Seeking Sweet Sleep: Yogic Insomnia Solutions
I’ve been listening to the Audiobook version of Eat, Pray, Love recently (I know, finally!) and Elizabeth Gilbert puts a fine point on the importance of sleep in our lives, divulging that during a particularly difficult part of her life following divorce she was treated for depression, including her last resort of taking medication: “I could finally sleep. This was the real gift, because when you cannot sleep, you cannot get yourself out of the ditch, there’s not a chance.” (Chapter 17)
What fosters good sleep in your life? What rituals help you wind down and relax in order to fall asleep and rest peacefully? That’s what I’m exploring today on the blog and in episode 53 of the A Blythe Coach Podcast:
Now, I am not a medical doctor or expert, just here to share what works for me and recommendations from friends and professionals. If you struggle with insomnia, definitely consult with a trusted doctor to treat the cause of your symptoms.
Overall, I have been really fortunate my whole life, generally being able to fall asleep easily and sleep deeply and for long periods. When I am awake, I am usually full of energy, but at the end of the day I can relatively quickly unwind and pass out soon after my head hits the pillow. However, there have been times when I haven’t gotten all the sleep that I want or need.
When I’m super-excited about something the following day such as a performance, interview, audition, test or professional evaluation, new class of students and so forth, I often find it difficult to fall asleep. I have had seasons in my life with poorer sleep than others, including periods of drastic change such as major breakups/divorce, while working in stressful jobs, at certain times in my educational journey, and while grieving loss. In these cases, I may not have as much time to sleep overall, I may not fall asleep as quickly as usual, my sleep can be fitful, and I also tend to wake up extra early when anxious and stressed.
I understand that many people I love live with mental or physical conditions that preclude good sleep on a regular basis and I feel deep compassion towards those who suffer from insomnia and lack of sleep regularly.
Some reasons we lose sleep are joyful: an exciting new job, move, new baby, or other wanted changes. But the body can’t tell the difference between “good” excitement or anxiety and “bad.” thus we need to cultivate practices that help relax both body and mind, regardless of the source of stress. I’m grateful that thus far, insomnia has not become a chronic condition for me, but I want to serve my students and clients who struggle in this area.
I am fortunate to be able to control to a great degree the conditions of my sleep: where, when, and how much. When they do come, my own anxious evenings are made easier with the knowledge that I CAN get by on little sleep for a while, especially since I am a good napper and am able to catch a few winks in between. This is a skill I highly recommend developing, the ability to somewhat catch up on rest through micro-naps or short periods of sleep (sometimes not complete sleep, but at least full-body relaxation, which can be very refreshing) during the day. I have been known to steal a lunchtime snooze under my desk or whatever relatively dark and peaceful location is available in professional and academic settings!
What I have discovered does NOT help me sleep better is continuing to lay in bed on a night when I am struggling to drift off, obsessing over what time I need to rise the next day, what I will need to accomplish then, or how difficult that will be unrested.
Adequate sleep is required for us to function on a basic level, let alone access our higher faculties to learn and grow. Of course it is especially critical for dancers and other athletes to get enough rest and recovery, as fatigue can lead to injury.
We all know that sleep is an essential life requirement, but we tend to forget the ingredients we require to set ourselves up to fulfill this basic need. This is a highly personal area, but some places to look if you’d like to make some tweaks to improve your sleep are environmental factors, yoga, relaxation, visualization and meditation, Ayurveda, the timing of yoga and exercise, and other soothing rituals like bathing, writing, reading, music, baths, warm drinks, & herbal remedies.
These are all practices I have employed and enjoyed at one point or another as gateways to sweet sleep.
Ayurveda to Promote Sleep
In this post, I am referencing The Woman’s Book of Yoga & Health by Linda Sparrowe and with yoga sequences by Patricia Walden, but their advice on insomnia and sleep is relevant for all, regardless of sex or gender. Sparrowe outlines some natural Ayurvedic insomnia solutions, “Of course, nothing will make your insomnia go away unless you change your lifestyle and decrease your stress level. Ayurvedic physicians remind us that we can make a few very simple changes to lessen our stress and promote a good night’s sleep:
- Go to bed at the same time each night (preferably by 10:00 PM) and get up early (by 6:00 AM, if possible).
