Insomnia; the inability to fall asleep or stay asleep long enough to feel rested.
Most of us know the feeling of “knowing” we need to get to sleep but being unable to get there. Sometimes the pressure we place on ourselves to get back to sleep could be having the opposite effect. Rubin Naiman, a clinical psychologist and sleep therapist explains, “Our attitude to sleeplessness changed after the Industrial Revolution. If you look at all the documentation on sleep recorded from 1500 to 1830, you find that people typically did wake in the middle of the night—they had a little ‘night watch’ and used that time to pray, or meditate, or talk quietly, and then they went back to sleep. Conversely, people also regularly napped in the middle of the day. We have the misconception that if we aren’t dead to the world, we aren’t sleeping. We want to go to battle when we realize we’re awake in the middle of the night, but it’s perfectly normal to have periods of wakefulness at night.”
Of course, if insomnia is something new for you or it’s becoming a real problem, rule out anything which might require medical attention such as chronic low-level pain, depression, heartburn, hormone imbalances, restless leg syndrome, and sleep apnoea.
Some yoga students find it surprising that a wind-down practice still has quite an active asana component…an overactive mind needs to be addressed by a physical practice to “digest” restlessness. However, doing a practice which is too active just before bedtime will make it hard to fall asleep. The best time is before dinner to help with the transition between day and evening. Consider splitting the asana component from the pranayama/relaxation component, keeping the latter for just before bed.
A practice for winding down and encouraging restful sleep will:
- Begin with more active asana and then reduce to a slower pace
- Accentuate slow flowing movement with the breath, particularly lengthening the exhale and will favour breathing techniques over strong asana alignments
- Have more forward bends than backbends
- Have few standing poses but include lots of inversions and heads down to calm nervous system
- Ask you to use lots of ‘letting go’ imagery, eg “Breathe out the day, breathe in peace”, Namaha on the exhale, meaning “this is not mine, I let it go”
If you are wakeful in bed, try practising breath awareness, concentrating on gliding down the exhale (or the pranayama in the Winding Down Practice). Go through a Progressive Muscle Relaxation from your toes to your head; “I am relaxing my toes, relaxing my toes, my toes are completely relaxed” and so on. If you don’t get to sleep, at least your body and mind are resting while doing this.
In the end, Yoga teaches us to give our best effort but then let go of the results…so sometimes you might need to accept sleeplessness for a night rather than obsess about it, giving yourself a chance of breaking a habit.
“The mind skirts the edge of consciousness during sleep, and likewise skirts the edge of sleep at moments when we space out and lose track of our surroundings during waking hours. In other words, the states of being asleep and awake are not as black-and-white as you might think. Our consciousness is coming and going all day and night. When you accept this process, you’re better able to let periods of night time wakefulness arise and fall away without resistance….” Richard Miller, psychologist and noted teacher of yoga nidra.