This is a follow up to my July 2013 blog: Stories from the Yoga Mat: Sleep as Spiritual Necessity.
Last month I wrote about “sleep as spiritual necessity,” and posted information about how even the Dalai Lama believes spiritual practice will suffer without sleep—and compassion must be practiced for the self—by giving the self—sleep.
If you didn’t get a chance to read that column—there is some pretty compelling evidence gathered there from an informal search of recent web articles attesting to the importance of sleep.
But, for now, let’s assume that we all agree—sleep is important and without it life is much harder than with it.
“Sleep on it.” “Things will look better in the morning.” And other common place sayings show us how much we believe in this. And yet—sleep is elusive for so many of us. So–this month I am following up with tips– including a brief yoga therapy overview to combat insomnia.
I. Yoga Postures for Sleep
A few basic yoga poses before sleep can greatly help you to unwind—for in truth yoga unwinds the body and therefore the mind. A simple pose that has deep benefits is the forward fold. Stand with feet shoulder width apart. Raise the arms above the head and inhale. Exhale and lower the arms to touch the toes (or wherever in that vicinity—whatever is available to you). Inhale and exhale in this pose for three deep breaths and then slowly raise the arms above the head on an inhale and exhale the arms down.
Basic restorative yoga postures are postures which deeply relax the body. Since you stay in them a bit longer than a normal hold for yoga pose there is the possibility of deep cellular renewal as you hold the pose and stretch. Restful Yoga for Stressful Times, by Judith Lasater is a wonderful resource mentioned in this article by a wonderful teacher with a great title for our blog topic—restful yoga.
Other simple exercises one can do to relax are shoulder rolls—bringing the shoulders up to the ears then forward, then down and back breathing slowly and rolling the shoulders around. Basic hip stretches can be done by sitting and spreading the legs and inhaling up and then exhaling stretching over the leg and then reversing to the other leg. If you want to go further into deep stretches for the shoulders such as eagle arms and stretching deeper into the hips, such as pigeon the links here will open up to YouTubes for these deeper yoga exercises. Relaxing the joints that hold the arms and legs to the body unscrews a lot of tension held in the body. Imagine those joints like giant salt shakers in each of these sockets and as you stretch you spill the tension like opening a salt shaker…unscrewing and the contents slowly spilling out.
One way to meditate or calm the mind before sleep and to encourage sleep is to get in a deeply restorative posture, and then relax the mind—which a restorative pose will help you do.
A fairly easy restorative pose is to put your legs up against the wall…in legs up against the wall pose. This pose will specifically help with insomnia as it is deeply relaxing and calms anxiety.
A traditional meditation that is great for relaxing with feet up against the wall is a chakra meditation. I have blogged on this meditation before and you can find my post on this here.
So—besides doing these poses and a traditional relaxing meditation like a chakra meditation—what else can we do? What do we think about when we do these poses? Does “monkey mind” as so described by Buddha himself take over as we do the poses with the anxiety producing track of what-do-I-have-to-do-tomorrow-god-I-can’t-get-it-all-done…or whatever variant plagues you as you try to wind down the day?
My best advice for restful or relaxing sleep—is to be you in relaxing. This advice comes from Gretchen Rubin’s idea of how to be happy—she had to learn how to be her—how to “be Gretchen” in order to be happy—rather than do what she thought other people “should” do in order to be happy. So if relaxing for you is drinking a Coke and reading People magazine—as it is for me sometimes—then – that’s you. That’s important—to know how you tick. That’s the only way Gretchen ever figured out how she herself could be truly happy–and she’s created an amazing cottage industry from “being Gretchen,” and teaching others that it is ok to be (fill-in the blank with your name).
What is your story then for deeply relaxing?
I’ll share my story around this. When I was in my Ph.D. program my head was full of words and discourse and deadlines that I couldn’t sleep. Relaxing music didn’t help. Traditional meditation didn’t help (and I had been a meditator). Calming imagery didn’t help. My “monkey mind” just kept chattering. Then I read somewhere that words will help calm words…and I realized for me that what was most important was being able to turn off the monkey mind, and what worked for me, was reading science fiction or fantasy—something I had never done before graduate school –but something I latched on to as a sleep technique! I realized science fiction/fantasy was the one thing I would become so engaged in I would “forget” my monkey mind chatter and before I knew it I was asleep—usually with a book on my chest and my legs elevated.
Now—will this work for everyone? No. But feel free to try if it sounds appealing to you. However, what may very well work for you is to experiment with what makes you relax. Sleep is a deeply important process—do you respond to catnaps? Sleeping later in the morning? Getting up early and going to bed early? What is important is getting enough sleep. Most adults need 7 or 8 hours—how are you going to get yours? If you are a night owl you probably need to sleep later than an early bird. See if you can arrange your life to facilitate this.
The goal with sleeping is to fall asleep. Many techniques for deep sleep will tell you to relax and enjoy your time in bed. The goal is not to save time—as in, “Oh, I’m not sleeping—I guess I’ll get up and save time–do work, e-mail, clean house, save time because I’m not sleeping.” No, the goal is to sleep. There is research that electronics, cell phones and television do not work for most people—again it may work for you. And I know folks who have to have the TV on to get some sleep.
One great way to figure out what relaxes you to is to go through the senses—sight, sound, smell, taste, feeling and incorporate those into what relaxes you. For me those might be sight: a fantasy or sci-fi book that is completely compelling. Some of my favorite authors in these genres are Kim Harrison, Charlaine Harrison, Jacqueline Carey, Patricia Briggs, and Kelly Armstrong. I guess I just need vampires and werewolves and witches to fall asleep—but, hey, that’s just me.
For me the sound I like is silence. I find the smell of lavender very relaxing (and lavender is a universally recognized aromatherapy for relaxing. However some folks find orange very relaxing– when it supposedly is a euphoric and energizer—so again, experimenting with what works for you is what is most important. The science of smell and aroma therapy is a wonderful way to experiment with what works for you personally and what helps you to relax. For example, my favorite smell is grapefruit—and although as I said orange or citrus, therefore grapefruit, is supposed to be energizing, for me grapefruit is such a great smell it is relaxing—I combine it with lavender is a room diffuser—or sometime just drop a few drops on a clay ring that sits on y light bulb by my bed.
The remaining two senses are taste and touch. For me I usually incorporate those as follows: taste—ginger tea (for me) or a glass of red wine, and touch—(for me) is my feet elevated.
Next month I will end this brief three-part series on sleep as spiritual necessity with more tips for getting a good night’s sleep. And for staying asleep once you get to sleep.
In the meantime, let me hear from you—in the morning. After you sleep on it. :)
Marie Cartier is a teacher, poet, writer, healer, artist, and scholar. She holds a BA in Communications from the University of New Hampshire; an MA in English/Poetry from Colorado State University; an MFA in Theatre Arts (Playwriting) from UCLA; an MFA in Film and TV (Screenwriting) from UCLA; and an MFA in Visual Art (Painting/Sculpture) from Claremont Graduate University. She is also a first degree black belt in karate, Shorin-Ryu Shi-Do-Kan Kobayashi style. Ms. Cartier has a Ph.D. in Religion with an emphasis on Women and Religion from Claremont Graduate University.