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Alternatives || Guest Post: Using yoga to achieve relaxation, sleep and stress management [David Schaar]

Sleep technologist and respiratory
therapist David Schaar in a headstand

SleepyHeadCENTRAL.com recently chatted with sleep technologist and yoga studio owner David Schaar (RPSGT, RST) about the value of practicing yoga to improve both breathing and relaxation for better sleep.

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SHC: There are so many types of yoga to practice as well as a wide range of sleep disorders. Which styles of yoga are generally better suited for helping people with sleep disorders, and why?

DS: I think of them as “systems” of yoga. There is yoga for athletes, geriatrics, kids, autism, dancers, runners, etc etc etc. To me personally, yoga is yoga. Of course, a good yoga instructor will modify the practice based on a particular group of participants.

The word yoga means to “yoke.” Yoking the breath, body and mind is yoga. Yoga without the breath is simply calisthenics.

The breath is three parts: nose breathing only (if available); complete inhale, filling the lungs to maximum; and complete exhale to the bottom of the lungs, then smoothing it out.

In yoga, you use the Ujjayi breath, sometimes called the ocean breath. You simply press the tip of your tongue to the roof of your mouth behind your teeth and drag the breath through the nose, and then drag it back out (as if you were to fog a mirror only through your nostrils). This is a longer breath than normal, deeper than normal, and takes focus and concentration, which is abnormal. If you are focused on just the breath you cannot think of anything else. In yoga, we call that “meditation in motion.”

I think a yoga class that challenges you physically (body) while focusing on the breath (mind) is the best yoga. You choose your level within any class. In other words, as you move through the flows and poses, you skip, take breaks, pace yourself and BREATHE. Think of it like a buffet, only a yoga buffet. If you go to your local buffet style restaurant, eat everything on the line twice and later get sick, you can’t blame the chef. The same is true with beginning yoga or any yoga.

SHC: Do you think the positions (asanas) in yoga are at the core of its effectiveness as a therapeutic practice for sleep health, or is it the breathing (pranayama) in yoga that is more beneficial? Or is there something else at work besides these which makes the practice itself beneficial?

DS: For me it is all about the breath. The physical movements can be considered a byproduct of the yoga.

Of course, we want to be fit and strong. Yoga offers us strength, balance, flexibility, stamina and, most importantly, equanimity. What makes yoga the most beneficial is learning to relieve stress. Or, better yet, not producing stress.

The number one killer of women is heart disease. Most studies on heart disease conclude that stress is a factor; some studies conclude stress is the number one factor in heart disease as well as other diseases. Where is stress stored? In the mind.

In yoga, you practice calming the mind (breath) while in a stressful and/or difficult situation (yoga poses/yoga flows). As you progress in your practice and begin to be comfortable with the new breath (Ujjayi), you will learn to calm yourself as you hold any given pose that might, at first, challenge you.

Eventually the point is to take that practice off the mat and into your world for increased calmness and happiness and stronger health.

I’ll give you a personal example. In my town, we have new roundabout traffic circles. When you are in the circle, you have the right of way and everyone else has to yield. When I slowly move into the circle and then the person in front of me stops suddenly and motions to the car yielding to “go ahead,” my blood pressure goes up. I can choose to yell at the person–“Keep going, you’re not supposed to stop!”–or I can choose to take a breath, be patient and move along calmly.

Which way is better for my stress level, for my health, for my happiness?

Another example of how yoga can help you in your everyday life: When your boss comes down the hallway with smoke coming out of his/her ears, red faced and pissed off at something, instead of getting hyped up/stressed, you can learn to breathe and calm yourself. When the boss approaches, your cool head will think more clearly and be better able to work through any stressful situation he brings with him.

SHC: Describe a yoga practice that might be most beneficial for people with sleep disorders.

DS: I believe a well-rounded, solid yoga practice 4-6 times a week is most beneficial.

If someone with a sleep disorder doesn’t have a yoga practice or doesn’t want a yoga practice, a good yoga discipline would be meditation.

