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How Yoga Teachers Sabotage Their Students’ Sleep

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When I lead a yoga teacher training, one thing that I always emphasize is cultivating an awareness among teachers that they set the tone for what students take away from a yoga class. If you lead an evening or even late-afternoon classes, this awareness can be the difference between your students feeling relaxed and able to fall sleep after their practice or being alert and restless for hours.

The damage to students goes beyond a single night’s lack of sleep. When sleep is elusive, it can be frustratingly confounding to not know why.

Our bodies are governed by circadian rhythms and are designed to initiate different hormonal, metabolic, neural, and nervous system functions depending on the time of day. But certain conditions need to take place at night for this positive feedback mechanism to release sleep hormones, including sleep-inducing melatonin.

There are several ways that our teaching styles may be silently undermining a good night’s rest. Some are obvious. Others are far more subtle. Even though students are largely unaware of the connection between their practice and their ability to rest, teachers need to be knowledgeable and responsible around certain practices that can counteract sleep.

5 ways your teaching style might rob students of sleep

Here are several  to yoga that can sabotage your students’ sleep and simple ways to correct them. It can be as simple as changing the time of day students practice. Or it might require bringing awareness to their bodies and minds and retooling some of the fundamental yoga practices and styles they’ve been practicing for years.

Of course, we teach what we need to learn. True teaching starts by understanding and embodying the practices we teach and modulating our own nervous systems so that we can model the desired behavior for our students.

1. Too intense too late

They’re called Sun Salutations for a reason. This warming and common flow of poses is considered a morning practice in the traditional style of yoga known as Mysore Ashtanga. This series—or any intense sequence—will be heating and stimulating. Think of nervous system activation, quickened heart rate, and increased body temperature as a triple threat to sleep if you teach yoga in the evenings.

The fix: While an after-work vinyasa class is ideal for some students, it can cause others to find sleep elusive but remain unaware of the connection between the two. If you lead an intense afternoon yoga class and your regular students mention their lack of sleep, you could encourage them to opt for an intense class earlier in the day or try a slower style of yoga in the evenings.

Or, obviously, you could adjust your teaching style. You can still begin with relatively fast and warming movements, but start to cool it down at least halfway through class. Incorporate slower holds and encourage students to lengthen their exhalations slightly, which has a physiologically calming effect.

Also, offer more silence in your sequences. This can be challenging for teachers who feel they need to constantly give something in order to be of value. But by incorporating more moments of quiet, you cultivate your students ability to embrace moments of stillness and quiet, an essential skill we all need to know, especially when it’s time for sleep. It might also help you relax.

2. Backbends, backbends, backbends

There’s no doubt that your students could benefit from backbends to counteract a day spent hunched over a laptop. But extreme backbends that work against gravity, such as Dhanurasana (Bow Pose), can keep students awake for hours afterward. Even more moderate chest openers, such as Ustrasana (Camel Pose) can have the same effect.

I learned this the hard way through students’ negative feedback. When I started teaching evening classes, I chose to include drop-backs, in which you literally bend backwards from a standing position and drop back into Urdhva Dhanurasana (Wheel or Upward-Facing Bow Pose). Many of my regulars reported they were up half the night.

One way to notice if a backbend is stimulating the sympathetic part of the autonomic nervous system—responsible for the fight, flight, or freeze response—is if students break a sweat or experience a swift uptick in heart rate just after practicing the pose.

Bottom line: Backbends are not so helpful if you need to get some shut-eye.

The fix: You can still include gentle chest-openers in an evening practice to relieve tension from sitting or hunching forward all day and to make more space for the breath. But stick to more restorative backbends, including Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose), in which the shoulder blades and the back of the head remain on the floor. This posture can increase breath circulation with far less heating and heart-pumping than most backbends. It can also be practiced in a supported fashion with a block, bolster, or folded blanket beneath the sacrum to minimize exertion.

Also, consider Reverse Tabletop and Reverse Plank. These are still slightly activating since you’re reaching yours arms back and keeping your legs strong. The key difference is that the upper back remains relatively level with your collarbones, knees, and hips, which require less exertion. Also, after coming out of the poses, they can release tension from the arms and legs, leading to a sense of deep relaxation.

3. Kapalabhati (or any intense breathwork)

For some, the pumping breath of Kapalabhati Pranayama (Skull-Shining Breath) feels restorative at any time of day. However, for many folks, it’s simply too stimulating to the nervous system at night and counterproductive to a good night’s rest.

The fix: Instead, offer a simple 1:2 or 2:4 breathing practice, gradually increasing the exhalation until it’s twice as long as the inhalation. This stimulates the parasympathetic portion of the autonomic nervous system that is responsible for calming and settling into a space of relaxation.

If you feel that you must teach this practice in the evening, keep it short and disclose to students beforehand that the practice—like a shot of espresso–is invigorating and better suited for morning. Always share an alternative breathing technique for students who choose not to take the risk.

4. Overly enthusiastic Ujjayi breath

The ujjayi (Victorious) Breath many of us learned in vinyasa yoga is a heating practice. Practicing Ujjayi with a strong inhalation, constriction in the back of the throat, and a tendency to breathe into the upper chest can add stimulation to an already-overheated nervous system. Research indicates that Ujjayi can have a stimulating effect on blood pressure and heart rate although it can also have a calming effect on the psyche. It depends on how it is practiced.

