How to Outsmart Your Insomnia


By Hillari Dowdle, sequence by Kelly Golden  |  

It’s 3 a.m. Do you know where your peace of mind is?

If you’re thinking about it when you’d rather be dreaming, there’s a good chance you don’t. You’re suffering from insomnia, and peace of mind is beyond your grasp—and so, at least for the moment, are all of the mind-body-spirit benefits that sleep confers.

If you’ve struggled with sleeplessness, you’re in good company. Some 50 to 70 million Americans suffer from insomnia, according to the latest count by the Centers for Disease Control, and the prevalence of sleep medication bears them out: Last year, about 60 million prescriptions were written for sleep aids. These medications can have side effects, like any drug, and their effectiveness is questionable at best, but we’re willing to stomach them because not sleeping is more harmful than simply feeling lousy the next day. Regular sleep deficits have been associated with high blood pressure, type II diabetes, heart disease, depression, cancer, obesity, and even increased risk of death. It’s enough to keep you up at night! I know because I’ve been there—for like, the last 30 years.

Wakefulness has been knocking on my door since my early teens, usually during times of stress and strain. I always treated it like an unwanted houseguest, greeting it with anxiety and open hostility. I was warlike in my efforts to win the battle. I even brought that attitude to my yoga practice, expecting it to work like a magic weapon to knock me unconscious. That’s hardly the sort of peaceful attitude that promotes sleep, which is probably why, in spite of all of the medications, herbal remedies, sleep-hygiene tips, and aromatherapy I tried, I never found a strategy that really worked.

Recently, after three especially difficult sleepless nights, I realized that I couldn’t overpower my hyperalert and anxious state, or pound my mind into sleep through force of will. I could push away sleeplessness all I wanted, but here it still would be. I needed to look deeper into yoga’s teachings, beyond relaxation practices, and find help facing this crazy insomnia monster instead of running away from it. And so I reached out to teachers and sleep experts who could offer insights, tools, and practices to help me get to the source of my problems, and, hopefully, to find a solution.

Embracing Twilight

My first lesson was about the nature of sleep. Like most Westerners, I tend to think of “awake” and “asleep” as polar opposites, and that you can have one only at the expense of the other. Black and white. Conscious and unconscious. Perhaps this perception explains why so many of us are willing to reach for a sleeping pill. We think our job at night is to black out.

But in fact, this is a relatively new way of thinking about sleep. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, night waking was considered normal, explains Rubin Naiman, PhD, a clinical psychologist and sleep therapist who draws on spiritual teachings from yoga and other traditions in his sleep retreats and audio programs including The Yoga of Sleep. “If you look at all of 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,” Naiman says. “Conversely, people also regularly napped in the middle of the day. I think of the yin-yang symbol: There was a little bit of light in the dark, and dark in the light.”

So what happened? “The Industrial Revolution changed everything,” he explains. “Suddenly, people were working 12- or 14-hour days, and machines were the new model. We started treating our bodies like machines.”

That is, as something you could turn on and off with the flick of a switch. Add a couple of hundred years, a lot of electricity, artificial light, and technology, and here we are: overstimulated, overworked, and vastly underslept.

When you’re struggling with insomnia, Naiman says, it’s important to understand something that the spiritual traditions teach—that waking and sleeping (as well as dreaming) are natural states of consciousness that coexist in the mind at all times. “Though science has been slow to acknowledge it, humans are always to some degree both awake and asleep,” he says. “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, but it’s perfectly normal to have periods of wakefulness at night.”

According to Richard Miller, psychologist and noted teacher of yoga nidra, a relaxation technique and meditation practice, it’s natural to cycle in and out of sleeping and waking states. Miller explains that 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,” he says. When you accept this process, suggests Miller, you’re better able to let periods of nighttime wakefulness arise and fall away without resistance.

Enlightened Rest

In fact, says Naiman, sleep is a state of consciousness similar to what yogis seek through contemplative practices: a profound serenity that exists underneath the turmoil of the mind. When you’re suffering from insomnia, he says, it helps to know that this state of consciousness is always available to you. Even when you can’t sleep, there is a deeper part of you that’s in a restful state. “The notion of ‘going to sleep’ doesn’t really make sense,” Naiman says. “It’s a place of peaceful awareness that we all search for, that’s already within us.”

