning ourselves with these rhythms (versus fighting them) can help restore a healthy sleep pattern.”

Jonathan Halpern, Ph.D., authored a recent study on yoga involving older adults with insomnia who attended yoga classes and practiced meditative yoga at home. Significant improvements in sleep quality, efficiency, and duration were demonstrated, as were improvements in stress, depression, and general well-being.

Halpern explains that yoga, sleep, and sleep disorders have many aspects from physical to psychological to environmental, and says that, “By understanding cause and effect and how the yogic tools and methods work, an appropriate yoga practice can be designed in order to improve sleep quality.”

Another study researching the effects of yoga for cancer survivors experiencing sleep troubles observed significant improvements to overall sleep quality. Participants in the intervention group attended Yoga for Cancer Survivors (YOCAS) programs, which combine breathing exercises, engaging Hatha postures, restorative yoga, and mindfulness.

On the subject of how yoga may influence sleep, study author and YOCAS developer Karen Mustian, Ph.D., M.P.H, professor at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Department of Surgery, says, “The actual mechanism whereby yoga influences sleep is still being researched, but we have a lot of avenues we think might be the reason and there are multiple pathways that we think it could be working through.”

Mustian continues, “For example, it could be eliciting a relaxation response which in turn influences HPA axis function, and subsequently, can influence autonomic responses and eventually sleep. Circadian rhythms might be influenced by those processes, and depending on the type of yoga and time it could be eliciting a physical conditioning response like other modes of activity.” She adds that improved heart and lung function and changes to weight may also influence sleep.

A literature review on yoga’s application for neuropsychiatric disorders also found support of possible benefits for depression and sleep complaints, among other disorders.

P. Murali Doraiswamy, M.D., study author and Duke University professor of psychiatry and medicine, says that while large, multicenter controlled trials are still needed to identify yoga’s impact, several clinical trials have shown yoga to improve many aspects of sleep such as sleep efficiency, sleep time, and alertness when awake.

Practicing Yoga for Better Sleep
To people interested in approaching yoga to improve sleep, Karen Mustian suggests basic, gentle Hatha and restorative yoga classes. “Beginner classes take you through the movements much slower, allowing you time to get into position, receive help from instructors if needed and work through movements.” She cautions that all types of yoga may not be appropriate for everyone, however. Particularly, yoga performed in heated rooms has not been studied for safety among those undergoing treatment for cancer or cancer survivors.

Related: Try this simple breathing technique for better sleep.

For those more familiar with yoga postures and DIY practice, Valencia Porter adds, “I would recommend a gentle and mindful practice. Some poses which can be helpful include: Child’s Pose, Standing Forward Bend, Legs Up the Wall with Eyes Closed, Spinal Twist (seated or lying down) Reclining Butterfly (supported with pillows), and Corpse. I also would recommend Pranayama with alternate nostril breathing or just relaxed belly breathing. One need not take a full yoga class, just performing some of these relaxing poses for 5 minutes or up to 30 minutes can be beneficial.” You can also try this simple yoga sequence before bed for better sleep.

Murali Doraiswamy recommends daytime practice, suggesting, “Typically yoga and meditation are best done in early morning, in a quiet peaceful natural setting, and with exposure to sunlight.” He says that daytime yoga aids sleep at night, also adding that 20 minutes of meditation at bedtime can prove helpful.

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