Some practical yoga practices on breathing, sleep and being in tune with nature.
Being in tune with nature is an important part of all-round good health. It is also an important aspect of yoga. Before electricity, it was easier to be in tune with nature. People rose and slept with the sun, and the evenings were a time to unwind, to share stories, and to let the mind rest. As a result, hormonal patterns were also more natural, including serotonin and melatonin levels.
How can yoga help us get back into the flow, even in modern-day city life?
Two simple yoga practices that nurture healthy sleep patterns
Being in sunlight, especially early in the day, activates serotonin production, as does exercise.(1) Take the practice of surya namaskar –traditionally it is done outside, saluting the early morning sun. It increases circulation, oxygenates the body, warms the muscles and joints, increases flexibility in the spine, and tones the body. It also exposes us directly to sunlight, switching on our natural serotonin production, helping us feel vitalised and happy for the day. Serotonin is also the precursor to melatonin (2), our sleep hormone.
So to sleep well, start your daily cycle in the morning. Once the sun has risen, go outside for some simple exercise – salute the sun or do a gentle exercise routine. The effect on your body and sleep cycles will be worth the effort.
Evenings and nights
Let’s fast forward to the other end of the day. After a busy day, what can we do to unwind?
Here is a simple relaxation technique to unwind the body, that is a modern version of the yoga nidra practice described by Patanjali in his Yoga Sutras. It takes only five minutes.
Sit comfortably, closing your eyes softly and gently.
Begin with your toes. Relax your toes and feet. Feel energy move up from the earth, through your feet, ankles and lower legs to your knees, relaxing the legs. Feel the energy move up your legs to your thighs… relaxing them.
Deeply relax your hips… stomach… and waist.
Relax your back, from the base of your spine to the top.
Relax your chest… and shoulders. Feel your shoulders melting away.
Relax your upper arms… your forearms… your hands… your fingertips.
Relax your neck muscles… then your face. Relax your jaw… mouth… nose… eyes… earlobes… facial muscles… forehead… to the top of your head.
Your whole body is now completely relaxed.
Bring your attention to your heart. Rest there and feel immersed in the love and light. Remain still and absorbed in your heart until you are ready to come out.  (3)
Do this relaxation lying in bed at night to help you go to sleep.
Breathing and nadis
Which one of your nostrils is breathing dominantly at this moment?
In the yogic shastras(4), the right nostril is associated with the suryanadi, the sun current, also called pingala. The left nostril is associated with the chandra nadi, the moon current, also called ida.
Nadis are currents of energy, which are not physical although the nerves of the physical body are their physical counterparts. The vital forces of prana flow along these currents. Of the thousands of nadis in the human system, three are considered to be the most important – ida, pingala and sushumna.(5)
The sushumna nadi runs within the spinal cord, from the base chakra to the brow chakra. The chandra nadi flows downwards from the left side of the brow chakra, passing through each chakra in turn in a curved path like a sine wave, finally ending on the left side of the base chakra. The surya nadi emerges from the right side of the base chakra, passing in the opposite direction up to the right of the brow chakra. Chandra and surya are opposite poles of life force flowing within us, associated with the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. These cycles are directly related to the movements of the sun and moon.
All our activities are influenced by these nadis, which alternate every one to two hours. When your system is in tune with nature, your breathing in your right nostril will be dominant during the daytime and the left at night. At sunrise you will observe a shift from left to right and at sunset from right to left.(6)
When your right nostril is active, your energy is active. It is the time for physical work, digesting food, etc., your mind is outward-focused and your body is generating more heat.
When your left nostril is active, your mind is inward-focused, and you are easily able to do mental work that requires concentration. Chandra also flows during sleep.
Do you have trouble sleeping?
When you are not in balance, due to illness or disharmony, this cycle may be disturbed: if the surya nadiflows at night, you will be restless and have difficulty sleeping; if the chandra nadiflows when you are eating, you will have digestive problems.
The flow of prana in these two nadis is involuntary unless you use yogic practices to alter it. For example, if there is work to be done and you are sleepy, you can direct the flow of pranato thesurya nadi; and, to calm the mind and create an inward focus, you can direct the flow to the chandra nadi. These are pranayama practices. That is why in ancient times people who were unable to sleep at night would examine their breathing. If it was not in tune with the natural cycles, they would drink hot water, walk or do pranayama.
Best of all is to follow the natural rhythms. Organise your lifestyle to be in tune with nature and your health will automatically improve. You will be in the flow!
Elizabeth Denley has been practising Heartfulness Yoga for 27 years and been a trainer for 25 years. She lives between Australia and India, where she researches the writings of great yogis of the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries. She is the editor of Heartfulness Magazine.
3. Heartfulness Relaxation, www.heartfulness.org
4. Chandogya Upanishad, verse 8.6.6, Prasna Upanishad verses 3.6-3.7, Varaha Upanishad, 54/5
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