As much as we want to let go and access that serene place of rest, something keeps us alert and tense. And that something, says Naiman, is ego. The ego is the part of you that notices and judges that you’re awake when you shouldn’t be and unleashes all the drama that comes with unwelcome wakefulness. Sleep becomes available, says Naiman, when you stop listening to the ego.

That’s a tall order, especially when it’s 3 a.m. and you’re in thrall to a nattering, chattering brain. This is when, Miller says, it’s helpful to get in touch with one of yoga’s most powerful teachings: Within the mind exists not only the clamoring ego, but also the calm witness that observes without judgment. That witness part of us remains conscious as the waves of sleep and wakefulness come and go. The witness can watch the ego mind-controlling, freaking out, calming down. If you can stop, take a breath, and step away from your panic about being awake, you can become the witness.

When the hold of the ego-mind feels like a death grip, yoga nidra, often translated as “yogic sleep,” can help. Yoga nidra is a practice of gradual relaxation, scanning the body and mind for sensations and emotions, recognizing and releasing those feelings one by one, and slowly dropping into a resting state (see sidebar above for a simple practice). Practiced lying down, it offers a nonthreatening way of stepping back from the mind’s chatter and reconnecting with the witness. And by creating that space apart from your ego, you may loosen insomnia’s hold.

Wake-up Call

When you can move from worry to witness, suddenly you have a choice. What will you do with this time? In our always-on culture, moments of quiet are rare, but they can serve a purpose. You can use this time as an opportunity to gain some insight into why you can’t sleep, suggests Miller. “If your sleep is being interrupted regularly, it may be trying to convey a message,” he says. “And it could be physical, psychological, or spiritual in nature. Your body is calling for you to address something that hasn’t been addressed during the day.”

The physical messages are perhaps the easiest to interpret. If your bladder is full, you can get up and pee. If your back is aching, you can shift positions and make a note to do a back-pain-relieving practice the next day. Psychological and spiritual issues are thornier, especially if you’re going out of your way to not deal with them during the day. In that case, insomnia may be a signal that you need to make time to process your feelings and experiences. “So many of us get so busy during the day that we can’t or won’t deal with the real issues in our lives,” says Kelly Golden, a yoga teacher in Northern California who developed the sequence for this story. “As soon as we settle down and the unconscious mind can finally begin to deal with it all, there’s so much going on that it rattles the conscious mind awake again.”

All this stuff we don’t have time, energy, or willingness to grapple with affects us on every level: physically, mentally, emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually. Ultimately, Golden says, it all plays out on an energetic level, and that is where asana can help.

In the yoga tradition, every posture is said to have an effect on the body’s system of energies, known as the vayus, or vital forces (sometimes called winds). There are five primary vayus. Apana vayu is the downward-moving force associated with grounding and elimination. Samana vayu moves in a circular pattern through the belly and is thought to regulate digestion and assimilation, both physical and metaphorical. Prana vayu is centered in the chest and heart and is associated with breath and vitality. Udana vayu moves upward from the throat and is associated with speech, expression, and spiritual growth. And vyana vayu circulates around the body, integrating the system.

When working with insomnia, you might be tempted to go straight for static grounding postures that stimulate apana, such as the relaxing Legs-up-the-Wall Pose. But a better approach is to first practice poses that stimulate samana, Golden says. Gentle movement, such as Cat-Cow Series and Dynamic Forward-Fold Sequence, leads the way to deeper release. “You need practices that can help you digest your mental and emotional experiences so that you can get grounded enough to release them,” she explains. “With asana, you can let your body lead where you desire the mind to be.”

Golden’s seven-pose samana-apana series is designed for when you are really struggling with sleep. It can be done when sleep just won’t come or when you find yourself awake in the middle of the night. In my experience, it’s just enough to begin to digest what’s on your mind and ease toward peaceful sleep.

