Teaching Students with Insomnia

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Laura Burkhart lost more than a few nights of sleep during the decade she suffered from chronic insomnia—she lost herself.

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"I would wake up in the middle of the night and just cry because I was so exhausted," says Burkhart. "I was short with people, and I didn't feel like me because I could never give anyone 100 percent."

Not getting enough sleep affected her relationships, her schoolwork, and her health. She became dependent on caffeine and sugar just to make it through the day.

Over-the-counter and prescription pharmaceutical drugs helped her sleep at night, but only for a few hours—and only one night at a time. The next night, she'd experience the same problems all over again.

It wasn't until she had been practicing yoga for about six months that Burkhart noticed a difference in her sleeping patterns. That was the same time she realized she didn't like the groggy feeling she experienced when she woke up after taking sleeping pills.

Although she still struggles with insomnia from time to time, Burkhart, 28, says maintaining a consistent yoga practice has given her the tools to safely combat it and get the sleep she needs.

A Common Struggle

Better sleep has been touted for years as one of the benefits of yoga, but now scientific evidence is beginning to build to support the claims. In 2004, Sat Bir S. Khalsa, a researcher at Brigham and Women's Hospital at Harvard Medical School, concluded a study of subjects with insomnia who were given breathing, meditation, and asana exercises to do over the course of eight weeks. The results showed improvements in both sleep time and quality among the participants.

Information like this could bring relief to the masses, because it gives yoga more credibility among mainstream medical practitioners. According to the National Institutes of Health, more than 70 million Americans suffer from insomnia, a sleep disorder in which people either find it difficult to fall asleep, or fall asleep but then wake up in the middle of the night.

It's not surprising, then, that the New York Times reported that 42 million prescriptions for sleeping pills were filled in the last year, and that the number of accredited sleep clinics in the United States has tripled in the last decade.

As insomnia and other sleep disorders are getting more and more media attention, it's more important than ever for yoga teachers to be aware of the epidemic and understand how yoga might help—or hinder—students from getting a good night's sleep.

Ann Dyer, a California-based, Iyengar-trained teacher, recently developed a routine to help assuage insomnia symptoms, even for those who have never tried yoga before. Dyer is featured in the ZYoga: The Yoga Sleep Ritual DVD.

According to Dyer, insomnia affects so many people that the chances are good that you have students suffering from it who haven't ever thought to mention it to you. "People get so used to not sleeping that it almost seems normal," Dyer says. "They don't think to mention it like they would mention a pulled hamstring."

How Yoga Can Help

Dyer's DVD recommends that sleep-deprived students try supported forward folds and gentle inversions, postures that yogic knowledge suggests cool the nervous system.

However, medical doctor and yoga teacher Baxter Bell, who practices and teaches in Northern California, warns that intense forward bends may prove to be more stimulating than soothing for beginning students with tight hamstrings. For beginners, Bell recommends a gentle inversion such as Viparita Karani (Legs-Up-the-Wall Pose).

According to Bell, inversions help people switch from the sympathetic nervous system (which includes the fight-or-flight responses) to the parasympathetic nervous system (which handles relaxation) by sending the body a signal that the blood pressure has gone up. In response, the blood vessels constrict and the heartbeat and breathing begin to slow, which causes the mind to relax.

Advanced students get the same effect from Salamba Sarvangasana (Supported Shoulderstand), but only if they've been practicing it and can get in and out of it with ease, Bell says.

Finding Balance

Of course, it's hard to help students relax and calm down when they don't come to your class. One of the biggest challenges Dyer says she faces in teaching yoga relaxation techniques is that often the students who need to relax the most see a gentle yoga class as a waste of time.

"We're often attracted to what exacerbates our condition—for example, a diabetic craves sugar," Dyer says. Students who are drawn to a high-energy flow practice often have a hard time relaxing and getting to sleep at night.

But that doesn't mean those students should be encouraged to give up their strenuous practice entirely. In fact, many people need to work up a little tension in order to relax. It's more important to leave enough time at the end of a vigorous class to guide students into slowing down again gradually—especially at night.

For example, after a strong backbending class, it's best to gradually bring students toward Savasana (Corpse Pose) by introducing poses that become successively more calming. The worst thing you can do for someone with insomnia is guide her through an invigorating practice without giving her ample time to come back to her center energetically, Dyer says.

For mild, or sporadic, cases of insomnia, you might suggest that your student try Viparita Karani (Legs-Up-the-Wall Pose), Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend), Adho Mukha Svasana (Downward-Facing Dog) with forehead on a block, Janu Sirsasana (Head-to-Knee Forward Bend), Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend), or Supta Baddha Konasana (Reclining Bound Angle Pose) before bed. If your student has a severe, chronic case, it may better serve her to schedule a private session so that you can help determine what poses would be most calming.

Whether you teach gentle, restorative classes or a more rigorous style, the key is to remember—and to remind your students—that yoga is about balance. And students who find balance during the day are more likely to find peace during the night. Remind your students that often the most effective remedy for any sleep imbalance is a consistent home practice.

"Whenever I practice yoga—especially when it's consistent—I'm less likely to take the prescription," Burkhart says. "I'm just in a more relaxed state of mind."

Erica Rodefer is Yoga Journal's Web Editorial Assistant. For more information on Ann Dyer and ZYoga: The Yoga Sleep Ritual, visit www.anndyeryoga.com.