Yogic sleep helps first responders and front line workers manage PTSD


A St. Albert woman is helping local first responders and front-line workers cope with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder through the use of meditation.

Val Whitehead specializes in classical hatha, breathing-based, yoga and iRest yoga Nidra meditation, a mindfulness practice that involves deep relaxation and meditative inquiry.

Over the years she has worked with many first responders and front-line workers, such as teachers and social workers, dealing with issues of insomnia, anxiety, chronic pain and PTSD.

Yoga nidra, or yogic sleep, is a state of consciousness between waking and sleeping, where the body is completely relaxed and the mind and the senses are turned inwardly. IRest is a modern practice of yoga nidra developed in the past three decades.

The guided meditation is led in a group setting, on reclining chairs or mats. Participants wrap themselves in warm blankets and are invited to explore unresolved issues stored in the body and the mind.

“As long as they’re in a safe place you have permission to explore what needs to be heard in the subconscious, the traumas, the disappointments, the times where we felt inadequate or were laughed at, or bullied,” said Whitehead. “But then what yoga Nidra does is it shifts over and you feel what else is possible? That’s where the power is in the meditation.”

Haavaldsen was referred to iRest yoga Nidra through Workers’ Compensation Board, after being diagnosed with PTSD in 2013.

A child and youth care counsellor, Haavaldsen worked primarily with high-risk youth between the ages of 11 and 17 living in a residential care facility. At the time of his injury he was working on a mental health unit with a very aggressive patient, who would attack him multiple times a shift.

“We would be assaulted physically, verbally and he would even attack us with his bodily fluids – feces, urine, blood. This was my reality for about a year and a half. Every day multiple assaults,” said Haavaldsen.

The symptoms took years to manifest, but he eventually stopped participating in personal activities, became jaded and less empathetic towards the kids he worked with, and developed trouble sleeping.

“I would have frequent nightmares and often wake up in a full panic attack,” said Haavaldsen. “I would be unable to fall asleep as my mind would fix some of the bad memories and it was very hard to switch off.”

He was given sleep medication, but even at high doses it didn’t seem to help.

The iRest yoga Nidra sessions gave him tools to not only sleep through the night, but to better manage stressful situations.

“I don’t know if I can credit my recovery solely on iRest but I can with confidence say that it was a major part of it. I mostly sleep like a stone, my anxiety is temporary and lacks the debilitating (effect) and duration it once had, and most of all I am able to leave work at work now – for the most part anyways,” said Haavaldsen.

In addition to working with first responders and front line workers, Whitehead also offers open community classes once a month at the St. Albert Community Village and Food Bank.

Shelley Doucette has attended the class five or six times so far. She was involved in a car accident almost two years ago and has seen a lot of health-care professionals since – doctors, chiropractors, counsellors, dentists, the concussion centre. While they helped deal with the immediate physical pain, she was hoping alternative practices such as iRest yoga Nidra would help her better understand the lingering psychological trauma.

“What keeps me coming back is the idea of the deep relaxation and being able to inquire into things and why I react this way to something,” she said.

The next open iRest yoga Nidra class is Sunday Jan. 10 at the St. Albert Community Village and Food Bank, from 1:30-3 p.m.


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Michelle Ferguson