Have you ever struggled to get to sleep? As parents we’re used to being up in the night for a baby, an ill toddler, or perhaps for a worrying pre-teen. But sometimes it’s not our children keeping us awake. We’ve all experienced it. You’re exhausted after a long day of parenting, housework, working and school runs or home educating. It’s a relief to slip under the covers and you’re ready for sleep. But… sleep doesn’t appear to be ready for you.
As a yoga teacher, students often say to me, “I am struggling to get to sleep at night. Is there anything I can do?” Sometimes they might complain that even though their children were sound asleep, they can’t seem to drop off to sleep or they wake at 4am and are unable to get back to sleep, finally giving up when the rest of the household stirs.
Bringing yoga to daily life
I am passionate about bringing yoga into daily life. At my weekly class and in my workshops I often suggest ways students can allow yoga to filter into their day to day activities. If you’re struggling to get to sleep, there are several ways you can use this ancient practice to help you drop off a little easier.
In my personal experience, and from speaking to my students and colleagues, it seems to me that the root cause of the inability to fall asleep is a busy mind. We all know the feeling of lying down to sleep after a long day, and instead of dropping off to sleep, it’s as though a flood gate has opened in the mind. Thoughts arise, arise, arise.
Many people report that it’s the unwelcome thoughts that keep them awake. It might be a worry about tomorrow. Or it’s an anxiety about the past. Perhaps it’s something they forgot to do today, or something they didn’t get quite right. Maybe it’s a rehearsal of a dissatisfying interaction or the exploration of a fear as yet unrealised.
The ancients referred to the mind as a chariot of wild horses. Sometimes it seems as though the mind is racing to and fro like those strong, untamed animals, bucking and rearing when any sort of control is exerted over them, frothing at the lips and tossing their rider from his place in the chariot.
You are the rider, not the mind. With practice it is possible to be in charge of the mind. The result is a still, calm consciousness and this is the aim of yoga practice. The more control we gain over our thoughts, the more we discover power over our bodies, particularly the nervous system. We can calm the mind, triggering the parasympathetic nervous system which allows us to “rest and digest”, rather than respond with “fight or flight”.
Six Ways to Quieten a Busy Mind And Invite Sleep:
“Bringing the mind to a quiet place is not something that comes naturally. Be gentle with yourself. Draw your mind gently back to your hands and your breath”
- BODY SCAN - Yoga acknowledges the strong link between mind and body. Relax the body and the mind follows suit, and vice versa. Let’s start with the grossest level—the physical. Lying in a comfortable, supported position, take your mind to your toes, gently flowing your awareness from big toe, to second toe, and so on. Then the foot, the sole of the foot, the ankle. Work your way up through the body, breathing easily, and at each point of awareness allow yourself to release muscle tension and let go. Over time you will become familiar with those areas where you often hold onto tension - and you’ll quickly be able to “talk yourself in to relaxation” by travelling through your body and releasing tension. Don’t worry if this seems tricky at first. As soon as your mind wavers from its focus you might find that muscular tension creeps back in. Again, it’s about practice.
- BREATHING INTO THE HANDS - Lying in your bed, you can bring your awareness to your hands. Allow your hands to be heavy and relaxed, palms facing upwards. Let your fingers curl naturally. As you breathe in, open the palms gently and as you exhale, close them into gentle fists. Repeat as long as necessary to calm you. Thoughts will arise! It’s what the mind does. One minute you’re focusing on your in-breath, the next minute you’re wondering what to make for dinner tomorrow. If training the mind were easy, there wouldn’t be orange-robed aspirants in ashrams around the world spending all their time trying to do this one thing. Bringing the mind to a quiet place is not something that comes naturally. Be gentle with yourself. Draw your mind gently back to your hands and your breath.
- THE STOP SIGN - Some anxieties can be persistent. You might go to bed resolving not to think about that thing that’s been niggling at you all day. You might want to shut it away, but every time you close your eyes there it is. Remember that we are letting go of wrestling with thoughts: if you wrap your arms around them to wrestle with them, that’s also an embrace! Giving yourself an image or word to replace the thoughts and using it repeatedly like a mantra (repeated phrase or work that focuses the mind) can help to contain and stop the thoughts. I like the image of a red STOP sign, a fairly universally-recognised symbol. When the thoughts pop up, I visualise the STOP sign in my mind and focus completely on it. Then you can use the body scan (see 1, above) to return to a sense of relaxation in the body. You might like another image that feels relevant to you: maybe it’s a gate closing or an eraser rubbing out the thoughts.
