Savasana versus nap
Have you ever fallen asleep in Savasana?
I rarely do, but one of my colleagues seems to doze off regularly. Although we don’t attend the same weekly class, we attend workshops together. If I’m in his vicinity during Savasana, I’ve heard him softly snoring each time.
Me, I’m just the opposite. I lie down and let go as instructed. But, while my body rests, my mind continues to whir for a few minutes. So, unless we do a luxuriously long Savasana, I never quite reach mental stillness. When I occasionally do drift off, I know it’s not ideal, but I nevertheless enjoy the moment of deep relaxation. I feel very refreshed after—who knows?—a minute or two of unconsciousness.
Was I really sleeping? I always spontaneously wake before the teacher breaks the silence. The gap between deep relaxation and light sleep can be narrow. It’s no easy trick to drop away just short of sleep, where the body is utterly at ease and the mind, awake and observant.
In his much-publicized book The Science of Yoga, William Broad cites the case of a woman who fell asleep doing Paschimottanasana*. Upon waking, her legs were weak, numb, and non-ambulatory. The diagnosis: damaged sciatic nerves. Half a year later, she still couldn’t walk without assistance, and doctors predicted that she’d never regain full function.
Falling asleep in Paschimottanasana?! Who the heck falls asleep doing asana, a deliberate, physical practice? Likewise, it’s antithetical to sleep while bicycling, eating, or driving a car. Injury is likely if one falls asleep during almost any non-couch-potato activity.
I’m curious to know how long she slept—and her experience level. If tight in the hamstrings, it’s possible that sciatica might result, but are such beginners comfortable enough to sleep in the pose? If experienced and limber, with torso draped over thighs, sleep might come easily—but only if extremely sleep-deprived/attention-deficient. Asana is not about zoning out!
I initially disregarded the case as an oddity, irrelevant to genuine yoga practice. The horror of the outcome, however, made me wonder, “What pose might I inadvertently fall asleep doing?” One immediately sprang to mind: Supta Baddhakonasana. It’s a pose comfy enough for me to do unsupported. But, without support, holding the pose for a nap’s length would likely strain my groins. (Reminder to self: Tell guy at home to check on me in yoga room from time to time. See buddy system.)
A hard day’s night
During my teacher Louie Ettling‘s summer retreat (all day for six days), some students experienced insomnia. Perhaps the change in their normal routines upset their biorhythms, or perhaps the asana was overstimulating.
How much does asana (whether the sequencing or the poses themselves) affect sleep? Perhaps such correlations are best studied in overnight retreats, where there are fewer intervening variables. Here, one might leave the studio calm and composed, only to get riled up by traffic, a sick child, work stress, or an argument before bed. So, if someone says, “Wow, I couldn’t sleep because of the backbends we did,” it’s not necessarily true.
Assuming no intervening variables, is the insomnia due to the asana or to response to the asana? The former is purely physical and physiological, while the latter is distracting mental commentary, whether about the asana (from “I made a breakthrough!” to “Did I tweak my back again?”) or about other preoccupations.
If insomnia strikes, what should be done? It’s common to try focusing on the breath and other yoga/meditation techniques to still the mind. I wonder about this approach: Might it be a bad habit to “train” oneself to fall asleep doing focused breathing? Might this foster a Pavlovian effect?
Sleep remains a great mystery and, yes, a great necessity of life.
Images: Yoga Journal
*Walker, Melanie, Gregg Meekins, and Shu-Ching Hu, “Yoga Neuropathy: A Snoozer,” The Neurologist, vol 11, no 3, May 2005, pp 176-78. Without a subscription, I could access only the abstract. If you have full article access, please share!