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Yoga for Insomnia

If you struggle with insomnia, yoga and related modalities can help you sleep better. This article is a simplified understanding of how yoga asana, pranayama, breathing techniques and simple meditation can help to overcome insomnia.

Despite its prevalence, Insomnia remains significantly under diagnosed and overlooked, according to recent research, only 1 percent of the people surveyed had a clinical diagnosis of insomnia, whereas about 37 percent of those surveyed showed symptoms of insomnia.

Insomnia is the most common sleeping disorder. 10% of people suffer from it

Worryingly, insomnia if left untreated just not lead to exhaustion but, insomnia sufferers are also at significantly higher risk of major health issues, ranging from depression and cognitive issues to obesity and cardiovascular disease.

Additionally, compared with those who sleep well, insomniacs are four times as likely to have problems in relationship, three times as likely to experience low mood and attention problems and twice as likely to suffer from low energy.

Medical treatment of insomnia is often associated with hazardous side effects such as states of confusion, tremors, psychomotor performance deficits, anxiety, nocturnal falls, dysphonic mood, impaired intellectual functioning and daytime sleepiness.

Alternative practices can help overcome Insomnia. These approaches are

1. Formal psychotherapy (e.g. CBT)

2. Relaxation techniques (e.g. Yoga and Meditation)

3. Educative methods (e.g. Avoiding Caffeine/ Strenuous Exercise before Bedtime)

Researchers at Harvard Medical School found that yoga practice (yoga asana, breathing techniques, mediation and mantra) for eight weeks significantly helped people with chronic insomnia in improving: sleep efficiency, total sleep time, total wake time and sleep onset latency (amount of time taken to fall asleep).

More recent research published in Frontiers of Psychiatry found some good evidence that yoga can help those who have grappled with insomnia. In elderly people with sleep problems, practicing yoga for six months helped in reduction of sleep disturbances, symptoms of depression and improvement in the perception of their physical and mental health.

In another study published in Menopause, 2012, menopausal women were randomly assigned to three groups- yoga group, passive stretching group and control group. At the end of the four-month study period, the women in the yoga group had significantly improved sleep quality and quantity as compared to women in the control and stretching groups.

What is it about yoga practice that can help cure insomnia?

Unlike the sleep inducing medicines which work on the symptoms of insomnia, yoga works on both the causes as well as the symptoms of insomnia. Here’s how…

1. Yoga helps reducing psychological and cognitive arousal. Hyper arousal is one of the biggest causes of chronic insomnia wherein the mind is busy and aroused right when you try to fall asleep or it wakes up in the middle of the night. (Applied psychophysiology and biofeedback 2004). Yoga makes you sleep better.

2. Yoga changes electrical brain wave activity associated with wakefulness and relaxed attention. A study from The Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) suggests that meditation yields theta brain waves in the frontal and middle parts of the brain.Theta waves originate from the relaxed attention that monitors our inner experiences and indicates deep relaxation. Meditation also yields abundant of alpha waves in the posterior pat of the brain, which is characteristic of gentle wakeful rest.

3. Yoga can reduce alteration in melatonin circadian rhythmicity. Walton et al have reported that yoga increases production of serotonin hormone, which act as a precursor in synthesis of melatonin. Melatonin hormone work as a hypnotic that induces sleep, increases theta brain activity, improves sleep quality; helps to sleep better.

4. Yoga reduces the need for sleeping pills. Yoga and Meditation treats insomnia by eliminating dysfunctional or destructive emotions and behaviors that keep you from falling asleep. In fact a multi centre study published in Journal of Clinical Oncology demonstrated that cancer patients who participated in yoga group reduced the use of sleep medication by up to 21% per week.

5. Yoga elicits the “relaxation response”. Herbert Benson of Harvard University in one of the first study to show the effects of Yoga and Meditation on human body and brain coined the term relaxation response.Relaxation response is induced by reduction in the activity of sympathetic nervous system (system responsible for stress response), by altering activity in certain areas of the brain and by reducing the levels of stress hormones, like cortisol.

It is also associated with increased levels of certain neurotransmitters, like GABA, low levels of which are linked with depression- one of the major causes of chronic insomnia.

