Let Yoga Move You to Sleep.
It’s 1:28 in the morning and you can’t sleep.
You lie awake…and lie awake…and lie awake some more.
You breathe deeply, try to meditate, even imagine counting sheep. Still, you might lie awake for hours. You are sleepy. You’re just not sleeping. And you are not alone. According to a national survey, 54% of adults said they have experienced at least one symptom of insomnia a few times a week.
Five years ago, I was the woman who consistently fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow. Then came business and school work, creating a non-profit, a yoga teacher training program, and the exhilaration of always riding the very edge of what I can actually pull off.
Most of the time, life on the edge is super fun and exciting. But when I forget that the source of my energy is not me, but the creativity of Universal Grace moving through me, imbalance occurs and I find myself lying quietly awake at night.
Fortunately, the situation isn’t hopeless. I do know a few tricks that work pretty consistently at preparing me to catch some actual Z’s. I believe they can help you too.
First off, you have to get up out of bed. It is really tempting to just stay and fight—like a little war on insomnia. No war has ever brought about real lasting peace, and stressing about not sleeping will just fixate your attention on the problem. So get up!
Find a space that is dark and quiet with enough floor space to stretch out. Bring a bunch of pillows with you. Begin with vata (wind energy)- relieving movements, then add hip opening and forward folding yoga asanas (postures), which inspire peaceful relaxation and calm the mind. Move through the whole sequence slowly and mindfully. Take your time and relax in each pose.
1. Start in a seated position, and gently stretch your neck and shoulders. This will help to move excess vata out of these areas of the body. You will feel it as tension release and maybe a little popping and cracking.
2. Move onto your hands and knees for Marjariasana (Cat/Cow Pose). Inhale to fill your lungs and arch your back with your heart reaching forward. Then exhale and round your spine, dropping your head towards the floor. Repeat this action several times, moving with the breath. Move slowly and gently to release excess tension in your hips, shoulders, neck and spine.
3. Lie on your back for Supta Matsyendrasana (Supine Spinal Twist) with your right leg extended, and your left knee bent. Cross your left knee over to twist, keeping your left shoulder grounded on the floor. Hold and breathe deeply, releasing your spine. Then, switch sides, so that your left leg is extended and your right knee crosses over your body for the twist.
5. Then take Sarvangasana (Shoulder Stand). Come into the pose gently, taking your time. Use your hands to support your sacrum if this feels more stable. You may also use a blanket to prop your shoulders, allowing your neck to retain its natural curve. Be sure that your chin is lifted slightly, away from your chest. Stay in this posture for several minutes, until you can breathe freely through both nostrils.
7. Slowly bring your legs back to the floor. Slide your palms under your hips and use your elbows to lift your heart to the sky. Gently allow your head to drop back, resting the crown of your head onto the floor for Matsyasana (Fish Pose).
8. Coming onto all fours, make your way into Vanarasana (Monkey Pose) with your left leg forward, knee at a 90 degree angle, and right leg stretched back behind you. Let your hands touch the floor, framing your left foot. Breathe deeply as you count out eight deep and full breaths. Switch sides: right leg forward, knee directly over your ankle joint. Breathe for eight, slowly and deeply.
9. Step back into Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Facing Dog Pose). Lift your hips high and reach your heart toward your toes. Breathe deeply into your lungs. With each exhale, let your spine release as the top of your head lengthens towards the floor.
10. Exhaling, bring your left knee forward between your hands into Eka Pada Raja Kapotasana (One Legged King of the Pigeons Pose). Draw your left toes back towards your knee to protect it. Rest down onto the floor or a couple of stacked pillows. Allow your forehead to rest onto your forearms and breathe deeply for several breaths. When you are ready to switch sides, gently press back into Adho Mukha Svanasana. Bring your right knee forward between your hands and lower onto the floor. Rest here and breathe.
11. Bring your left knee around to the front of your body, to come to a seated position. With your legs stretched wide into a V-shape, slowly fold forward onto your pillows. Turn your head to the left so that your right cheek rests on the pillows. Prop your cushions high enough that your seat stays grounded on the floor. Rest here, breathing deeply for several breaths.
Turning your head so that your left nostril is open towards the ceiling allows a deeper breath through that channel. Ayurveda (the science of life) teaches that breathing deeply through the left nostril stimulates the left Nadi (pranic energy channel), which governs the cooling functions of your system, like relaxation.
When you are ready to rise up, move very slowly. Roll back to lie on the floor, facing up for Savasana (Corpse Pose). Allow your legs and arms to relax at your sides. With your eyes closed, bring your awareness to your breath.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
If you haven’t already fallen asleep right there on the floor, slowly and mindfully go back to your bed. Progressive muscle relaxation can be practiced on your mattress.
This technique involves a two-step process in which you systematically tense and relax the different muscle groups in your body.
Lie down on your back in the same Savasana position you had on the floor.
Take a few deep breaths.
Shift your attention to your feet. Take a moment to focus on the way they feel.
Slowly tense all the muscles in your feet, squeezing as tightly as you can. Hold for a count of 10.
Relax your feet completely. Focus on the tension flowing away and the way your feet feel as they become limp and loose.
Shift your attention to your calf muscles. Slowly tense all the muscles in your calves, squeezing as tightly as you can. Hold for a count of 10.
Relax your legs completely. Focus on the tension flowing out of your legs.
Then, shift your attention to your upper leg muscles. Slowly tense your quads and hamstrings and all the muscles of your upper legs. Squeeze tightly and hold for a count of 10.
Relax your legs completely. Focus on the tension flowing away from your upper legs.
Repeat this same sequence of muscle tension and release for your hips and buttocks, your stomach, your chest and back, arms, neck and shoulders, then face.
Move up through your whole body slowly, contracting and relaxing the muscle groups as you go.
Daytime Practices for a Restful Night
What you do during the day can influence the course of your night. For instance, drinking caffeine can have an effect that lasts well past bedtime. Just a few considerations can dramatically improve your quality of sleep.
If you must have caffeine, keep your coffee/tea consumption for early in the day. Before noon is best.
Develop a sleep ritual. Doing the same things each night just before bed signals your body to settle down for the night.
Keep your biological clock in check by going to bed around the same time each night and waking up close to the same time each morning—even on weekends.
Lower the indoor lights as the sun goes down, to help you unwind in the evening. At bedtime, make sure your room is as dark as it can be. Keep clocks, phones, and other electrical devices away from your bed while you’re sleeping.
Exercise regularly. Regular exercise can help relieve daily tension and stress, but don’t exercise too vigorously close to bedtime or you may have trouble falling asleep. Try to save deep backbending, arm balancing, and inverting asanas for your morning practice. Focus more on forward folding and hip opening asanas at night.
Take calcium and magnesium supplements. Research suggests that magnesium deficiency is often related to insomnia and restlessness at night.
Drink warm milk before bed. Milk contains tryptophan, which is a sleep-promoting substance. The Ayurvedic remedy is warm milk with ghee. (Try coconut and almond milks for vegan or lactose free options).
Include Chandra Bhedana pranayama in your nighttime ritual. This is Nadi Shodhana (Alternate Nostril Breathing) in which all inhalations are through the left nostril and all exhalations through the right.
Take a warm bath to relax, unwind and activate the left (cooling) nadi.
Read or journal instead of working on the computer or watching T.V. before bed. Television can stimulate the nervous system, but reading tends to calm it. Journaling can help you sort through thoughts, challenges, and activities of the day so that you can clear your mind for sleep.
Meditate during the day. Your body and mind will be less stressed overall, which means more restful nights.