Meditation and Sleep Apnea— Be Really Careful!

30 09 2012

Meditation and Sleep Apnea

The benefits of meditation are part of our core beliefs, but there are some of us who should be very careful of how we meditate, or even if we should. Some of us snore when we sleep. Some of us even stop breathing, not taking a breath for even 20 seconds or more, and often waking ourselves or our partners up with a loud snort as we begin to breathe. This can happen several times in a night.

Sleep Apnea (apnoea) has two causes. The more common is an obstruction of the airways, as when, lying on your back, your relaxed jaw falls open, obstructing your throat. Or, when breathing through your nose, your palate closes and stops the airflow there. The sound of snoring itself is caused by vibration of the relaxed and uncontrolled palate. Obstructive apnea is more common amongst overweight persons, but the thin are not immune. The way to control it is to sleep only on your side.

The other cause is called “central,” in which the cessation of breathing is caused because the brain doesn’t to send the message to breathe. As far as I know, when the oxygen-carbon dioxide balance gets bad enough, the brain eventually restarts the breathing. Talk to your doctor.

I had been meditating for years with no difficulties even though having both obstructive and central sleep apnea, fortunately mild. I had never heard of kundalini in either the Shaivist or Thelemite forms, so when its physical symptoms started while in meditation one day, I was startled and stopped the process. Once started, Kundalini never stops, and sometimes takes years to complete because it seems to involve a complete rebuilding of the autonomic nervous system.

Years later, during a two-day full moon ritual, the process spontaneously completed itself, but without some of the symptoms I had been told to expect, so, with the help of a knowledgeable yoga teacher, I tried to re-create the process. In yoga, Kundalini is initiated by a meditation technique called Yoga Nidra, in which you lie on your back and combine breathing techniques with transferring your attention rapidly to different parts of your body, so you can be simultaneously both asleep and awake, and thus can consciously examine and reprogram your static, sleeping mind. I never did achieve this. But what I was trying to do was to use the Shaivist metaphor of a Serpent, coiled at the base of the spine, working its way up through the chakras to the pituitary area of the brain, thus uniting divergent aspects of the self.

But lying on a gym mat one day, doing Yoga Nidra, I suddenly felt what felt like a thundering freight train running through my chest. Terrifying! I immediately awoke. The sensation went away, but afterwards whenever I tried to sleep, the terrible shaking in my chest immediately wakened me. I could get no more than 10 min. sleep before the it began again. Within a week I was totally exhausted. In my mind I could see an oscilloscope-like image showing my heart’s 60 bpm sinus rhythm with 7 1/2 spikes superimposed on each beat, so the shaking was at about 450 bpm.

My doctor was of no help. He sent me to a specialist who refused to listen to my symptoms, and to another who simply dismissed them. Eventually two doctors diagnosed it as atrial fibrillation, but it was anomalous because the shaking happened only when I was asleep, and by the time I awoke enough to start a recording device the shaking stopped. I could stop the shaking by taking 20 deep breaths, by massaging my carotid artery (not a good idea, because it could dislodge plaque which might cause a stroke) or by taking a deep breath and “bearing down” this latter is a known technique called the Valsalva maneuver.

The symptoms have abated over time, and their severity has lessened to a moderate shaking which no longer upsets me. It happens now about three times a week. My current doctors insist that it’s not atrial fib, but have given me no other diagnosis. Otherwise I’m fine. I meditate now only while sitting up so that my relaxed jaw does not obstruct my airways. And yoga Nidra? Forget it!

So, if you snore, and especially if you stop breathing while you sleep, I suggest that you be most careful in your meditations, and do not attempt yoga Nidra.

Ted MacGillivray