- Avoid stimulating activities just before bed.
- Unless it triggers night sweats, take a warm bath scented with sleep-inducing aromatherapy–try lavender essential oil–to promote sleep.
- Exercise early in the day–aerobic activity like walking or jogging, energizing yoga sequences, and pranayama practice.
- Set aside some ‘worry time’ so you can clear your mind before bedtime.
- Drink warm milk/soymilk seasoned with honey and cardamom to calm and relax your nerves.” (p.243)
Relaxing Bedtime Yoga Poses
Linda Sparrowe explains how yoga can help us get better sleep: “A daily yoga practice that combines active standing poses and back-bends with more restorative poses first tires you out and then calms your nerves, quiets your mind, and relaxes your body.” (The Woman’s Book of Yoga and Health p.243) Specific yoga poses that Patricia Walden recommends to relieve insomnia include: Reclining Bound Angle, Downward Facing Dog, Standing Forward Bend, Headstand, Shoulderstand, Half-Plough Pose, Bridge Pose, Easy Seated Forward Bend, and Corpse Pose. (The Woman’s Book of Yoga & Health p.260-2)
Reclining Bound Angle Pose / Supta Baddha Konasana : “This pose improves circulation in your abdomen, helping to calm your nerves.” (p.260)
Downward Facing Dog / Adho Mukha Svanasana : “This pose relaxes your nervous system, relieving anxiety and tension.” (p.260)
Standing Forward Bend / Uttanasana : “By soothing your sympathetic nervous system and easing tension, this pose can help combat insomnia.” (p.260)
Headstand & Shoulderstand, Half-Plough / Sirasana, Sarvanasana, Ardha Halasana : Walden cautions, “Do [these poses] only if it is already part of your yoga practice. Do not do this pose if you have high blood pressure, have your period, or suffer from neck or back problems or migraines.” (p.261) The benefits of Headstand are to “help balance your endocrine system and relieve insomnia and nervous energy,” and Shoulder stands “soothe your nervous system and is especially useful in fighting insomnia, emotional distress, and irritability.” Walden says of Half-Plough Pose, “Try this pose to help bring a sense of calm and clarity to your mind and body, balance your energy, and relieve anxiety.” (p.261)
Bridge Pose / Setu Bandha Sarvangasana : “This pose can help calm nervousness and relieve anxiety to help you sleep.” (p.262)
Easy Seated Forward Bend / Adho Mukha Sukhasana : “This restful pose helps calm your nerves and prepare body and mind for sleep.” (p.262)
Corpse Pose / Savasana : “Relaxing, nourishing, and calming, this pose helps prepare your mind and body for restful sleep.” (The Woman’s Book of Yoga & Health p.262)
In general, gentle inversions, restorative forward folds, heart-openers, hip-openers, and twists are used in yoga practices for unwinding, relaxing, and preparing for bed. Keep in mind that if you are experiencing depression, extended time spent in inward-going forward folds is not recommended, choose other relaxing poses such as hip stretches and gentle back bends in this case.
I particularly enjoy easy neck and shoulder stretches, hip stretches like Half-Pigeon, and inversions like Downward Dog, Legs-Up-the-Wall, Candlestick, & Plough, and long unwinding twists to prepare to recline, release the day, and sleep, and have included some of these in this week’s new video below:
Relaxing Bedtime + Wind-Down Yoga Practices
I have a host of relaxing existing yoga flows on my YouTube Channel, which I plan to continue to expand upon going forward, including:
- “Heart Warming Love Yoga + Meditation Moment” (10 minutes)
- “Yoga Cool-Down – Pigeon, Seated Stretch + Savasana” (15 minutes)
- “Intro to Hip Stretches – for ballet technique and functional range of motion” (15 minutes)
- “Shoulder Release Yoga – Quick 16 Minute Upper-Body Stretch” (16 minutes)
- “Fall Forest Savasana Yoga – gentle stretch & relaxation floor practice” (20 minutes)
- “Slow Your Roll – Gentle Circles Yoga” (20 minutes)
I also enjoy the many bedtime/relaxing practices from Yoga with Adriene in English and from Mady Morrison in German.