Knowing that I have choices has taken the edge off sleepless nights. Rather than getting caught up in the same old stories, I remind myself that I can choose to engage with anxious thoughts or let them pass. And while I can’t will myself to sleep, I can invite a sense of serenity by knowing that there is some part of me that is resting peacefully. I’ve learned to take a nonviolent approach, both toward sleep and toward my sleepless self. And so I say to my insomnia, and also to my wakefulness: I surrender.

Yoga Practice: Relax and Release

Next time you can’t fall asleep, try this sequence by Kelly Golden, a ParaYoga teacher. It is designed to help balance the vayus, or winds, a concept in yoga used to describe the different types of energy that govern physical and mental health. The practice features poses that nurture samana and apana vayus—which respectively help you digest and release what’s keeping you awake.

If your thoughts are creating tension in the breath and body, repeat the affirmations offered with each pose.

Try to breathe in a 1:2 pattern. Breathe in for 3 counts and out for 6, or whatever feels natural. As you relax, try extending the breath. If breathing becomes labored, return to an easy pattern. You can stay in an extended state of deep relaxation at the end of the sequence, moving into Savasana and doing yoga nidra. Or get into bed, allowing your breath to return to its natural pattern.

Dynamic Forward-Fold Sequence (Ardha Uttanasana to Uttanasana)

Begin in Tadasana (Mountain Pose). Exhale as you fold forward with a long spine, sliding your hands down and around the backs of your legs. With each inhalation, rise up to extend your back, sliding your hands up to the backs of the knees and drawing the chest through the upper arms. On each exhalation, slide the hands down the backs of your knees as you fold forward. After six repetitions, remain folded in Uttanasana, keeping the knees slightly bent to support the lower back. Allow the spine to lengthen and the head to drop easily to the floor. Rest your hands on the ankles or the floor. Hold the forward bend for 10 breaths.

Inhale: I accept

Exhale: I allow

 

Ragdoll (Ardha Utkatasana), variation

From Tadasana, bend the knees and drop the hips, drawing the sitting bones back and the tailbone slightly down as you fold the upper body forward over the thighs. Let your abdomen rest on your upper thighs. Adjust your body so that you feel stable. Interlace the fingers behind the back, then straighten the elbows and let your head drop toward the floor. Anchor into your feet and feel completely supported by your upper thighs. Hold the pose for 10 breaths.

Inhale: I am aware

Exhale: I anchor

Downward-Facing Dog Pose (Adho Mukha Svanasana)

Bring your hands to the floor about shoulder-distance apart, fingers facing forward; step your feet back into Adho Mukha Svanasana. Keep lifting your hips, moving your shoulders down the back, and lengthening your spine. Once you have the actions of the pose in place, release your efforts. Think of this as a resting pose. Hold the pose for 10 deep breaths.

Inhale: I lengthen

Exhale: I let go



Cat-Cow Series

From Downward-Facing Dog Pose, lower your knees to come onto all fours with wrists beneath the shoulders and knees beneath the hips. To start the series, inhale and extend the spine, gently drawing the chest through the upper arms and the tailbone back, creating the tiniest of backbends. Then, begin to exhale as you round the spine. Complete the exhalation as you lower into an easy Balasana (Child’s Pose) with the hips on the heels and the belly on the thighs. Let the exhalation stretch twice as long as the inhalation.
Then repeat: As you inhale, rise back up and again extend the spine, moving fluidly between the three phases of the pose. Repeat 10 times.

Inhale: I watch

Exhale:I witness

Hypnotic Sphinx (Sphinx Pose), variation

Lie down on your belly with your legs extended. Place the elbows to the sides of the chest, forearms parallel to one another. Gently lift the chest, dropping the weight into the elbows. Allow the neck and head to soften. As you inhale, slowly turn the face and chin toward the right shoulder, moving as if you were pouring sand from the center of the brain into the left side of the skull; as you exhale, turn the chin and face back to center. Repeat this movement on the other side. Allow the movement to be intentionally slow and soft, taking time to explore the tender spaces of the neck and base of the skull. Repeat 5 times on each side.

