I have come to the realisation that my whole family has sleeping problems and takes sleeping pills on a regular basis. That, and I have a partner who regularly stays up watching youtube videos till 3 or 4am. Which, for a yoga teacher who teaches yoga nidra and breathing practices (that I think help other people sleep) is rather depressing. I may work with pharma for my day job and be an advocate for medication to treat various conditions, but I don’t believe medication is the answer to this question night after night after night.
My family is not alone – a huge number of people have sleeping issues (and apparently this got worse during lockdown last year). I’m really struggling to get some stats, but apparently 4% of Americans take pills on a regular basis to help them get some rest (I would image the number would be comparable in Europe too).
Could yoga nidra help here?
There is some evidence that yoga nidra can indeed help
I have written before (here and here) about the effects of yoga nidra on mental health. Some of the studies I reviewed also evaluated sleep as a primary outcome of whether yoga nidra has benefits on mental health – as you can imagine, poor mental health (eg anxiety) may lead to poor sleep, so good sleep quality can be an indicator of mental health improvement.
Indeed, those studies that did evaluate sleep found that yoga nidra helped to get better sleep, or at least feel like you are getting better sleep (note that I am listing these here in order of importance based on how well the study was designed and how convincing the evidence is):
- Improved sleep compared with the control (ie doing nothing) in a large (over 700 participants) controlled study where participants practiced a short form of yoga nidra (11min of body scan and breathing)
- Improved sleep quality among older adults with depression after 6 weeks of iRest yoga nidra practice (but note small sample size and no control, and the fact that they had to practice every day, which is quite a lot! )
- Accounts of improved sleep quality among women who have experienced trauma, who practiced iRest yoga nidra twice a week for 10 weeks (again, note no control and small sample size)
- Improved sleep and reduction of insomnia in three case studies of patients suffering with insomnia, who practiced yoga nidra every day for 4 weeks
It’s probably because yoga nidra can help us feel more relaxed
Participants in another study reported feeling more relaxed since starting their yoga nidra intervention, as well as experiencing improved sleep (but note that this was another uncontrolled study were participants practiced yoga nidra once and then reported how they felt after).
Although I’m not that impressed (understatement!) with this particular study, it kind of makes sense. Yoga nidra can be a relaxing practice, so practicing it regularly may help us feel more relaxed in general, which may help with sleep. Practicing it to go to sleep (which is one of the reasons people do it) is also likely to help the body and mind relax so that you can drift off. I know it frequently works for me.
EEG data may provide further insights
We seem to have some evidence that yoga nidra can help with sleep, both in terms of sleep quality and how easily/quickly you fall asleep. We’ll hopefully learn even more by:
- Running a properly controlled study with a decent sample size, comparing yoga nidra with other practices to understand what it is about it that helps. For instance, many people find having a bath relaxing, so how would they fare against each other? Is there a mindfulness reason behind it? In which case how would yoga nidra compare with a regular meditation practice? What happens when you combine it with other sleep interventions like exercise?
- Studying what happens to the brain during a yoga nidra practice.
On the latter, there was one study that just came out that reported some preliminary findings from EEG (that’s the test that measures electrical activity in the brain and identifies different brain waves). Among the findings were that yoga nidra led to increased state of dissociation and an altered state of consciousness. Unfortunately I don’t have access to the study but it may be that this altered state of consciousness is what we call that state between sleep and awake, which may potentially help to drift off to the sleep state more easily. But this is just a guess. Plus the study only had six participants so probably best to be cautious.
The one to watch is this one, which has promised to collect data both on sleep/sleep onset and brain waves via EEG. BUT it’s just a protocol (ie not a real study yet). There have been confusing accounts of this study on social media that have led people to think that it has reported results (and even that the results were positive). That hasn’t happened. So sit tight.