Relaxation, Visualization, & Meditation
In her lifestyle primer Three Black Skirts, Anna Johnson recommends a simple before-bed relaxation ritual: “Do a ten-minute deep-relaxation exercise before sleep: Lie flat on the mattress, breathing slowly and deeply in and out of your nostrils. Starting with your feet, tighten then release each muscle in the body–the legs, torso, arms, shoulders, etc. Feel your body growing heavier and heavier, sinking deeper into the mattress.” (p.10)
This is a nice simple practice that anyone can try, and is related to other approaches to deep relaxation, including Yoga Nidra to follow.
Visualization is helps many people to find a relaxed state as well, and is an element of Yoga Nidra, or can be practiced separately. Along those lines, Johnson suggests: “Concoct a dream before sleep. Visualize the landscape, characters, and colors. Drifting deep into the imagination may open the door to real dreaming.” (Three Black Skirts p.10)
Yoga Nidra for deep relaxation
Yoga Nidra can be a great way to relax before bed or anytime. It is a wonderful extended deep relaxation process that includes breath awareness, body-scanning, and visualization techniques.
Pranayama Breathing to Unwind
Although The Women’s Book of Yoga and Health advises that pranayama practices are best performed earlier in the day, for myself personally, I can find slow and relaxed breathing exercises helpful to allow thoughts and worries to slip away. Only practice pranayama if it is appropriate for you, and listen to what your body wants in order to relax.
A few breath and mantra practices that I personally find decompressing are silently or out loud repeating the “Om” Mantra, Alternate Nostril Breathing, Humming Bee Breath, and Lion’s Breath.
Om Mantra for articulation and relaxation
Nadi Shodhana /Alternate Nostril Breathing for balanced energy (00:00-8:35)
Alternate Nostril Breath (Anuloma Viloma or Nadi Shodhana)
According to The Yoga Deck, alternate-nostril breathing helps balance the energy of the nervous system and has “a profound stilling effect on the mind.” There are many approaches to alternate-nostril breathing, including hand positions, timing etc. I personally prefer to elongate, but not count the time spent inhaling and exhaling (known as a ration), and also to not necessarily retain the breath in-between, as shown in the video above.
Alternatively, here are the instructions given by YOGA DECK AUTHOR??????:
- “Sit comfortably. Place the index and middle fingers of the right hand on the forehead; thumb rests on right nostril, ring and baby fingers rest on left nostril.
- Inhale and exhale. Close right nostril with the thumb; inhale through left nostril for a count of 5.
- Close both nostrils; hold your breath for a count of 5.
- Lift the thumb; exhale for a count of 5 through right nostril.
- Inhale through right nostril; hold for a count of 5. Close right nostril, and exhale through left nostril. This ends 1 round.
- Repeat 4 more rounds.” (The Yoga Deck)
You may choose to accompany the breathing practice with affirmations, such as: “I am balanced, calm, and serene,” or “I am wrapped in a warm blanket of serenity.” (The Yoga Deck)
“NOTE: We breathe in two-hour cycles: first one, then the other nostril is dominant. Prolonged breathing through one side saps our energy. Anuloma Viloma restores the proper balance.” (The Yoga Deck)
Brahmari / Humming Bee Breath for relaxation & contentment
Humming Bee Breath (Brahmari), according to The Yoga Deck, has “a calming influence on the mind. Grounds you in the present moment.”
- “Sit comfortably with spine erect.
- Close or lower your eyes. Inhale deeply for a count of 7.
