Q: On yesterday's post Mini Restorative Practice, you wrote about Reclined Cobbler's pose that we should set a timer so we don't fall asleep. Why isn't it okay to fall asleep in a restorative pose?
A: Good question! There are actually two reasons not to fall asleep in a restorative yoga pose. The first reason is that with the exception of Relaxation pose (Savasana), in all restorative poses there are parts of your body that are being stretched. For example, in Reclined Cobbler's pose you are stretching your groins and inner thighs, and your back is supported into a backbend shape. Falling asleep in the pose means you risk staying in the pose too long and over-stretching muscles. That's why teachers will warn you to set a timer—to ensure that you don't over-stretch and injure yourself.
A second reason to stay awake in restorative poses is because there are several benefits you gain from conscious relaxation than you don't gain from sleep alone (though, of course, getting enough sleep is also vital for your health). Briefly the differences between sleep and conscious relaxation are the following:
1. Dreams can actually cause stress through nightmares and anxiety dreams. During conscious relaxation on the other hand, your production of stress hormones gradually decreases, and other symptoms of stress, including both the physical and emotional sensations, subside.
2. During conscious relaxation, oxygen consumption decreases 10 to 20 percent during the first 3 minutes of practice while during sleep it decreases only 8 percent after about 4 or 5 hours. This reduced need for oxygen reflects the fact that during conscious relaxation your body is in rest and digest mode, not in stress mode where you are preparing to run or fight.
3. During conscious relaxation, there is a marked decrease in blood lactate, a substance associated with anxiety attacks. Blood-lactate levels fall rapidly within the first 10 minutes of conscious relaxation, while sleep has no effect on blood-lactate levels. As you relax, your thoughts stop racing and your mind quiets while your body is resting and digesting.
4. Alpha waves (slow brain waves) increase in intensity and frequency during conscious relaxation, but are not commonly found during sleep. Dr. Roger Cole, a sleep researcher and long-time yoga teacher, says that during rest or meditation our brain waves may slow to the alpha rhythm (8-12 cycles per second), during which we remain quietly aware of ourselves and our surroundings, without a lot of self-directed mental processing. Sometimes they may slow even further to the theta rhythm (4-7 cycles per second), during which we may get a “floating” feeling, dreamlike mental imagery, and withdrawal from the outside world. There is still much that is unknown about these unique states, but what is known is that regular practice of conscious relaxation helps foster ongoing feelings of serenity, contentment, and even happiness.
See Conscious Relaxation vs. Sleep for more information about the benefits of conscious relaxation over sleep.