We all want to feel healthy, vibrant, and alive, but that's hard to do when you don't get enough rest. One of the most common reasons I hear people say they come to yoga class is to deal with insomnia. Essential for optimal cognitive and physiological processing, sleep is vital to our health and well-being. Yoga practices of asana, pranayama, and meditation provide proven results for reducing the levels of chemicals in the body associated with the stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system to respond to a stressor.
Not only does the practice of yoga affect the body during and immediately after the practice, but practitioners learn methods of stress and mood management to apply when a stressful situation occurs. During a physical yoga practice, practitioners experience and regulate their stress response in a safe, controlled environment so they can use these tools to manage their stress response in the moment, thereby lowering the amount of time the body spends in fight or flight and allowing for more calm and ease, and therefore better sleep. Pranayama and meditation allow the practitioner to experience single pointed focus, calming the nervous system so it is much less likely to enter fight or flight.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports that insomnia and other sleep disorders have been linked to chronic diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity, and depression. Insomnia is technically defined as the inability to achieve or maintain a sleep state, and can be the result of chronic pain, stress, depression, anxiety, or a variety of health issues. Other contributors to insomnia that are frequently seen are disrupted circadian rhythm patterns (those who travel across time zones frequently, work different shifts, etc.), alcohol and drug use, and poor diet or diets with excessive stimulants. In modern society, stress is epidemic and a major contributor to insomnia.
When the brain tells the physical body that it is threatened, the sympathetic nervous system kicks into fight or flight mode, activating the hypothalamus, which sets off alarms in the body allowing it to react and protect itself.
Most significantly, the adrenal glands release the hormones adrenaline and cortisol, enabling your body to fend off the threat by increasing the heart rate, blood pressure, and the available energy in the bloodstream (glucose) so you can fight or flee. The hormone cortisol also curbs the functions that are not essential for the fight or flight such as digestive, reproductive systems, as well as having and effect on mood, motivation, and fear. The sympathetic nervous system and the fight or flight response is usually a self-regulating system that shuts down when the perceived threat is no longer a threat or the event has concluded.
However, in our modern society, the threats to us are not always something that we can combat in the moment and clear from our nervous system. When we are constantly under perceived threat, i.e., job stress, relationship difficulties, financial worries, health problems, etc., the stress response system is hyper aroused and continues to produce the flight or flight hormones and chemicals needed to get through the perceived threat. Long-term activation of this system leads to disruptions in body function, including sleep. It is difficult to allow the body to rest when it feels, and therefore reacts, as if there is looming threat and adding lack of sleep to this condition only worsens the situation as the sufferer now has poor cognitive skills, lethargy and irritability to add to his or her stresses.
Key to helping insomnia sufferers is calming the central nervous system and providing tools that promote relaxation and ease, as most insomniacs are experiencing a hyper state of arousal for one or more of the reasons outlined in the paragraphs above. Yoga practices provide physical and mental relaxation that can bring relief to insomniacs by calming the nervous system and decreasing the frequency at which the sympathetic nervous system is activated, allowing the parasympathetic nervous system, which is in charge of rest, to control the body.
HOW YOGA HELPS
Asana (Physical Postures) Yoga practice consists of physical postures (asana), breath work (pranayama), and meditation (dhyana). The physical practice of yoga allows the practitioner to become aware of held tension in the body and work to release it. The effort and engagement of the physical body, particularly an active practice, can bring physical weariness and allow muscles to release their tension and promote rest.
Often the physical practice is movement tied with breath (vinyasa), which requires that the practitioner bring mindfulness to both breath and movement, creating a single pointed focus and allowing attention to be taken off of stressors, worries, pain, etc., and the practitioner to be in the moment. This in itself is at least a temporary respite from stress and discomfort, which can be relaxing. In addition to the calming effects of physical practice, other physical maladies can be reduced such as diabetes, blood pressure, and physical chronic pain so people sleep with fewer disturbances.
Specifically, a small sampling of yoga poses that can produce calming effects and could be utilized for insomnia are:
Balasana—(Child’s Pose) provides calming, stabilizing sensations as the body, is solidly supported by and connected to the surface beneath it. The forehead rests on the floor or other surface (bolster if supported child’s pose, or a block), which releases tension in the forehead and initiates rest of the eyes.
Uttanasana—(Standing Forward Fold Pose) releases tension in the back line of the body from the feet to the forehead. Allows the neck and shoulders to release tension. The head below the heart allows oxygen-rich blood to come to the head.
Supta Baddha Konasana—(Reclined Butterfly or Bound Angle Pose)—releases tension in the hips and groin, stimulates the heart and digestive organs. Opens and releases chest, shoulders and throat.
Viparita Karani—(Legs Up The Wall Pose) especially for those who are on their feet—allows the legs and feet to restore, helps to recirculate blood and allows blood to the head more easily while also relieving the back.
Other yoga poses in an individual’s practice should be chosen with care to address the particular physical, mental, or emotional issues they are experiencing. Consulting with a Yoga Professional is highly recommended.
Meditation and iRest® Yoga Nidra
While the physical practice of yoga can be a meditation in movement, the mindful practices of meditation can also be utilized to have significant restorative effects. There are a number of styles of mediation that range from walking with awareness to guided visualization, repetition of a mantra, listening to sound or focusing attention on a single object.
What all of these meditation styles have in common, however, is that they bring the individual’s attention to a single focused point, which calms the mind and reduces anxiety. When the mind is focused, distracting, even disturbing thoughts are interrupted and allow relief from chronic stress and anxiety.
In my personal experience with insomnia, and why I have studied and offer iRest at the studio is that iRest uses 10 simple steps or protocols that provide people with the tools to create a resiliency to stress and insomnia. That in turn decreases susceptibility to sleep disturbances, physical injury, depression, anxiety and PTSD. Ultimately iRest supports health and well-being in all aspects of one’s life: physical, mental and spiritual.
The practice of iRest is designed to provide you with tools for putting joy into your life. iRest can help people with sleep disorders and all other states of body and mind that you will encounter during the course of your lifetime.