- With lips parted slightly, hum as you exhale for a count of 14. Get your lips to vibrate as you exhale.
- Repeat 2 more times.”
I also received instructions during my yoga teacher training for Brahmari, which specified, “Inhale slowly and deeply through the nose. On exhalation make the sound of ‘m’ as in the third letter of ‘aum,’ like the humming sound of a bee. Exhale slowly and do not strain. The sound should be smooth, even, and controlled. The exhalation will naturally be longer than the inhalation. Continue. If that is comfortable, block the ears with the fingers to increase the vibrations through the body [you will see me do this in the video above].”
Simhasana / Lion’s Breath for letting it all go (7:17+)
Lion’s breath is a great way to howl, yowl, or hiss your tension away. It might feel silly to new practitioners, but can have a wonderfully relaxing effect as you get to physically blow off steam. After inhaling, just open your mouth wide, stick your tongue out and down toward your chin, allowing the eyes to roll up toward the third eye, widening and engaging the whole face as your exhale strongly and roar like a fierce lion. Repeat as desired.
Improve Your Environment
In Coach Yourself to Success, life coach Talane Miedaner emphasizes, “You want your home to rejuvenate you so that you have the energy to go to work again the next day. The first place to start is your bedroom. Make this room a haven, a place to retreat and relax. If you have a TV in the bedroom, move it out to another room; you’ll sleep better.” (p.200)
Anna Johnson warns to “Distance yourself from alarm clocks or other objects that glow in the dark, and make you fret about the lateness of the hour or the responsibilities of the next day.” (Three Black Skirts p.10)
I have used ear plugs and even a sleep mask to help me drift off in certain circumstances. Even if we sometimes can’t control our larger environment (housing, bedroom, roommates, mattress condition, and so forth), we can still take steps to prepare ourselves internally and in our immediate surroundings to help help us sleep better.
This may include adjustments to furnishings like our mattress, pillow, blankets, curtains (light), etc., but also things like aromatherapy and working with crystals. Ok, tools like crystals are not necessarily proven in double-blind scientific studies, but are nonetheless prized by many. I’ve been a crystal-lover since childhood and have a few especially soothing favorites, such as rose quartz and amethyst.
In The Crystal Handbook, Kevin Sullivan hints that “Good crystals to put by your bedside are those with which you have strong personal attachment, as well as clear crystals, Smoky Quartz, and Amethyst. If you have trouble sleeping due to nervous tension, shells, fossil, and Agate will help.” (p.182) Again, this is a personal preference, related to both color therapy and other theories of healing.
My friend Kate, of Yoga with Kumu Kate got me into spritzing rosewater when I need a lift, and another friend, Natasha Richards, deepened my appreciation for aromatherapy and essential oils. Lavender is always a relaxing favorite, but I also find that Cedar helps me feel grounded and supported, and various citrus oils can elevate my mood. Like the crystals, you can use your own preferences and intuition to guide such choices.
What I have eaten that day can contribute to my readiness for sleep, as can mental and psychological factors which can be alleviated by therapy and in some cases medication, and other practices which we’ll discuss next.
Clear Your Mind: Reflection, Venting & Completion
As The Woman’s Book of Yoga & Health mentioned, we should consider taking some “worry time” before bed to clear the mind. (p.243)
Anna Johnson prefers the following process to release stress and responsibilities: “Before going to bed, make a list of everything you need to achieve the next day as well as the other niggly pressures that are eating at you. Make the list very official looking, pin it above your desk, and doze off knowing your organized twin will sort it all out manana.” (Three Black Skirts p.10)
There are many ways to vent our emotions and stresses, reflect, contemplate, and complete our working day to make room for rest. Simple strategies are to journal or free-write, express gratitude, pray, or meditate. Just making a clear declaration, such as “My work today is done,” in writing or out loud, affirming that you are ready to wind down. More to come on reflective practices in the future!
