January/February 2016 Issue
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Using Yoga to Cure Insomnia
This article was written by Thomas Polkinghorne
posted under Yoga
You are in bed, trying to get some sleep before you leave for work tomorrow morning. You know that if you do not get any sleep tonight, then tomorrow you will come into work drowsy and unfocused. Glancing over at the clock, you notice that it is 4am, and you are still awake. You need to get at least a couple of hours sleep now, yet the more that you think about sleep, the harder it is to switch off. The idea of going to work tomorrow deprived of sleep stresses you out even more. This becomes unavoidable, because you simply cannot sleep.
The above situation is probably as familiar to you as it is to me. Going to work after a sleepless night made it harder for me to maintain focus on my work, and a reasonable manner towards my co-workers. The idea of arriving at the office the next day resembling an extra from Night of the Living Dead was enough to keep me awake throughout the night. Such thoughts would turn anxiety into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
At first I thought that it was simply parts of my diet preventing sleep, as I had a taste for coffee and any other drink loaded with caffeine. I did not realize that the same substance keeping me focused throughout the day prevented me from switching off at night. Alcohol was another bad habit. I am not a binge drinker, but all it would take is a couple glasses of wine in the evening and I would be unable to sleep.
I corrected the above habits by simply cutting down on both caffeine and alcohol. I only drank one cup of black coffee in the mornings with breakfast, and replaced it with tea during the day. I would cut out caffeine in the evening altogether. I would also make sure that alcohol was also cut out during the evening if I wanted to get up early the next day.
Yet the problem remained. Even without the alcohol in my bloodstream, or my heart pounding from the excess caffeine in my system, I still had trouble sleeping. My mind would not allow me to relax.
I found the solution to my problem when I picked up a copy of Dr. Jonn Mumford’s book, A Chakra and Kundalini Workbook. Admittedly I did not buy it with the intention of finding a cure for my sleeping problems, I bought it because of my interest in yoga and Tantra. Mumford had been recommended to me as an authority on both subjects. The book is full of yogic relaxation techniques that I found useful as daily practices. It was in practicing these techniques that I discovered ways in which I could properly relax before turning in. One technique in particular, known as “shavasana,” served me well in this respect.
Shavasana means “corpse pose”—a reference to the deep state of relaxation that it elicits. This is most probably a reference to the way in which it has the Yogi lying supine on his or her back, like a corpse on a morgue trolley. As a pose it does not demand you to be a contortionist. It is a relaxation technique, in which the practitioner is more conscious of their body after having concentrated on certain vital zones. Like many of the poses in Hatha Yoga, it involves holding yourself still in that position and blocking out all thoughts, making it ideal as a cure for sleeping difficulties.
Shavasana can be performed on the floor as a meditation, but if your goal is to fall asleep, perform it in bed. Many authors who write about meditation advise you not to meditate while lying on a bed, as it can induce sleep, thus breaking your meditation. Since falling asleep is the goal of this exercise, we can safely ignore that rule.
Shavasana can be performed as follows:
- Lie on your back in a supine position with your arms at your sides and your palms facing upwards. Make sure that your legs are slightly parted. Close your eyes.
- Focus on your right arm. Visualize it in your mind's eye as best as you can and simultaneously feel the sensations that go through your skin, muscles, and bone in that arm. Feel the blood flowing through your veins. You do not have to spend too long doing this.
- Inhale and clench your right hand into a fist, lifting your arm slightly from the floor or bed. Hold it, and then drop it on exhaling. Relax your arm completely and let it lie, as though it were dead.
- Go through the same routine for your left arm, your right leg, your left leg, and then your torso from the base of your spine to the top of your skull. Tense, and then relax every part of your body in this order. When it is done, your whole body should feel completely relaxed. Take notice of the bed or floor below you, and how it makes contact with your body. Imagine yourself melting completely into the floor. Let the weight of your body surrender to gravity completely. Empty your mind of any distracting thought.
The above technique is the simple version of the one given in Mumford’s book. There is a more advanced version of this given in his book that you can progress onto, once you have mastered this elementary version. It involves concentrating on sixteen points of the body based on the joints, known as the Marmasthanani zones. For the purpose of sending you to sleep, the elementary version above should suffice.
Eventually, one of two things will happen. Either you will fall asleep, or you will enter a state known as Yoga Nidra. Yoga Nidra means “Yogic Sleep.” This form of sleep is more like a trance. It is a state between wakefulness and being asleep, known as the hypnogogic state. During shavasana it can last for around twenty minutes, and like any other form of trance, you do not know that you have had it until you wake up from it. After a while of practicing this technique, I would sometimes find myself glancing at the clock when my concentration had been broken, to find that half an hour or longer had elapsed without me even knowing! This was not a bad thing, as sleep came almost instantly afterwards. Those who practice this on a hard floor, simply for relaxation find that after waking from Yoga Nidra, find that they feel more refreshed than they would have done after an ordinary night’s sleep.
Although shavasana is an effective technique for getting over a sleep disorder, it may or may not work immediately. If it does not help you get to sleep on the first try, keep on practicing for a few weeks. You may find that eventually your body, and simultaneously your mind since the two are both linked more deeply than you may realize, will get the message and slide into sleep more easily.
Mumford lists the advantages of shavasana. These include relaxation of the muscles, nervous system and the complete relaxation of the mind. It can also lower blood pressure. Like many Yogic exercises, it is an excellent means of ridding yourself of stress.
There are other yogic positions that have been known to aid people in overcoming sleep disorders, and you can practice them before turning in as a supplement to this exercise if you wish. These include the Plow Pose, the Seated-Forward Stretch, and the Downward-Facing Dog. Since Hatha Yoga is beyond the scope of this article, I will leave you to research it on your own.
Practicing Yoga in general can be a good way of helping you to overcome insomnia. Yoga exercises can help you beat stress, which is a common factor in sleep disorders. If you like you can start a routine at night before you turn in, which is the best time to do it if sleeping is difficult for you. You can find a decent book on Yoga from which you can read and learn to construct your own routine, or you can take classes, as best suits your lifestyle.
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