Sleep Better Tonight! 6 Bedtime Rituals

Yoga and Ayurveda offer surprising insights into the sources of insomnia. Read on to learn more—and then try 6 simple practices that can help you sleep better tonight.

May 11, 2013    BY Shannon Sexton

We are a sleep-starved nation. Sixty-three percent of American adults do not get eight hours of sleep at night, about 70 million suffer from insomnia, and according to the National Sleep Foundation, nearly seven out of ten report frequent sleeping problems—although most remain undiagnosed. Alarmed? You should be. As Stanford University “sleepdebt” expert William C. Dement, MD, PhD, warns: “Lost sleep accumulates as a debt that must be repaid or health eventually deteriorates.” This year, the Institute of Medicine released a report linking sleep disorders and sleep deprivation to a host of ills, including an increased risk of hypertension, diabetes, obesity, depression, heart attack, and stroke.

Our daily dose of shut-eye regulates our weight, strengthens our immunity, protects our cardiovascular health, repairs our tissues and cells, and restores our energy.

Scientists are confirming what yogis and ayurvedic physicians have reported for centuries: deep sleep rests the body and the mind. Our daily dose of shut-eye regulates our weight, strengthens our immunity, protects our cardiovascular health, repairs our tissues and cells, and restores our energy. Sleep also allows us to process, consolidate, and retain new memories; it balances our emotions, makes us better problem solvers, and feeds our creativity.

But according to yoga, deep, refreshing sleep has an even more important function: it helps us stay spiritually balanced. The ancient rishis (seers) classified sleep as one of the four fountains, or primitive urges (along with food, sex, and self-preservation), that operate at an instinctual level to maintain our survival. When one of these fountains is out of balance, it can imbalance the others, creating obstacles to spiritual growth. For example, when we skimp on sleep, we tend to overeat and imbalance the “food” fountain. Scientific research confirms this: A recent Stanford University study found that the less sleep people got, the heavier they were. Shorter sleep duration boosts our level of ghrelin, a hormone that makes us feel hungry, and suppresses another hormone called leptin, which makes us feel full. And at Case Western Reserve University, researchers who conducted a long-term study with 68,000 women over 16 years found that women who got fewer than five hours of sleep each night were much more likely to gain 33 pounds or more—despite the fact that they ate less than the seven-hour sleepers.

When we fail to get enough sleep, our anxiety level rises, too, disturbing the “self-preservation” fountain. Plus, it’s difficult to maintain a yoga practice when you’re overtired. Who wants to get up early to meditate after tossing and turning all night? Missing our practice can throw our whole day off balance and, worse, feed the cycle of insomnia.

The Bhagavad Gita (6:16-18) offers a message of moderation for practitioners:

  • Yoga is a harmony. Not for him who eats too much, or for him who eats too little; not for him who sleeps too little, or for him who sleeps too much.
  • A harmony in eating and resting, in sleeping and keeping awake: a perfection in whatever one does. This is the Yoga that gives peace from all pain.
  • When the mind of the Yogi is in harmony and finds rest in the Spirit within, all restless desires gone, then he is a Yukta, one in God.

The Bhagavad Gita is ancient, of course, and so doesn’t address our society’s skyrocketing use of sleeping pills, but it’s easy to guess what this sacred text would say: When we depend on pills to put us to sleep, we’re only masking our problems. Yoga challenges us to become the master of our mind, not a slave to it. When our thoughts begin to keep us awake at night, our mental gymnastics need to be addressed, not suppressed.

But the media tempt us with quick-fix promises that can be hard to resist. One Lunesta commercial asks, “Are you at home, trying to sleep, but your mind is still at the office, reviewing tomorrow’s agenda, charting out the future? Maybe it’s time for you to be the boss. Ask your doctor about Lunesta.” The not-so-subliminal message? You don’t have to master your mind—you can gain control simply by taking a pill.

Unfortunately, this message has hit home with Americans. Last year, the pharmaceutical industry poured approximately $300 million into advertising marketed directly to the sleepless consumer—over four times such ad spending for 2004. Sleeping pill sales have surged by 60 percent since 2000, with 42 million prescriptions filled last year alone. More than 26 million of these prescriptions were for Ambien, the 12th best-selling pill in the nation.