This is simply sitting either in a chair or on the floor, cross legged, hands on your thighs, palms up or down, crown of the head reaching for the ceiling as you sit up straight, with eyes closed while using the Ujjayi breath (ocean breath). Deep, slow breathing. Focus just on the breath, follow it from your nares (nostrils) deep into your lungs and back out again.

Try this: Take 10 of the deepest breaths you have ever taken; during the last five breaths, list five things you are grateful for today. A daily meditation of gratitude can change a life. Each day, add five breaths and attempt for 10-30 minutes of quiet time, just you and the breath.

Did you know 90 percent of the people you encounter every day use 10 percent of their lung capacity 90 percent of the day? Including you. We need to change that.

SHC: Are there any links to clinical evidence or recent studies on the efficacy of yoga as a sleep health aid that you’d like to share?

DS: I don’t like the hundreds of articles on “the top 10 poses for insomnia” because who knows which poses are best for whom, and at what level?

A new study indicates that yoga can help improve sleep among people suffering from chronic insomnia. Researchers at Harvard Medical School investigated how a daily yoga practice might affect sleep for people with insomnia and found broad improvements to measurements of sleep quality and quantity. In my opinion it is all about that breath linked to the movement.

SHC: How frequently must a person practice yoga to see its benefits?

DS: Practice once a week to feel good, three times a week for improved fitness, four or more times a week and change your life.

SHC: What advice would you give to someone who is looking into yoga as a practice for the first time? Should they use DVDs, are there good books, or are classes the best option? Tips for finding the class/instructor that best represents how yoga can help with sleep health?

DS: My belief is a yoga studio is best. Being in a room of like-minded people with energy helps keep the practice fun, different and active. But that can be tricky in today’s yoga world.

If you live in an area with multiple yoga studios, I would look for the introductory offer and take advantage of that in different studios until you find the one that resonates with you. In my opinion, a studio that offers vinyasa flow, power yoga and/or hot yoga (yes, hot) is where to begin.

If you don’t have yoga in your area, there are many people online that offer classes on a monthly subscription. Most of these are around $15 a month and a great bargain if you use them. These are live recorded classes, so it is as if you are in the class, sort of.  If you don’t like it after a month you can stop. I like PowerYoga.com with Bryan Kest.

If you aren’t challenged on the mat, you won’t be able to practice equanimity, which is calming the mind while in a difficult position or circumstance. Learning to be calm, patient and less reactive will increase your health and happiness as well as make you fit along the way. Many diseases begin in the mind. By relieving stress and tension, we become healthier people. With yoga, becoming stronger, more balanced, flexible and having more stamina are the byproducts.

SHC: What else would you like to share about practicing yoga as a therapy for treating sleep health disorders?

DS: Learning to live in the present, in the moment, instead of reliving yesterday or living in the future, worrying about tomorrow, will benefit everyone. There is so much to learn in a mindful, consistent yoga practice, it is hard to touch on all of it.

Let’s talk about the number one sleep disorder affecting 40 million people in the U.S. alone–insomnia. Physical exercise of any kind will help release endorphins and help to reduce stress. Yoga is one of these physical exercises with the added benefit of learning to slow the mind and release the mind chatter. Practicing this daily can help many people get a handle on insomnia. I’m one of them.

See you on the mat. I’ll end with this famous quote: “The job of a yoga instructor is to bring people to a deep point of relaxation. This is what people want and this is what people need.” ~ Linda Schaar, RRT, RPsGT, RST and my yogi

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David Schaar, RPSGT, RST, practices yoga and leads classes with his wife at their studio, Vibrant Life Yoga. His sleep website is SleepRiteOnline.

A friendly reminder that links to websites offering products does not imply endorsement by SleepyHeadCENTRAL.com.

SleepyHeadCENTRAL strongly encourages people with ongoing sleep health problems to approach a medical professional to determine appropriate differential diagnoses and treatment. This post, like all other posts on SHC, is not intended to substitute for medical advice.  

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