Yoga harnesses the specific power of inversions to support your lymphatic system. Dr David Haase, MD, a Vanderbilt-and Mayo-trained physician, and author of the bestselling book, Curiosity Heals the Human, says if the anterior cingulate is dysfunctional, and if there is frequent dysfunction in that area, then there is also a dysfunction in mood, attention, sense of self and more.

This is also where the gut and the brain intersect. My instinct got me thinking naturally of the area where the anterior cingulate and the path of yoga might cross. I thought of inversions, headstands, pranayama and more, and then I thought of meditation. Research is now looking more closely at the benefits that come from several ancient tools like pranayama.

The second way yoga supports your lymphatic system is through muscle contraction. Think of sitting in a forward bend, holding your toes. When you stretch your large muscles, think about what happens when you stretch a rubber band. The more you stretch a rubber band, the greater the force with which it contracts and springs back when you let it go. Similarly, when you stretch your large muscles, the more you stretch, the more the muscles contract when you let go, allowing them to work like a pump, pushing blood and lymph back to your heart.

There is something fascinating that happens when that blood reaches your heart. Your heart is fooled by that extra volume of blood into thinking that you might have done some aerobic movement and pumps stronger, sending fresh blood throughout your body. In this way, when there is muscle contraction through stretching, you support lymphatic drainage through a gentle form of movement.

Finally, when you incorporate abdominal movement through spinal twists, lateral bends, and forward and backward bends, you allow lymphatic movement through the whole trunk of your body. Dynamic flow sequences like sun salutations and flow yoga allow lymphatic movement to occur through a curated sequence that connects movement with breath. Breathing is another powerful way through which you replace the missing pump in the lymphatic system. It can improve the quality of your sleep.

Think of breathing as the movement of energy. Yoga is an exercise which can be both gentle and vigorous. When it comes to sleep, my suggestion is to incorporate a gentle sequence with inversions and stretches towards the evening. If you want to have a vigorous sequence, then breath work might end up activating you and preventing sleep. In that case, it might work better to practice vigorously in the morning, when raising cortisol is beneficial in several ways. Vigorous and quick movement disrupts vata and imbalances the nervous system.

Walking, lymph and sleep

Walking was a part of ashram life for me. Silent walks through the forest and up the mountains seemed challenging. I did struggle and there were times I felt like hiding somewhere. I am glad the habit of walking was enforced during my ashram days as it made me realise its profound benefits. Quite recently, I started to track my sleep with different modalities and I discovered something amazing when it comes to walking. My deep sleep doubled on the days that I walked long distances. While researching this I found that walking improves the time taken to fall asleep, the duration of sleep and sleep quality!

I tracked my steps and distance rather than the time that I spent on walking. I made a conscious effort to increase it every week. For me, 10,000 steps could be covered in about 7 kilometres, and 20,000 steps in about 14 kilometres. Obviously, this may be different for you. Make sure that as you increase the distance you also compensate with recovering foods such as protein and antioxidants. Also make sure that you give yourself a day of rest and stretching after a day when you pushed yourself harder. If you struggle with sleep challenges, and you are still in the healing phase and, just starting to apply the protocols from this book, avoid running, which can be stressful to the adrenals. Be gentle yet firm in your approach. There is no one that you should compare yourself to. In the beginning, avoid trying to increase distance while reducing time. Even if it takes you more time to walk 10,000 steps, that is fine. Find a time of the day when you are free from responsibilities and dedicate it to walking.

Lack of movement and its impact on sleep

Sleep impacts your ability to incorporate movement and how much you move impacts how you sleep. Exercise has been a factor in good sleep for a very long time and is being found to hold a lot of promise as a non-pharmacological factor in supporting better sleep.

Incorporating any movement in the early morning or afternoon can support setting the right sleep-wake cycle. Doing vigorous movement later in the evening or at night might upset the sleep-wake cycle in some people. For most people, it does not negatively impact sleep if exercise is moderate and stops about 90 minutes before sleep. However, in this research study I am referring to, only men participated, and women can be more sensitive to these effects. If you find that you can only take time out in the evening, make sure that you do not engage in a vigorous form of exercise. Gentle movements like yoga, walking, swimming, or tai chi may support better sleep.

Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS) and sleep

The fatigue created by lack of sleep can increase symptoms of RLS. In turn, these symptoms can prevent sleep. It is a condition where your legs are restless when you try to sleep. You start to feel an uncontrollable urge to keep moving or stretching your legs. Symptoms tend to get worse at night and hinder sleep. Common reasons for RLS are iron deficiency, pregnancy, alcohol, caffeine, magnesium deficiency, hormonal imbalance and vata imbalance. It can also be due to a lack of movement and stretching as well, which can lead to inadequate blood flow to the legs. Some medications such as antihistamines can also be a reason. Medication need not be the answer, though. Lowering overall inflammation and improving nutrition can also be very helpful. Check your iron status. Ferritin levels should be optimal, between 60-80. Yoga can also be immensely supportive as it stretches the fascia, and improves circulation and lymphatic movement.

Bringing in movement into your life to help you sleep

It can feel challenging to be consistent with movement. There are times when we have too much going on. However, there are several ways you can bring movement into your day. You can solve any sleep problem if you put yourself first.

1. Enjoy whatever magical triad of movement you choose. Yoga, swimming and walking are my magical triad, which I complement at times with strength training.

2. Merge movement with nature. Walking 10,000-20,000 steps is a great form of exercise to try and include a few times each week.

3. Think of movement like water. One of the things that I always teach at yoga is the five elements. When I talk about water, I speak about yoga practices like vinyasa, which brings together movement and breath work, where the priority is on the gracefulness of the transitions, rather than the pose itself. It teaches you to enjoy the journey of life, rather than focusing on the destination. Whatever movement you bring in, adding subtle breath awareness and feeling the grace in your movement makes it soothing and calming.

4. Movement that is gentle is powerful. Movement need not be vigorous, strenuous and aggressive. In fact, gentle and moderate movements can be far more effective as a tool to support better sleep as it calms vata dosha.

5. Movement should be curated specifically for you. Often, I find clients being pushed by trainers because their spouse is at a different level, leaving them in a constant state of physical stress, chronic fatigue and inflammation, which instantly affects their sleep. You are precious and you need a sequence designed just for you. Listen to your body constitution and speak its language to anyone who guides you in movement therapy.

Excerpted with permission from How to Sleep Better: The Miraculous Ten-Step Protocol to Recharge Your Mind and Body, Deepa Kannan, HarperCollins India.