You’re lying awake. Tossing and turning. Struggling to get to sleep. Your thoughts bounce back and forth or move in circles. Wishing you could get to sleep, worrying about being tired in the morning, thinking about events that happened, problems you are facing and the things you need to do. The harder you try to fall asleep, the more elusive sleep becomes until you finally fall asleep shortly before the alarm goes off.
As a yoga therapist and health coach who struggled with sleep for years, I hear a lot of these stories. When working with someone, I will get to know more about their specific situation. In working with people however, there are a few tips that can support just about anyone.
Reframe: Welcome instead of fighting
The most important thing you can do is stop fighting the situation. Yes, you’re awake. The problem is that all the fighting in the world won’t fix it. You know this is true because you’ve already tried. Here’s what you can do instead.
It’s time to reframe laying awake at night as an opportunity… maybe even a gift. This is going to require changing how you think.
Rest and falling asleep is highly undervalued in capitalistic societies. When was the last time that you allowed yourself to just lay without needing to accomplish anything or please anyone? To listen to the sounds around you and languish in just being?
When you wake up in the middle of the night, instead of fighting, reframe the moment as a rare gift – the opportunity to give yourself complete permission to just be. Practicing mindfulness in these moments can also be a useful support. You might sit up in bed or stay laying down and pay soft attention to your breath or some other sensation that feels grounding.
Try Yoga Nidra instead of sleep aids
The yogi’s were committed to exploring human consciousness including during the act of falling asleep and of waking up. There’s even a form of meditation called Yoga Nidra also known as yogic sleep. It focuses on allowing the body to sleep while the mind is clear and aware. You can embrace this attitude of exploring as well. When you lay down to sleep make a mental note that it’s exciting to explore the different mental and physical states of sleep however they present themselves tonight.
There’s plenty of Yoga Nidra recordings specifically intended to support sleep. You might find it useful to explore several that you can go to when you encounter sleep difficulties. You can start with one of our Yoga Nidra’s for sleep available on Insight Timer or another on Vimeo.
Soothe the body & mind
While you can’t “will” yourself to sleep, you can actively encourage the body and mind to rest and relax. There are many techniques you can try. One that I find particularly useful is to practice slow, deep breathing for a few minutes. Remember, the goal isn’t to fall asleep – it’s to allow the body and mind to settle.
You could try placing a kind hand on your belly and your chest and imagine breathing into the belly and all the way up to the chest. No need to strain or force it. Just gently explore slowing down and deepening your breathing. It can be really useful to imagine the breath moving from your groin up to the top of your head. Once this starts to feel natural, you could explore imagining the breath moving in a longer or a shorter path or maybe just in one spot.
Slow, full breathing where the out breath is equal to or longer than the in breath sends calming signals to your nervous system and can help quiet the mind. You can try this sitting up or lying down in the position you’d like to fall asleep in just in case you fall asleep while doing so.
Process thoughts to break free from rumination
If you notice that your mind is still spinning, you might find it helpful to take 10-15 minutes to journal about what’s in your mind right now. It is most helpful to keep the lights low and use a pen and paper instead of an electronic device. Make an agreement with yourself for how long you will journal and at the end of the time, tell yourself that you will revisit it tomorrow but for now you’d like to set it aside.
So you’ve tried these things and you’re still awake? Perhaps you’re in a place where you feel calm and it would be nice to stay in this state for a while. Maybe though, you’re still wide awake. Then it might be good to do some gentle movement in the dark. For example you could do gentle stretches and movements synchronized with your breath.
Practice recovery – Give yourself space and grace to recover
When the next morning does arrive you may feel tired if you were awake for a long time. Rather than spend the whole day fighting it or pushing it away with an unlimited intake of caffeine and sugar, see if you can set aside 15-20 minutes during your day to practice the art of being. In fact, I recommend doing this daily even if you do sleep well.
I find it particularly effective to lay down and listen to a short Yoga Nidra practice. There are Nidra practices, such as this one, which are designed to relax and recharge you. When you are finished, you are likely to be pleasantly surprised to notice the impact on your energy. Further, you will have practiced giving your body and mind the space it needs to rest which over time will improve the quality of your sleep.
Sleep hygiene helps
I didn’t spend time on sleep hygiene in this post because there are plenty of articles and books on the topics. If sleep quality is a regular issue for you, pay attention to the following things which will negatively impact sleep:
- Diet including intake of sugar, caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine
- Spending time on screens within an hour of bedtime – even watching movies.
- Lack of exercise and movement
- Lack of making space for rest and processing your day and concerns earlier in the day for example via journaling or conversation with a friend
You may have tried all the things mentioned here and still be having trouble sleeping. It can be helpful to work with a yoga therapist who can work with you virtually or in person to discover and practice more helpful ways to restore balance and sleep. Further, it’s important to consult your doctor to ensure that there is no underlying condition that is negatively impacting your sleep.