- A VISUAL JOURNEY - Instead of lying down and waiting for the thoughts to arise, you might decide to try a more proactive approach to contain the thoughts before you even try to sleep. Visualisation can help. One of my favourites is to draw an elaborate visual image; you might call it a daydream. In this actively imaginative state (after doing a body scan, preferably) you might imagine yourself holding a beautifully woven basket or a finely crafted box. Make your visualisation as detailed as possible: imagine the colours of the basket or box, consider where you are and what you are wearing. Really see yourself holding that box or basket. Now, we can imagine ourselves depositing our thoughts into that basket or box, filling it every time a thought arises. Imagine yourself putting the lid on the box and lay it beside your bed or outside your bedroom door. Every time a thought arises, send it to the box or basket.
- LENGTHEN THE EXHALATION - A time-honoured yogic way of slowing down the breath and consequently, the mind, is to increase the length of the exhalation. The inhalation is associated with activity (mental and physical) while exhaling is all about letting go and calming down. There are two easy ways to try. First, purse your lips gently, as though blowing through a straw. Breathe IN through the nostrils (if you’re able to), and then EXHALE through the mouth, blowing the breath out through pursed lips. Let go of ALL the breath! You may find that your abdominal muscles automatically engage gently as they encourage diaphragmatic breathing. And then the inhalation springs up to meet the exhale and you are filling your lungs deeply. Continue for a cycle of six breaths and see how you feel. Repeat a cycle of six as many times as you wish - and watch your normal breath in between cycles. Or, you might try quietly saying ‘haaaaaaahhhhh’ as you breathe out. It’s like you’re making dragon breath on a cold winter’s morning. Exhale every last little drop of breath as you make that quiet, soothing noise. Sometimes even three sighing out breaths can bring enough relaxation to enable you to quieten down for the night, or perhaps you’d like to work with more.
- ATTEND A YOGA CLASS - Yoga is about practice and discipline. It is a gentle system of training the body, mind and breath. Like any training system, it takes practice. Sometimes I’ll suggest an idea to a friend and they’ll try it a few times then cast it away saying, ‘It didn’t work for me.’ The problem is that instant gratification isn’t really part of the Yoga rubric. We have to work at it, and the best way is to find a teacher who can help you along the path. The great thing about attending a class is that you may discover many other benefits that you hadn’t expected. Are you reading through these suggestions and wondering where the Sun Salutations come in? Is this really yoga? Well, if you can fit in a short daily practice, then great. But practice self-compassion and be realistic: what can you do in the here and now? Meet yourself where you’re at. Treat yourself with the same loving patience you would reserve for a person who is learning something new: like your child who is learning to walk or read, or a friend who is learning to knit. You are re-learning how to relax after unlearning it all of your life. You are slowly, but surely gaining control of the mind: those wild horses. And once those horses are under your control, you will decide what they do, whether that be to trot, gallop or rest.
Set Yourself up for Sleep Success
Woodson Merrel at healthandhealingny.org has these suggestions for a better night’s sleep
DEVELOP A ROUTINE: Choose a relaxing activity and do it every night. Listening to soothing music, reading a book, taking a bath, meditating, and doing yoga are all good choices.
GO EASY ON CAFFEINE AND ALCOHOL: Even one morning cup of coffee can be a problem for some people. Alcohol can cause nighttime wakefulness, so limit your consumption to one drink a day, and don’t have it after 7pm.
KEEP A TO-DO LIST: Keep a nighttime journal to write down all of your concerns about the things you have to take care of tomorrow. Knowing you don’t have to keep everything in your head will help you relax.
EAT LIGHT: Carbs are easier on the digestion, whereas a dinner that’s heavy on protein can keep the digestion working overtime just when you’re trying to rest.
POWER DOWN AT LEAST AN HOUR BEFORE BED: Any device with a screen (TVs, computers, phones, iPads) emits blue-spectrum light that can inhibit the brain’s production of melatonin, the sleep hormone.
IF YOU GET UP, DON’T GET WORKED UP: If you’re wide awake, get out of bed and do some restful activity. If you feel sleepy later, and have time, return to bed. If not, move into your day with a calm commitment to try again the coming night.
EXERCISE EARLY: Vigorous exercise in the morning can help you sleep well at night. Aim for 30 minutes of cardiovascular activity at least five days a week.
Lisa is a Yoga teacher, breastfeeding counsellor and freelance writer. She and her husband home educate their three children ages ten, eight and four. She blogs at lisahassanscott.co.uk.