CONVERSATIONS AT THE SANCTUARY: Losing Sleep Over Insomnia
Yin yoga and the healing powers of sound may just be the very balm for a good night’s rest
For yoga teacher Catherine Tan, the financial crisis of 2008 left her with, quite literally, agonising stretches of sleepless nights. “There would be three or four days at a go where I just couldn’t sleep as I would be watching the US markets and would stay up, worrying about things,” says Catherine, who was then working in the finance industry.
“You don’t understand what it’s like to sleep well until you don’t sleep well. It’s very isolating. When you are unable to sleep at night, no one can help you. You are alone,” shares Catherine.
But in a broader sense, Catherine is not alone. According to a study published in the Singapore Medical Journal, insomnia is a common sleep disorder in Singapore with a local reported rate of 15.3%.
While some may commonly frame the condition as an inability to initiate sleep, the clinical definition goes beyond just that. Insomniacs might also wake up frequently during the night and face difficulty in going back to sleep. Others may sleep through the night but wake up feeling unrefreshed or unrested.
Without obtaining true sleep, insomniacs suffer from fatigue, concentration impairment, become irritable, or even sustain tension headaches or gastrointestinal symptoms.
While worries concerning work or relationships are common stressors that keep people up at night, the problem with insomnia is that sometimes, insomnia in itself becomes the very source of stress; the more you try to will yourself to sleep, the more you find it slipping away from you.
Over the years, Catherine has explored different ways of coping with insomnia and has found success in doing so not by turning to prescriptive drugs, but by working through more holistic practices the likes of Traditional Chinese Medicine (which she is studying now) and Yin Yoga. Below, she elaborates on natural cures for insomnia, the restorative role of yin yoga, and the healing powers of sound.
According to Traditional Chinese Medicine principles, which conditions give rise to insomnia?
If you have a fever and you see a Western doctor, they are likely to prescribe paracetamol. But Chinese medicine is not so much about giving you a medicine to treat the disease, but rather figure out what is off balance and seek to bring everything back into balance.
Balance lies at the heart of Chinese medicine and insomnia is an indication that something is off balance. One of the aspects that might affect sleep, for example, is diet. If your digestion and stomach are not well, you are not likely to sleep well either.
TCM believes that the body is governed by a meridian clock. At different times of the day, energy rushes to different meridians, thereby activating different bodily functions. At around the time of sleep, the liver and gall bladder are thought to be most active. So if you have a late supper, all your energy goes to digestion instead of circulation, so you might wake up feeling like you didn’t sleep well.
How does Yin Yoga help to ease insomnia?
In Yin Yoga, you don’t do a lot of poses. In a 60 minute class, you might do anything between three to five poses because you stay in each pose for an extended period of time. When you do yin yoga, you want to do it in a relaxed manner because you are targeting tissues which will benefit when you practise with your muscles relaxed.
There’s also quite a lot of emphasis on breath during a yin yoga class. People might not realise that they are not drawing deep breaths or breathing properly until the teacher draws attention to their breathing. This focus on the breath further helps the body to relax.
Additionally, in yin yoga, you are in a position for a long time so you have time to be with yourself. For someone who’s very busy throughout the day, where you have to answer to a lot of people, a lot of emails, or handle multiple tasks, the yin yoga session gives you time to be alone with your thoughts.
As we work through the meridians or energy channels during the class, over time, it helps with the circulation of blood and chi (energy). So, in that sense, a yin class also helps with general health.
As someone who not only teaches yoga but also studies Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), are you referencing the concept of meridians from a purely TCM perspective?
This idea is not unique to TCM in the sense that Ayurvedic medicine also has a very similar system. They might not have exactly the same maps and have slightly different schools of thought when it comes to the elements, but the general systems are very similar. Both systems talk about a map of energy pathways throughout the body and good health is generally associated with a good flow of energy and blood through the channels. For example, if your body was a city, your meridians would be the highways of energy flow. The city will run well if the traffic is running well. If there are traffic jams all over, the city will not run well.
Is there an ideal time of the day to practise Yin Yoga?
I wouldn’t say there is an ideal time, but people might have a preferred time. For me, I like to practice yin in the evening. That’s how I like to wind down the day. There are those who like to practise during lunchtime, as it’s not a physically demanding class and you don’t sweat, so they don’t have to shower before going back to work. For others, they just need some time during the day to reconnect with themselves before. There are also those who like to start their morning quietly and therefore begin with yin yoga to gather themselves as it’s a very meditative practice.
What are the benefits of combining a Yin Yoga practice with singing bowls?
Sound is very powerful. Even in Chinese medicine, sound is considered to be a healing method. It is believed that certain frequencies correspond to different organ systems and help to promote healing.
Sound invokes a certain frequency that helps you to relax. I find that sound in itself is something that helps people to settle down. And for those with busy minds, sound helps them by giving their mind something to focus on.
I believe that sound has an impact on the body and that’s what I can physically feel. I like it when I feel the frequency vibrating in my heart. These days I like to listen to guqin (an ancient classical Chinese string instrument) music. There’s a certain frequency to it that I find very calming.
I also play the guzheng (an ancient Chinese zither). When I play the guzheng, it feels almost like a yoga class to me. It is all about the flow of energy when you play and allow yourself to settle down.
Catherine started her yoga teaching journey in 2009. Her belief in lifelong learning and keen interest in anatomy, fascia, traditional Chinese medicine, qigong healing, and yoga philosophy has motivated her to pursue such knowledge rigorously through self-study and workshops with such teachers as Jo Phee, Martin Kirk, Michael Watson, Sarah Powers, Tiffany Cruikshank, Thomas Myers and Victor Chng. She is currently pursuing her studies at the Singapore College of Traditional Chinese Medicine.
Join Catherine as she shares her personal experiences and discusses insomnia from a Chinese Medicine perspective at the Yin Yoga and Sound Healing Workshop on Saturday, 3 October 2020, from 2pm to 5pm. She will also lead participants in a Yin Yoga practice backdropped with the healing sounds of singing bowls and a gong bath played by guest teacher Marilyn. Reserve your mats here.