Elusive sleep is something I work with regularly, with people from all walks of life.
I’ve had my own taste of it too.
I knew my trusty companion of good sleep had taken something of a detour about a year after I became a mother. As a result of the usual waking and feeding of earlier months I sometimes found myself wide awake at night for no apparent reason, while my son and husband were deep in the land of slumber. My mind was sometimes busy, sometimes not.
A dose of ‘yoga sleep medicine’ took me back into my natural sleep routine of old: falling asleep easily and enjoying good quality sleep.
The start of this process was using yoga to send myself back to sleep. The night waking then lessened, and the routine took care of itself. Years of yoga and meditation helped for sure, but the two simple techniques I share below offer immediate relief and are the first steps to long term change. What’s more, anyone can access and benefit from them (in PJs if desired).
Restorative yoga and yoga nidra (yogic sleep) calm the nervous system and release the many (sometimes very old) layers of tension – physical, mental, emotional, conscious and sub-conscious – in our body-mind. They focus on ‘non-doing’, as a counter pose to all the ‘doing’ of our days. Their effects are supported by research.
They provide us with a route into the parasympathetic part of the (autonomic) nervous system, to shift the emphasis from the active ‘fight or flight’ stress response to the restorative ‘rest and digest’ state. This allows our organs and involuntary functions such as our heart-rate, blood pressure, digestion and elimination to be at their best. Yoga nidra also induces a particular brainwave frequency associated with deep relaxation. Tension is released on a cellular level and we return to homeostasis, our optimal physiological state, as our internal stability is restored. This is the foundation of deeply restful sleep and being at our best during the day – our focus and creativity are heightened for starters.
On a more subtle level, they work with our esoteric or energy anatomy. This dispels the anxiety that can surround and perpetuate insomnia. We don’t feel locked in a losing battle. Rather than being overwhelmed by repetitive waking or a chattering mind we gradually learn to see both as a witness would and therefore to let them go. Knowing we have practical tools at hand supports this shift.
Ideally, begin with the restorative yoga which will prepare you for the yoga nidra. Do both just before you go to bed, or some people like to do the restorative after work and then the yoga nidra at bedtime. If you really have too few minutes in the day, go straight for the yoga nidra. People who have had chronic insomnia have told me that even just this technique has helped them significantly.
These practices are very effectively supported by the bedtime ritual and tips for helpful daytime habits I suggest below.
Repetition is important in order to reset your system. Aim to do your practice every night, at least at first.
Restorative yoga consists of exquisitely comfortable, passive, supported poses and has its origins in the therapeutic work of BKS Iyengar of Pune, India. He developed the use of props to alleviate the strain some people felt in traditional yoga poses, to induce muscular relaxation and to lower stress levels.
The practice allows us to surrender, rest deeply and develop a more subtle awareness of our body (while surpassing our ego-mind).
1. Viparita karani – legs-up-the-wall pose
To get into this, sit with one side against the wall, legs outstretched. Lie back so that your legs simultaneously come up off the floor. Turn so that the backs of your legs are against the wall, and shimmy in closer if you can. If you experience any tightness in the backs of the legs, stay a little further away from the wall. The legs are relaxed, so the knees will be slightly bent. Have something soft under your head if you like (though thinner than a pillow), and a rolled small towel fits snugly into the nape of the neck to provide further support. To come out (and do so slowly), reverse the entry process.
If the arm position feels too open for you, place your palms on your tummy, below your navel.
Stay here for 5-7 minutes.
If you have an injury or condition that means that this pose doesn’t feel right for you, please try either of the two below.
2. Supported balasana – child’s pose
Stay here for 2 minutes, then turn your head the other way and stay for a further 2 minutes. Come out slowly, first pressing your hands into the ground to sit up.
3. Supported savasana – basic relaxation pose
It’s nice to have some support under your knees (to ease out the lower back and allow for any tightness in the backs of the legs), under the neck and under the head. Palms can face down, up, or if you prefer, rest on the belly below the navel. An eye bag, lavender-scented, is rather gorgeous.
Stay here for 7 minutes before yoga nidra, or go straight into yoga nidra in this pose. You can also just lie in bed rather than on the floor if you prefer.
Usually the mind just stops in these poses, but if yours is still active and needs a focal point, either the tip of your nose (feeling cool air enter the nostrils and warmer air leaving them with each breath) or your lower belly (feeling the rise of the belly on the inbreath and its fall on the outbreath) work well. You can also count the breath, breathing in for 4 and out for 6. Have a sense of heaviness in your body, and yield to gravity, allowing the ground to support you fully. These are all relaxatory techniques in themselves, and help with getting back to sleep in the night if necessary.
I enjoy silence here, but by all means put on some soothing background music or a natural soundscape (water, birdsong etc.) if this is helpful to you. Accept ‘being’, however that is for you in the moment.
If you are pregnant use a supported recovery pose as an alternative to these 3 poses. Lie on your left side, with a pillow between your knees, under your head, behind your back and one for you to ‘hug’ in your arms. Bliss. Stay here for 5-7 minutes, and in your yoga nidra.
Yoga nidra – yogic sleep
Yoga nidra incorporates a rotation of consciousness in the body which has its origins in a subtle tantric practice. It enables us to turn inwards, a step towards meditation and samadhi (bliss). It is much more than a relaxation technique. A practice can last anything from 10 minutes to an hour. Traditionally done during the day, a bedtime practice is ideal for our full-on way of life today.
Lie in basic relaxation pose as shown above, or simply in bed. If you fall asleep during the practice that’s fine – it’s because you need to!
All this means is having a pre-bedtime routine which creates the best physical, mental and emotional environment for sleep.
My main recommendation (assuming you already have a lovely, uncluttered bedroom and bed) is to have one hour’s down time before bedtime. All TV, mobiles, laptops, internet etc. switched off, no reading or bright lights. This might include a herbal tea, a bath, your restorative and/or yoga nidra and an acknowledgement of one good thing about the day that has gone, even if it was just paying attention to your breathing or walking in the park for a few minutes.
Supportive daytime habits
* Take a break in the day (or first thing in the morning) for 2 to 3 minutes of quiet and doing nothing. Be still (you can sit or stand). Pay attention to your breathing, notice where you feel the breath in your body, without trying to change or control it. Enjoy this simplicity. If this observation is hard, breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth, or in for a count of 4 and out for a count of 6. Acknowledge any thoughts that pop up, like bubbles, without getting involved in any stories, and allow them to pass. This is the start of practising meditation.
* Only check emails and/or social media etc. at certain times in the day. Take one day off a week, if you can.
* Take a month-long break from coffee and tea (easier to do in the summer I find). See how you feel. I like green tea, green juice or Pukka’s zingy three-mint tea as alternatives.
* Enjoy nutritious, delicious, regular meals. Stay well hydrated. Keep caffeine, sugar and alcohol to a minimum.
* Exercise daily. Get some fresh air. A brisk half-hour walk will do (to/from work/at lunchtime). Do yoga – first thing in the morning is wonderful.
I hope this gives you relief, some practical tools and the knowledge that you can, gradually, rediscover your natural, bountiful sleep. We excelled in it as babies and children after all. I would love to hear how you get on.
Carol Trevor specialises in one-to-one yoga. You can find practical yoga tips that fit in with your life, together with more yoga nidra and guided meditations on her website www.yogacarol.co.uk Connect with her on Twitter @CarolTrevor1
Yoga photography © Kieron Helsdon