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June 15, 2013

I was badly afflicted with insomnia last winter in Perth, Australia. While many people hibernate through winter, I was kept up by the coldness and stress in general. It was overwhelming me — exams, rental, a triathlon and a crazy boss. My cognitive demands were almost ceaseless.

When a new Bikram yoga studio sprung up in my suburb, I was happy. Instead of going out and running in the cold, I could keep up with my exercise indoors instead. I paid up for a trial.

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I went into the searing hot room and did my first class. I was in “child’s pose” for most of it, because I was spinning from the heat!

That night, I slept like a baby.

Was it the heat? Maybe. Was it the yoga? Definitely.

Yoga reduces arousal in general. Bonnet and Arand (1995) suggested that insomnia is caused by inappropriate arousal, and isn’t a sleep disorder. Most insomniacs will attest to this — they can’t sleep because something is going on in their minds. They can’t relax enough to fall asleep.

According to Karen Then, Studio Director of Bikram Yoga Victoria Park, improved breathing patterns from yoga relieves stress. She also shared that mental and emotional aspects ease factors that contribute to insomnia. This allows the sleepless to return to normal sleeping patterns.

Bir S. Khalsa (2004) recruited chronic insomniacs who had to practice Kundalini yoga for an hour daily over eight weeks in the evening prior to bedtime. Participants were taught to use long and slow abdominal breathing, focusing on breathing or a mantra. They were to return their attention to the breath whenever the mind wandered.

For 11 minutes, the participants meditated on their breathing using the ratio of inhale to hold to exhale of 4 seconds to 16 seconds to 2 seconds. They remained seated, while maintaining an erect and relaxed spine. Here's an example of the sort of exercise you can do to relieve your insomnia and help you achieve sleep:

  • 1 to 3 minutes: Long and slow abdominal breathing
  • 3to 5 minutes: Arms extended vertically at 60-degree angle, with upward-facing flat palms
  • 5 to 7 minutes: Arms extended horizontally with straight wrists and flat palms
  • 7 to 9 minutes: Palms pushed together by arms
  • 9 to 11 minutes: The palms are now rested in the lap, facing upwards. The right palm is resting over the left with thumbs touching.

The breathing exercise improved total sleep time, sleep quality and sleep efficiency. The time spent awake decreased as well.

Karen recommends the following postures for insomniacs to help with their rest as well:

  • Standing Separate Leg Head to Knee Pose
  • Wind Removing Pose
  • Half Tortoise
  • Half Spinal Twist
  • Savasana
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Sleep tight!

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Melissa Mak
Melissa Mak

Born and bred in Singapore, Melissa Mak’s yoga journey started in 2007, when her good friend dragged her to her first yoga class. Currently, Melissa coaches at Ngee Ann Polytechnic, Singapore as an Associate Sports Lecturer (Yoga). She also gives private yoga lessons to corporates and individuals looking to gain health and balance in their lives.
Melissa is a co-founder of The Scientific Yogi, an unofficial group of yogis who believe in the use of evidence-based science to demystify yoga’s benefits. The Group publishes their e-newsletters and contributes to Mukta.Asia. She holds 2 Science degrees in Statistics and Psychology from the National University of Singapore and University of Western Australia.