Consider that some students might be engaging in Ujjayi breath for the duration of a 60-minute class. They could be stimulating the sympathetic nervous system—which activates your fight, flight, or freeze response—for that entire time.

The fix: Instead of cueing students to breathe into the upper chest with a strong inhale and strong exhale, you can modify Ujjayi so it supports sleep.

First, find the space between your shoulders and lower back, the area where your kidneys and adrenals sit. Imagine breathing into that space—down and back instead of up and front. For me, and for most people I’ve worked with, this has an immediate calming effect. Try this with your back supported by a chair, sofa, or wall to feel the support and feel your breath expand into that support.

Then, instead of lengthening the inhale, which sparks the sympathetic nervous system, even out the inhale and exhale, or start to lengthen the exhalation a little.

Finally, refine your breath. Image it’s like a silken thread, very fine and subtle. Notice the muscles around your eyes and jaw, and allow them to relax. If there is any tension in your face and neck, imagine the back of your eyes and jaw gently releasing and become more spacious.

5. Rigid breath counts

Notice how you are bringing attention to the breath, breath counts, and pacing of the sequence in your classes. The constant attention on in, out, in, out with the breath can leave students with little time to settle in between inhalations and exhalations.

Each student has their own unique tidal volume (lung capacity) and will therefore have their own optimal length of breath. Each person needs to find the individual pace that works best.

The fix: In order to fall asleep, you need to feel spacious and relaxed in our bodies—and the breath can help tap into this spaciousness. Ensure your pacing of breath cues allows time for settling into the body, which can be experienced by a pause in between inhalations and exhalations, and in between exhalations and inhalations.

Take a tip from John Stirk, renowned British yoga teacher with 40 years experience, and allow yourself and students to experience the power of the space after the exhalation. Once I experienced this pause for myself, I started imagining the exhale like gossamer silk dropping down from my hand to the floor slowly–and then settling for a moment. Try dropping into the space after the out-breath for a brief moment without moving, encouraging your body to land and settle, without any strain, before breathing in again. This technique is also used by some Yoga Nidra teachers.

6. Incessant cueing

Teachers can inadvertently create an environment in which our collective nervous systems can’t settle down. It happens when we string one cue after the other in run-on sentences, with scant pauses between; it happens when we talk too quickly, or when we don’t slow our talking and deeply breathe with our students.

As a new yoga teacher, I remember feeling at first like I had to live up to the poetry and power of my own teachers, who said very eloquent things as they cued us through asana and integrated helpful alignment points. As a result, in my first couple of years of instructing,  I talked nearly every second of all of my classes. Sure, they were vibrant and exciting, and they grew and flourished, but I was exhausted—and it wasn’t a space where students could rest.

The fix: One of my mentors gave me wisdom that I now offer to my trainees: Pause after every cue. Let it land. Observe whether the students have heard and acted, and then offer the next cue.

In this space, I learned to breathe with students and truly become aware of the effect of my cues. In psychology, the principle of co-regulation says that the teacher has the power to set an inadvertently stressful pace—or the power to share the experience of the breath together and create a calming space.

7. Talking during Savasana

Over-teaching doesn’t apply only to asana, or the physical practice of yoga. It also applies to Savasana (Corpse Pose) and meditation, too. Some students might appreciate ample cues because they can tether their attention to the spoken word to help them stay present. But teachers can unintentionally create a situation in which we perpetuate an addiction to external stimulation—even in relaxation.

The fix: Cues to find comfort in Savasana and meditation can be helpful. But after that, build silence into your teaching. Literally breathe with your students.

This can be the hardest thing for some yoga teachers, who may feel they need to constantly give something in order to be of value. We then teach students to be always doing. Try offering silence accompanied by your expansive presence. Not only will you cultivate your own ability to relax, you will empower your students to embrace moments of stillness and quiet—a skill they can lean on when it’s time for sleep.

8. Relaxing students too much (yes, really)

It’s actually possible to wreck your students’ appetite for sleep by restoring them too much. Sleep physicians refer to this as “sleep drive,” which is a measure of the body’s biological need for sleep. The longer you’re awake and expending effort, the greater your desire to sleep accumulates in various brain chemicals. This includes adenosine, a central nervous system depressant that decreases arousal and promotes sleep. Every hour you’re awake, the adenosine levels in the brain rise.

When you experience profoundly effective rest, you decrease the adenosine and other tiredness neurotransmitters, diminishing your sleep drive and becoming less desiring of rest.

Although a short meditation or restorative practice can be help students settling into a calmer state before sleep, taking a full-length restorative yoga class or a long meditation late in the evening might set up conditions for certain students to fall asleep well before bedtime, sabotaging their ability to sleep later.

The fix: Try bringing students into 10-20 minute segments of restorative poses at the end of an evening class rather than devote the entire class to complete relaxation. Also, suggest to students that they take a few minutes at different periods throughout the day to practice these same poses. This approach is especially useful for students who exacerbate their stress response with caffeine or intense exercise. You’ll help them “put energy back on the grid” similar to how a solar panel restores electricity. That is to say, sustainably.

As for meditation, as the Transcendental and Vedic traditions suggest, consider scheduling classes in the morning and late afternoon or early evening, ideally before dark. If your students prefer practicing meditation shortly before bed, make it a shorter practice so that your students don’t slip into pre-sleep sleep. This enables you to help them settle into calmer and deeper brain wave patterns without taking away their sleep drive.

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