Bedtime Rituals & Reading
In designer Alexandra Stoddard’s book Living a Beautiful Life, she describes a litany of rituals that help her prepare to enjoy her daily reading and then sleep:
“Because my daily schedule is packed full of appointments, it takes me my tidying-up ritual, my puttering ritual, my letter-writing ritual and usually a good hot bath and time to write in my diary before I can settle down, sit still and read for any length of time. During the week I read books in the evening. I have a menu of reading with enough variety to ensure there is always something new to work on. I’ve made it a habit never to let a day go by without reading a book for at least twenty minutes.” (p.36)
Johnson provides some inspiration for the kind of books that can help us drift off: “Read a fat little book–but not the kind that will keep you turning pages till dawn. Perhaps a Latin American saga or a meaty Russian classic–a novel whose characters’ names are impossible to pronounce and family trees are dense and require frequent cross-referencing.” (Three Black Skirts p.10)
Reading material is a personal choice, but for sleeping purposes, consider fanciful stories for children or adolescents, soothing rhymes, or even Dr. Seuss’s Sleep Book, which helped me drift off in college and even now. I start to yawn on page one!
Take a Bath
Particularly in colder climates and seasons, a nice bath can be a great way to take relaxing time fore ourselves to relax, and can lead to better rest. As Miedaner shares, “Another simple, inexpensive way to banish adrenaline burnout is to take a bath. Ours is a shower culture, so much so that you can easily go a year or two without taking a bath. You could even forget how wonderful a nice hot bath is. A bath has a number of advantages over a shower: It is more relaxing to give your body a real soak. A bath becomes a luxurious occasion if you add bubbles or use scented oils or soaps […] Pipe in your favorite music. Throw in a few handfuls of Epsom salts for a spa bath retreat. A bath is a wonderful thing. If you find you are so busy that you don’t have time for yourself, use the bath as an excuse to get away. When you shut the door, shut the world out and enter your private sanctuary. You deserve it. And when you step out, you will feel completely relaxed.” (Coach Yourself to Success p. 217)
A collection of herbal bath bombs (rose, lavender, and green tea, as it happens) has turned out to be one of my favorite pandemic self-care purchases, and I’m lucky to have a big bathtub in my apartment here in Cologne. I enjoyed more bathtub retreats last winter than usual, which was very helpful to warm and unwind. It’s true that to actually get clean, I prefer a shower, but there’s almost nothing so pampering as a nicely-scented bath.
Warm Drinks & Herbs
Soothing Beverages are another beloved way to help wind down. I personally like a lovely mug of hot cocoa on fall and winter evenings, but some people find the chocolate content too stimulating.
As we saw earlier, the Woman’s Book of Yoga & Health recommends the Ayurvedic practice of drinking “warm milk/soymilk seasoned with honey and cardamom,” (p.243) and Anna Johnson also likes to “Drink a cup of hot milk with wild honey, or an herbal infusion like St.John’s-wort, chamomile, or valerian. Valerian smells like a horse stable but it knocks you out cold.” (Three Black Skirts p.10)
Other Herbal Remedies recommended by The Woman’s Book of Yoga & Health include, “Herbal teas with valerian, hops, and chamomile soothe your mind and promote sleep. If you feel nervous or jittery, a tincture of motherwort should take the edge off. Balancing your adrenals and calming your sympathetic nervous system also can’t hurt. Rosemary Gladstar suggests herbs such as dong quai, St. John’s wort, Siberian ginseng, black cohosh, and sarsaparilla. Check with your herbalist or healthcare practitioner for doses that work for you.” (p.243)
I want to emphasize the importance of making sure to find a suitable herbs and avoid those contraindicated for your personal constitution and lifestyle. Back in the day when I was taking birth control, I couldn’t use St. John’s wort and some other herbal remedies due to possible interaction. Once I got off the hormones, I benefited from such herbs, but only very occasionally. Be extra careful and consult with your doctor about any medications or supplements you may be taking.
