Yoga for Insomnia
For many people, insomnia disturbs their daily life by diminishing the restorative benefits of a good nights sleep. Some health care practitioners resist thinking of insomnia as a sleep problem and characterize it as a syndrome of inappropriate arousal. The breathing, stretching, and meditation performed during Yoga can induce deep relaxation, which effectively sets the stage for sleep. Yoga can also reduce stress hormones, which are often elevated in people with insomnia. Yogic breathing practices bring more oxygen to the body, helping to clear the mind. Stress, tension, and fatigue are relieved, promoting restful sleep.
Yoga Techniques for Insomnia
Yoga practitioners use a variety of techniques that address posture, exercise, breathing, and meditation. For the best results, instructors recommend that participants engage in energetic forms of yoga or other types of exercise during the day. Evening hours are the time to engage in gentle forms of yoga. This section includes a brief overview of some of the most popular yoga poses for treating insomnia.
Participants in a Harvard study on the benefits of yoga for insomnia used Kundalini Yoga, which focuses on meditation, breathing, and posture. Yoga practitioners see it as a method for releasing creative power in a way that enhances elevated consciousness or healing. Kundalini Yoga also yields quick results. Within the discipline of Kundalini Yoga, meditation offers a chance for practitioners to connect with their breath. Meditating before bed clears away worry and helps the person prepare for deep sleep. If the mind wanders, the practitioner is taught to return his or her attention to the flow of the breath.
Shabad Kriya, a form of Kundalini Yoga, offers further practice in setting the overall stage for restful sleep. These techniques include slowing down as bedtime approaches, letting go of unresolved problems, and thinking of at least five things for which you are grateful. In Shabad Kriya, practitioners stop eating at least two and a half hours before bedtime. There is also a technique for breathing through the left nostril to slow down, while using a mantra to calm the mind.
Most yoga classes end with Shavasana, the corpse pose, and this can also be an effective bedtime relaxation technique. It can be practiced in bed, with the participant lying still, on the back, and systematically focusing on each part of the body and softening it. The effects include relaxation of the muscles, the nervous system, and the mind. Shavasana can also lower blood pressure and help to rid the body of stress.
Practicing the corpse pose may bring the practitioner to Yoga Nidra, or yogic sleep, which is a tracelike state that precedes actual sleep. Some practitioners transition directly from Shavasana to restful sleep. Teachers of Shavasana caution that it can take several weeks of practice before it works.
Other yoga positions that have helped people overcome insomnia include Halasana, the plow pose, which emphasizes muscle relaxation and breathing.
The Sukhasana variation of the seated-forward bend is performed in a cross-legged position. It is thought of as an easy pose that helps the body stay limber; it also promotes relaxed breathing and sleep.
Adho Mukha Svanasana, or downward-facing dog, is another pose that promotes flexibility and relaxed breathing, helping with insomnia. It is one portion of the popular sun salutation. Typically, practitioners who have completed downward-facing dog go into the child’s pose to give the muscles an opposite stretch.
Another pose that helps with insomnia is Sarvangasana, the shoulder stand. Inexperienced practitioners may think of this as a strenuous pose, but it can be modified and done with the legs propped against a wall. This pose helps to focus the breath and to draw tension out of the shoulders and back.
Is There Any Research Linking Yoga and Insomnia?
Harvard Medical School organized an eight-week study, in which participants with at least a six-month history of insomnia followed a 30- or 45-minute yoga routine. At the end of the study, participants fell asleep 30 percent faster. Wakening during the night was reduced by 35 percent. This study was relatively small, and it did not incorporate a control group for comparison, so interpretation of the data is limited. Researchers see it as a preliminary result that will require more extensive studies to validate the findings.
What is Insomnia?
The typical adult needs about eight hours of sleep each day, yet only 35 percent of American adults achieve this amount of sleep.
Insomnia shows itself when a person:
- Consistently has difficulty falling asleep
- Is unable to sleep despite feeling tired
- Repeatedly wakes up during the night
- Wakens early
- Does not feel refreshed after sleep
- Experiences fatigue, difficulty concentrating, or impaired ability in performing daily tasks
There is no known cause for about half of insomnia cases. Risk factors include anxiety, stress, and excess caffeine or alcohol. Sometimes an underlying medical or psychological condition such as chronic pain, menopause, or depression can cause insomnia.
Selecting a Yoga Teacher
Yoga studios have now opened all over the United States, offering a variety of yoga classes in different styles. In addition, many gyms and other health centers have begun to offer yoga classes. When selecting a yoga teacher or class for dealing with insomnia, it is advisable to select classes focused on forms of gentle and restorative yoga, as these will aid in help your learn techniques to relax. If you wish to perform a more vigorous form of yoga, try to schedule these classes earlier in the day.
A variety of professional organizations, such as the Yoga Alliance, seek to certify yoga teachers to establish basic standards of teaching quality. Always seek a certified yoga teacher, especially when using yoga to assist a health condition or injury.
Khalsa, SBS. Treatment of Chronic Insomnia with Yoga: A Preliminary Study with Sleep-Wake Diaries. Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback. December 2004 29(4): 269–278.
Polkinghome, T. “Yoga and Insomnia”. August 22, 2005.
Singh, S. “Meditation” from Kundalini Yoga.