So, we have calved out a little bit of time for ourselves to commit to a meditation practice and as soon as we close our eyes we start to yawn. Part way in to the meditation our head has dropped and we have fallen asleep! What is happening here? I have been asked both of these questions recently whilst teaching guided meditation classes.
Let’s look at them both separately…
Firstly, it is normal to yawn when meditating and lots of people do. Our breath pattern reflects our level of activity and our state of mind. For example If in our daily life we regularly feel stressed then likely our breath will reflect this state of mind and we may find ourselves breathing in a shallow manner. Likewise if we are running we will be taking in more oxygen compared to when we are resting. The breath is often used as a focus for the mind during meditation and if this is the case you will likely find that your breathing pattern begins to change in rate and depth as you bring your attention to it and begin to relax. The breath may become deeper and the rate of your breathing may begin to slow down as you relax. This change in our breathing means also that the amount of oxygen that we are taking in with each breath also changes and yawning occurs when the body needs to take in more oxygen. So your body is readjusting to the change in your breathing pattern and we may find ourselves yawning for more air and oxygen. This yawning may continue until the body recalibrates and finds a “plateau” where it has recalibrated its oxygen levels. As you continue with your meditation likely the yawning will stop within a few minutes. Yawning therefore isn’t always a sign of feeling sleepy.
So what is happening if we do fall asleep during meditation?
Falling asleep during meditation is also very common. Many people find that they have too much going on in their lives on a daily basis and this level of activity can lead to exhaustion. It may also be that you are not getting enough good quality sleep or the amount of hours sleep that is deemed necessary for the rest and recuperation of your body (between 7 and 9 hours) When you finally sit down to relax in to meditation, under these circumstances, it’s almost like the body sighs with relief, you have stopped activity and the body takes this as a vital opportunity to do what it needs to in order to maintain health. If you are tired out then likely what you most need is sleep and the body will take this opportunity to do just that.
Another thing to be aware of is the time of the day that you are meditating, if you get straight out of bed in the morning and meditate you may find that your body and mind have not woken up sufficiently and you fall right back to sleep. If you meditate after a heavy meal or just before bedtime you may also fall asleep.
There is another possible explanation behind falling asleep when we meditate and that is striking the right balance between the focus of attention that we give our mind during meditation and the important aspect of relaxation. In yoga we refer to the terms “propping” “slumping” and “yielding” so, say for instance you are standing, if you stand and put too much effort in to that action, maybe tensing your muscles, overly pushing out your chest and standing a bit like a soldier this would be referred to a “propping” and it is taking more energy from the body to maintain your standing position compared to if you were more relaxed whilst standing. If however you relax too much whilst standing your body would slump through lack of support, your shoulders may round forwards, chest collapse and there would be no vibrancy to your standing, this is “slumping”. Somewhere between these two extremes is the place of “yield” where the body has just the right amount of muscular engagement to produce a relaxed upright standing position, neither over nor under engaging the muscles nor using too much or too little energy to maintain a standing position.
So how does this apply to meditation? When we are new to meditation it can be tricky to find the balance between “propping” and “slumping” and find that ideal middle place of “yield”. If we are using excess mental energy to try to hold our focus to our breath, a mantra, or whatever other focus point is being used for our meditation we will become too tense and this is akin to the “propping” of our earlier explanation. Likewise if we let go completely we may find ourselves relaxing beyond the place of “steady gentle alert presence” that is required for meditation and instead “slumping” and drifting off in to sleep. So the middle ground of “yield” equally applies to our meditation practice, finding the right balance between focus and relaxation, this is a trained skill, it may not happen right away, and so just continue meditating with this in mind. A gentle focus of your attention without gripping on to your point of focus will allow you to relax and let go of “propping”. Equally a determination to gently hold your minds attention rather than letting go completely will allow you to release tendencies towards “slumping” and possibly nodding off to sleep.Then, somewhere in the middle ground, is the easy, relaxed and yet gently alert state of “yield”. You will know when you have found this place because there is a sense of ease that comes with it. If you are prone to falling asleep during meditation have a go with this. In my next blog we will discuss other ways we might help keep ourselves awake during meditation.
Kath Turner Yoga July 2020