Relaxing Music, Stories, & White Noise
Sound therapy might take the form of the pranayama and mantra practices above where we create and observe sounds in our own body and environment, or simply playing sounds that put you in a mellow mood, whether they be music or white noise. Anna Johnson extolls the power of music to set the stage for sleep: “Music can get you into dreamland. I like nasal, growly baritones. Leonard Cohen does it for me every time (Recent Songs features dreamy violins), and when I’m really desperate I dip into James Taylor circa 1975.” (Three Black Skirts p.10)
An ex-partner of mine is a really light sleeper, so we always had recorded ocean sounds or a fan going to provide a relaxing backdrop for sleep especially in noisy urban settings. Others like to listen to relaxing tracks while engaging in their bedtime rituals. Try waves on the beach, sounds of rain, or even whale songs to accompany your trip to dreamland.
I have created a few especially soothing playlists for yoga or mellow moments and Spotify also has a range of suggestions of their own, depending on your musical tastes:
- Yoga Chillax Playlist
- Lunar Light – Moon Moods Playlist
- 2021derful Tracks for Yogi Flowing & Glowing Playlist (overall chill, though some tracks are a little more up-tempo)
- Or maybe Spotify’s Classical Garden Playlist is more your speed
Perhaps you prefer audiobooks or podcasts by folks with particularly soothing voices or on topics of stress release and self-care. A sampling of my own podcast episodes with relevant themes are:
Episode 038: Beach Bonfire Guided Elements Visualization
Episode 001: Finding a Grounded State of Being for dance & life
Episode 002: Finding a Centered State of Being
Episode 009: Resilience (birthday edition!) – mostly poetry 🙂
Episode 011: Creating Good Space
Episode 023: Care & Actualization of the Self
Episode 031: Healthy Habit-Building
Episode 033: Daily Meditation Challenge
Expend Energy Early to Prepare for Good Rest
How and when we exercise is another factor to consider. We are warned not to engage in stimulating activities too late in the day, as that sends signals to our nervous system that we are ready to party! As The Woman’s Book of Yoga & Health advises: “Exercise early in the day–aerobic activity like walking or jogging, energizing yoga sequences, and pranayama practice.” (p.243)
We don’t need to avoid these practices altogether, just consider when we are performing them and schedule such activities nearer to the beginning than the end of our day. Perhaps more strenuous and energetic movement in the morning or start your day may help prepare the body for sleep. I find during less active, more sedentary times that I can have greater difficultly getting to sleep quickly.
Looking for ideas for energetic (and ultimately satisfyingly tiring) practices for your morning hours? Naturally, I’ve got some ideas…
Energetic Yoga & Dance Sequences for Early in the Day
- “Short Yoga Flow – 10 Minute Basic Vinyasa Yoga Sequence”
- “Short Dancey Yoga Flow – 23 Minutes”
- “Surya Namaskara – Sun Salutation A & B – 30 minute practice”
- “Happy Knees Stability Yoga Practice – 40 Minutes
- “Winning at Warrior III” (40 minutes)
- ”6 Minute Good Morning Dance Warmup – Full Body Floorwork with Electronic Music”
- The entire Wonderful Dance Warmup Playlist
- For balletomanes, Ballet Barre – Balletlicious with A Blythe Coach Playlist
Which of these practices have you tried before? Which would you like to experiment with or re-visit? What helps you relax and unwind in order to enjoy a good sleep?
I hope this has helped you discover or remember practices that support you in getting needed rest, and that you’ll let me know in a comment or email what you enjoyed or wish to try. I plan to share more techniques for relaxation, energy, and more going forward.
Blythe Stephens, MFA
she/her or they/them
A Blythe Coach: Dance Education & Coaching
move through life with balance, grace, & power
DISCLAIMER: A Blythe Coach recommends that you consult your physician regarding the applicability of any recommendations and follow all safety instructions before beginning any exercise program. When participating in any exercise or exercise program, there is the possibility of physical injury. If you engage in this exercise or exercise program, you agree that you do so at your own risk, are voluntarily participating in these activities, assume all risk of injury to yourself.
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