6. Yoga practice soothes frazzled nerves, stretches tense, strained bodies and quiets anxious minds. The basic components of yoga asana, pranayama, relaxation and meditation are effective in managing stress. Yoga postures are excellent for dissipating stress created tension in our muscles. Conscious and focused breathing activates the rest-and-digest system of our body. But meditation works at a deeper level as it gives us the opportunity to explore the inner workings of our minds. Yoga helps to sleep better.

Yoga Asana for Sound Sleep

Certain resting and inversion poses can help relieve stress, ward off aches and pains and combat restlessness and insomnia, especially when practiced in the evening or in bed before hitting the day.

1. Forward bend (Hastapadasana). This yoga asana helps in stretching the back muscles, invigorating the nervous system and making the spine supple by increasing blood supply. According to yoga journal, this posture can be helpful in lowering stress levels along with relieving headaches, insomnia and help to sleep better.

2. Cat stretch (Marjariasana). This posture stretches spine, massages internal digestive organs, improves digestion and cures insomnia.

3. Easy Forward Bend (Variation of Sukhasana). Even beginners can do the easy forward bend pose, and it’s a great posture to try before bedtime. If muscles around your hip joint are tight. Vyda Biekus, a yoga teacher and founder of health yoga life, advises sitting on pillow to make it more relaxing. “This posture eases tension and lets the hips open up, and just creates an overall sense of ease in the body,” suggests Beikus. “This posture is good for sleep”.

4. Child pose (Shishu asana). This quintessential relaxation pose improves blood circulation and relaxes the mind and enables you to sleep at peace. “Take relaxed complete breaths while maintaining the pose,” Bielkus says. “Massage the forehead left to right eases tension at the brow point.”

5. Plow Pose (Halasana). According to Yoga Journal you should stay in this posture for one to five minutes for getting a peaceful slumber. Lift your legs over your head and then try to touch the ground behind you, with your hands either supporting your back or on the floor. By turning the flow of blood around, you bring new vitality into the body.

6. Butterfly pose (Baddhakona asana). This posture removes fatigue from long hours of standing or walking and also calms the nervous system so that you can sleep easily.

7. Legs-up-the-wall pose (Viparitakarani asana). This posture is an amazing pose to relive pain and fatigue from the tired legs and feet. It lets the blood that’s pooling in your lower legs flow back to the heart. It also increases blood supply to the rest of the body, including the brain, relieves mild headache, relaxes the mind to help sleep better.

8. Salamba Sirasana (Supported Head stand). This headstand yoga asana brings ample supply of blood to the brain cells and thereby soothe brain cells and sympathetic nervous system. It also improves functions of pituitary and pineal gland (secretes melatonin- the sleep inducing hormone), which can alleviate Insomnia.

9. Ado Mukha Svanasana (downward-facing dog). This posture facilitates better stretch to the limbs and brings fresh blood to the heart, lungs and other part of the body, thus calming and soothing the mind. It tones and relaxes the nervous system and addresses depression and anxiety responsible for causing Insomnia.

10. Salamba Sarvangasana (Shoulder Stand). The inverted pose performed in the asana allows fresh and healthy blood around your neck and chest. This asana improves functions of thyroid and parathyroid glands and relieves breathlessness and palpitations. It alleviates stress, soothes the nerves and relieves insomnia.

11. Setubandha Sarvangasana (Bridge pose). In this posture the body takes the shape of the bridge. The chin lock helps in calming the thoughts ad soothes the mind. It helps to prevent atrial blockages by providing rest to the heart muscles and ensuring increased blood circulation to the arteries. This asana combats depression by soothing the brain and relieves nervous exhaustion and insomnia.

12. Savasana (Corpse pose). When you perform this yoga asana, your organs of perception- the eyes, ears and tongue withdraws from the outside world. The body and mind becomes one and you experience inner peace. This asana helps to alleviate chronic fatigue, nervous tension and insomnia.

Yoga Breathing and Pranayama exercises for better sleep

Pranayama literally means, “to extend the vital life force,” or prana. While the best way to practice pranayama is under the expert guidance, still there are techniques – which if practiced regularly, can be used to transform your breath as well as your state of mind.

