2 Practices to Do When You Can’t Sleep
Do you experience nighttime restlessness or insomnia? Good sleep can be hard to come by—in fact, according to the CDC, 50 to 70 million adults in the United States suffer from insufficient sleep. Rather than lying down and hoping for the best, why not use your yoga practice to wind down before nestling in? When it comes to putting the mind and body at rest, creating a yoga bedtime ritual can take you further than counting sheep will.
How Yoga Helps Us Sleep
There’s an ever-growing body of research that attests to the effectiveness of mindfulness-based practices for reducing sleeplessness. A recent study, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, compared two groups of people who participated in a six-week study designed to determine the potency of mindfulness meditation in promoting sleep (in this case, among adults “with moderate sleep disturbances”). The study divided participants into two groups: One group took part in a sleep education program which aimed to improve sleep habits, and the other group engaged in a mindfulness/awareness program. The study concluded that those who completed the mindfulness/awareness program had less insomnia at the end of the study—and reduced fatigue and depression, to boot.
The evidence is encouraging, but nothing competes with firsthand experience. Below are two simple mindfulness-based techniques that can take the edge off of sleeplessness. One can be considered a variation of savasana, and you can practice it with a similar present-moment awareness as savasana, continually returning the mind to the breath, and the body, with little regard for the past and the future or wandering thoughts. The other is a meditation. Choose whichever one resonates most with you, and practice it before bed. Or ideally, do both in the order they are listed.
Legs up the Wall
- Sit with your left hip flush with the wall, knees bent and feet on the floor.
- Support yourself with your hands as you roll onto your back and extend your legs up the wall.
- Rest here with legs extended for 5 to 10 minutes.
Variations: If you feel you are having to work to keep your legs together, try placing a sandbag on the soles of the feet or looping a yoga strap around your shins.
- Sit with your head, neck, and trunk aligned (either in a chair, on a cushion, or on folded blankets) and with your knees below your hips (which may require adding some extra height under your seat).
- Rest your hands on your thighs (palms up or down), placing them close to the hip creases so that you can broaden through the collarbones. Let your eyes soften, or close them.
- Soften the way you hold yourself, allowing the chair or cushion to hold you, and find stillness. Grow long and tall through the spine.
- Now observe your breath. On each inhalation, the upper abdomen and ribcage expand. On each exhalation, they draw in slightly.
- Make this space of breath the center of your attention. Each time a thought arises, draw your awareness back to the breath, without judgment.
- After some time, draw your awareness to the touch of the breath at the nostrils. Notice how the inhalation is cooler than the exhalation. When a thought arises, return again and again to the breath.
- Stay with the touch of the breath at the nostrils as long as feels natural for you, and then imagine that you could breathe from the nostrils up, toward the center of the brain. Then breathe the breath back down from the center of the mind to the nostrils. Keep sweeping the breath in this way, to and fro.
- Eventually, find your awareness situated at the center of the mind. As your attention rests there, allow a mantra to arise: so’ham (pronounced “so-hum”). Each time you inhale, think “so.” Each time you exhale, think “hum.” Continue linking this mantra with your breath, and if a thought arises, gently return your awareness to so’ham.
- When it feels natural to leave this space of practice, draw the palms of your hands over your softened or closed eyes, and then open your eyes into the darkness of your hands.
- Release your hands softly, and make your way to bed.
Meditation tip: Don’t worry about the amount of time you spend meditating. Just enjoy the flow. Your body will develop its own rhythm. Before bed, it’s best not to set an alarm (even a soft and melodic alarm) on your phone. I’ve found that avoiding technology at night is a must to ensure restful sleep. Tell yourself that it’s more than okay to power down—it’s necessary.
Still Can’t Sleep? Self-Reflect
According to Sandra Anderson, yoga and meditation teacher and author of Yoga: Mastering the Basics, we often make sleep much more complicated than it has to be. “I sometimes think about how parents soothe a child—reading or telling them stories, or singing lullabies, and then I think of adult-equivalent ways to self-soothe,” she says. “It's important to feel content when you lie down to sleep, and to feel satisfied on every level—physical, mental, and emotional.”
But how do we find contentment? Anderson suggests a quick practice in self-reflection. “Reflect on the day, and on all the things you should have done and didn't (or the things you did that you shouldn't have), and resolve to take action or to do better next time. Make peace with yourself, ask for inner strength and guidance, and go to bed with a clear conscience—happy and content!”
Practice any one of these techniques (or all of them) consistently, and you may soon find yourself gradually moving toward a calmer, more restful body and mind.
Kathryn is an associate editor at Yoga International. She found her way to yoga one starry night in Portugal at Monte Sahaja (the ashram of advaita master Mooji). Now she lives at the Himalayan Institute, where she continues her studies. She views yoga primarily as a healing practice that can re-awaken a sense of wonder, purpose, and (to quote one of her teachers, Rolf Sovik) "relentless optimism."