But depending on pills is no honeymoon. Last summer, the New York Times reported on some of Ambien’s eerie side effects: the woman in a body cast who miraculously arose every night to devour the contents of her fridge, then in the morning wondered who had stolen her food; the man who tore down the towel racks in his bathroom but had no memory of doing so the next day; people caught driving half-asleep who claimed to be under the influence of Ambien. Sleep experts warn that insomniacs should beware of becoming dependent on a pill and instead make lifestyle changes and rule out underlying conditions such as depression, which can be the culprit of their sleepless nights. Plus, sleep aids can be expensive. The new pill on the block, Lunesta, costs an average of $3.70 per tablet.

Side effects and cost aside, if we need drugs to put us to sleep, we’re in trouble. Ceding control to the pharmaceutical industry makes it impossible for us to explore, and eventually master, our own body and mind. There are better ways to get a good night’s sleep. Through herbs, massage, and relaxing rituals, yoga and ayurveda can show you how.

The Theory Behind the Practice

Ayurveda says that all illnesses are caused by some form of indigestion. In the case of insomnia, Carrie Demers, MD, who uses ayurveda in her medical practice, explains: “At some level—whether it’s physical, mental, or emotional—we haven’t finished extracting what is helpful to us and eliminating what is indigestible. On the physical level, indigestion is caused by bad food or by weak digestion and leads to conditions like heartburn (a contributor to insomnia), flatulence, and diarrhea. Mental indigestion is the inability to let go of a certain incident or thought—usually an unpleasant experience. Emotional indigestion is the recurrence of a feeling, often sadness or anger, long after the precipitating event. The emotion has not been sufficiently digested and remains just under the surface, springing up for no apparent reason”—and keeping us awake at night.

Mental and emotional indigestion are the most common causes of insomnia, Demers says. People who grind their teeth in their sleep are attempting to chew and digest recurring thoughts and emotions. And dreams are another way the mind attempts to digest the day’s experiences.

Vasant Lad, an ayurvedic physician and the director of the Ayurvedic Institute in Albuquerque, New Mexico, offers another perspective on insomnia: excess vata in the mind or nervous system. In the ayurvedic tradition, vata is one of the three doshas, or humors, governing the biological and psychological processes of our body, mind, and consciousness. Literally translated as “wind,” vata is “dry, light, mobile, and cold,” says Lad. “As the principle of mobility, it regulates all activity in the body and mind.” When vata is in balance, it promotes creativity, flexibility, and lightheartedness. But when it’s out of balance, it causes fear, anxiety, restlessness, and a number of sleep disorders.

Yoga and ayurveda offer a variety of methods that get to the root cause of insomnia, whether it’s a vata imbalance or a form of indigestion. These methods work on a deeper, more subtle level than sleeping pills and have only positive side effects. Whichever method you choose, begin by following a few basic guidelines: limit your intake of caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol; avoid eating for two to three hours before bedtime; create a relaxing nighttime routine; and go to bed and wake up at the same time every day. But if you’re doing all that and sleep still eludes you, try a few of these time-tested remedies.

6 Bedtime Rituals for Better Sleep

1. Try nutmeg

According to The Yoga of Herbs by Vasant Lad and David Frawley, nutmeg is “one of the best medicines for calming the mind.” This common kitchen spice helps reduce high vata in the colon and nervous system and promotes sound sleep. Here are two treatments—one internal, and one external.

Warm, spiced milk. Add up to 1/8 teaspoon of nutmeg to a cup of warm milk (which contains a sleep-inducing amino acid called tryptophan).

Nutmeg facial mask. Mix equal parts of ghee (clarified butter) and nutmeg powder into a paste and smear it around your eyes and across your forehead at bedtime.

2. Take a hot bath.

A hot bath removes the day’s residue, relaxes the muscles, soothes vata, and induces sleep.