1. Alternate Nostril Breathing. During stressful times we tend to breathe mostly from our right nostril that is connected to our left brain. This activates sympathetic part of autonomic nervous system and triggers the stress response- dilated pupils, accelerate heart rate, increased core temperature, rapid and shallow breathing.

If you’re having trouble falling asleep, or if you have disturbed sleeping pattern, try holding your right nostril closed with your finger, and breathe deeply and slowly through your left nostril by making exhalation little longer than the inhalation, for at least 3 minutes. Then you can release your finger and breathe normally.

2. Ujjayi Pranayama. Ujjayi or victorious breath, an integral part of Hatha yoga is an excellent technique for those who have difficulty falling asleep. The good thing about this Pranayama is that you can practice it anytime of the day and in any position.

Ujjayi Pranayama relaxes the body and calms the mind. It promotes a sense of inner joy, peace and confidence. It rebalances the internal body physiology, helps the body regain its homeostasis and promotes longevity.

3. Bhramari Pranayama. It is an excellent breathing technique that not only cures sleeplessness but cures its causes (depression, anxiety, anger, frustration) also. It stimulates endocrine glands (especially thyroid gland), immune system and parasympathetic nervous system.

Bhramari pranayama creates a buzzing sound similar to the sound of the bee. While making the buzzing sound, vibrations are created in the brain, which has soothing effect on the mind and nervous system.

By stimulating parasympathetic nervous system, bhramari pranayama induces muscular, physical, mental and emotional relaxation.

4. Relaxed Diaphragmatic Breathing. The first part of Diaphragmatic breathing is breath awareness. Breath awareness helps you to focus on your pattern of breathing, and enables you to notice when you are intentionally holding your breath or breathing shallowly.

Relaxed Diaphragmatic breathing supports parasympathetic nervous system, quiets and calms the entire nervous system, reduces stress, improves self awareness and helps to bring a state of more focused attention.

5. Sitali Pranayama. Sitali Pranayama or cooling breath is said to have a cooling effect on your mind and body. Sitali Pranayama encourages eliminating heat from the body, improves attention, reduces agitation, anxiety, stress and sleep disturbances.

Meditation for better sleep

One of the most wonderful ways to harmonize our perceptions, thinking, emotions and behaviours is through Meditation. It is helpful to make a balance between the body and the mind.

Meditation offers many health benefits like improving attention, heart health, circulation, mood, self awareness and deep relaxation.

1. Mindfulness Meditation. Mindfulness Meditation practice originates from a Buddhist practice called vipassana, which means, “to see in a special way”. Mindfulness Meditation is a meditation technique that fosters awareness of the present moment. Adopting this level of awareness serves as a mechanism for reducing negative emotions and enhancing resilience.

A study on mindfulness meditation conducted at the Mindful Awareness Research Center at UCLA, states that mindfulness improves regulation of stress and increases a sense of calm that results in a better quality sleep.

A randomized controlled clinical trial conducted by the University of Minnesota Academic Health Center revealed that Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Program have similar effects as that of pharmaceuticals sleep aids.

“This study provides initial evidence of the efficacy of mindfulness training as a treatment for chronic insomnia,” writes Cynthia Gross, Ph.D., College of Pharmacy and School of Nursing.

“Given the absence of side effects and the positive potential benefits of mindfulness that extend beyond sleep, we encourage people with chronic insomnia, particularly those unable or unwilling to use sleep medications, to consider mindfulness training”

2. Sahaj Samadhi Meditation. Sahaj Samadhi Meditation is an effortless form of meditation using fundamental sounds or Mantras. Sahaj Samadhi Meditation is usually done for 20 minutes twice a day i.e. in the morning and evening.

It soothes the nervous system and provides rest and sound sleep. During this period of rest the body and mind heals itself and counter the psychological, biochemical and physiological impact of stress.

3. Yog Nidra. In yog nidra, we undeviatingly take our diligence to different parts of our body while lying down. Yog Nidra can be practiced just before the sleep.

Start practicing yoga asana, breathing and meditation and by making small changes you can discover what techniques might help you. Yoga, if practiced daily, forms the basis of a long-term sustainable lifestyle that helps you to sleep better.

Internal links

[1] Home remedies for insomnia
[2] Insomnia causes and treatment

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