Inhale: I relax

Exhale:I release

Seated Forward Bend (Paschimottonasana)

Come to a seated position and extend the legs, keeping them hip-distance apart and parallel to one another. Ground the sitting bones and sit straight and tall. As you inhale, reach the arms overhead; as you exhale lengthen the spine and fold forward from the hips. Settle the arms on the floor by your sides or take hold of the toes. Relax. With each inhalation invite length into your spine, and with each exhalation release into the fold. Hold for 10 breaths.

Inhale: I lengthen

Exhale:I let go

Legs-up-the-Wall Pose (Viparita Karani)

Sit with one side of your body next to a wall, with your hips as close to the wall as possible and a cushion nearby. Roll onto your back so that your hips come onto the cushion and your legs rotate directly over the hips and up the wall. The feet can be together or hip-distance apart, whichever feels more comfortable to you. Keep your arms by your sides, palms turned up; relax your arms and shoulders. Feel the leg bones anchoring into the hip sockets as you release effort. Feel the spine lengthening and resting on the surface beneath you.

Finish With Three-Part Breath (Dirga Pranayama)

Release the 1:2 breath and the affirmation, and instead focus on Dirga Pranayama (Three-Part Breath): Inhale first into the belly, then the rib cage, then the collarbones, and then exhale from the collarbones, then the rib cage, then the belly. Do this for 10 to 20 breaths, then allow all effort to fade way. Feel the core of the body release as the body and the mind enter into deep relaxation and rest.

Cultivate Consciousness

When insomnia seems insurmountable, yoga nidra is a way to cultivate much-needed deep rest for the body. “Yoga nidra means ‘to sleep on the cloud of yoga,’” says ParaYoga creator Rod Stryker. “When we practice yoga nidra we step into the rhythm of deep sleep—a kind of rest that is even more healing and reparative than ordinary sleep because there is an element of effortless consciousness abiding there.”

Stryker suggests this simple version of yoga nidra, called 61 Points Yoga Nidra, which can be done in bed or on a yoga mat with a folded blanket under your head. Use it as a precursor to sleep, as a practice during the day, or as a practice on nights when sleep won’t come.

If your goal is to fall asleep, Stryker recommends beginning with 5 minutes of 1:2 breathing (breathe gently, making your exhale twice as long as your inhale), then another 5 to 10 minutes writing in a journal. Then turn out the light, get comfortable, and do the following practice. Let your awareness rest on each point for 5 to 10 seconds—no longer—before moving on to the next one. If you have finished the entire cycle and are still awake, start over from the beginning and do it again.

Start: Bring your awareness to the center of your forehead, then move it to the center of your throat.

Right Arm: Move awareness to the right shoulder, down to the elbow, wrist, tip of thumb, tip of index finger, tip of middle finger, tip of ring finger, tip of little finger, back to wrist, elbow, and shoulder. Return awareness to the throat.

Left Arm: Now move awareness to the left shoulder, down to the elbow, wrist, tip of thumb, tip of index finger, tip of middle finger, tip of ring finger, tip of little finger, back to wrist, elbow, and shoulder. Return awareness to the throat.

Chest and Torso: Move awareness to the heart center between the breasts, right breast, space between the breasts, left breast, space between the breasts, to the navel, and down to the pubic bone.

Right Leg: Now move your awareness to the right hip, knee, ankle, tip of the big toe, tip of the second toe, tip of the middle toe, tip of the fourth toe, tip of the little toe, back to ankle, knee, and hip. Return to the pubic bone.

Left Leg: Move your awareness to the left hip, knee, ankle, tip of the big toe, tip of the second toe, tip of the middle toe, tip of the fourth toe, tip of the little toe, back to ankle, knee, and hip. Return to the pubic bone.

Finish: Bring awareness to the navel, space between the breasts, throat, and to the center of the forehead.

Set Yourself Up for Sleep Success

Practice smart strategies to improve your chances of getting to sleep and staying asleep, says Woodson Merrell, MD, executive director of the Continuum Center for Health and Healing at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City. And if insomnia persists, be sure to look into physical problems that might impair sleep quality. Hormone imbalances, restless leg syndrome, and sleep apnea are common culprits.

Develop a Routine: hoose 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, Merrell says. Alcohol can cause nighttime wakefulness, so limit your consumption to one drink a day, and don’t have it after 7 p.m.

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.