3. Take an herbal sedative.

Mix equal parts of powdered tagara, valerian, and chamomile. Put 1/4 teaspoon of the mixture into a little warm water and drink just before bed. Tagara (valeriana wallichi) and valerian (valeriana officinalis) are vata-pacifying sedatives, and chamomile balances the emotions.

4. Give yourself a 5-minute massage.

According to Lad, a scalp and foot massage is a shortcut to full-body relaxation. Why? Because all meridians, or nadis, begin in the scalp and end in the soles of the feet. Plus, many neural endings, receptors, and marmas (pressure points) are clustered in the head and feet. By giving yourself the following mini-massage, Lad says, “You will get the benefits of an entire body massage.” Here’s how:

  • Sitting on a chair or bed, rub your hands with comfortably warm sesame, brahmi, or jatamansi oil. Alternately using the flat of your hand and your fingertips, make small, circular motions along the surface of your scalp for two minutes. Then switch to your feet.
  • Put more oil on your hands and in small, circular motions, rub the top of your right foot from the ankle to the toes; from the ankle to the heel; and on the soles.
  • Press your thumb on the top of the foot at the base of the shin. Gently and slowly drag your thumb toward the big toe.
  • Return to the base of the shin and drag your thumb toward the second toe. Repeat this motion to the third, fourth, and fifth toes.
  • Cross your right ankle over your left knee, place your right hand on the top of the right foot, lace your fingers between your toes, and push the foot inward, outward, and in a circular motion.
  • Unlace your fingers and, using your right thumb, apply pressure along the inner border of the sole from the big toe to the heel.
  • Drag your thumb along the outer border of the sole, from the root of the fifth toe to the heel.
  • Make a fist and massage the sole of the foot in little circles. Slowly pull each toe away from the foot as though you are “popping” the joint.
  • Repeat the entire process on your left foot.

When you’ve massaged both feet, soak them for five minutes in a bucket of warm saltwater to draw out the dislodged stress and toxins. Put on cotton socks, place a towel on your pillow, and settle into sleep. (In the morning, leave time for a longer shower; it will take a few shampoos to remove the oil from your hair.)

5. Make time for yoga.

A regular, balanced hatha yoga practice circulates the lymph and blood, tones the channels of elimination, and balances both the endocrine and nervous systems, calming vata and helping the body and mind digest the events of the day. Whether you practice in the morning, afternoon, or at bedtime, yoga paves the way to a good night’s sleep.

6. Do a relaxation practice.

Yogic relaxation techniques train the body and mind to relax completely while remaining in a waking state. They also help you let go of sleep-disturbing stress and emotions. If you’re new to relaxation practices, try this tension-relaxation exercise:

Lie in shavasana (corpse pose) with a cushion under your neck and your legs spread three feet apart. As you inhale, scrunch up the muscles in your face and pull them toward the nose. Hold for two seconds, then exhale and completely relax. Next, clench your right shoulder, arm, and hand on an inhale. Hold for two seconds, then exhale and let your muscles melt into the floor. Repeat on the left side. Now tense your right leg from the buttock to the toes; hold briefly; exhale and release. Repeat on the left side.

Next, inhale and tense your entire body. Hold for two seconds, deepen the contraction, then exhale and surrender into the floor. Repeat this contraction two more times. Then surrender into shavasana. You can follow this practice with a systematic relaxation or simply lie resting, breathing as if the whole body breathes. As you exhale, let the breath release tension and wastes from the entire body. As you inhale, let the breath nourish every cell and tissue. Continue for five to ten breaths.

As you become more advanced, there are a number of other systematic relaxation practices that train the mind to focus on and relax different parts of the physical body and, later, the more subtle energetic body. You can find some of these exercises outlined in yoga manuals. You can also try guided relaxation CDs such as Relax into Greatness by Rod Stryker or Guided Yoga Relaxations and Advanced Yoga Relaxations, both by Rolf Sovik.

Where to Find Ingredients

To purchase ingredients mentioned in this article, try Banyan Botanicals

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Shannon Sexton
Former Yoga International editor-in-chief Shannon Sexton writes about food, travel, yoga, and natural health.