Leslie Bradley remembers lying awake as a child, unable to sleep.
“I’ve been something of an insomniac my entire life,” says the 56-year-old owner of Blue Spruce Yoga in Lakewood, Colorado. But after she contracted West Nile virus in 2004, her sleepless nights became intolerable. “I was in really bad shape,” Bradley says. “I couldn’t sleep at all without taking drugs like Ambien.”
After the prescription sleeping pills became less effective, Bradley decided to explore an alternative route, making an appointment to see Ayurvedic doctor John Douillard, director of the LifeSpa School of Ayurveda in Boulder, Colorado. He put Bradley on a regimen of herbs, tea, self-massage, and breathwork. He also helped her understand the best bedtimes for her body type and encouraged her to make changes to her lifestyle, such as eating a bigger lunch, and not teaching evening yoga classes.
Drawing on her yoga background, she began doing Sarvangasana (Shoulderstand), Halasana (Plow Pose), and restorative poses before going to bed. Within three months, Bradley was off the drugs. “All those things combined have basically cured my insomnia,” she says. “I feel much stronger and more solid, more vibrant.”
Insomnia—the inability to get to sleep or to sleep soundly—can be either temporary or chronic, lasting a few days to weeks. It affects a whopping 54 percent of adults in the United States at one time or another, and insomnia that lasts more than six weeks may affect from 10 to 15 percent of adults at some point during their lives. To get a decent night’s sleep, many Americans are turning to pills. Last year in the United States, about 42 million sleeping pill prescriptions were filled, an increase of 60 percent since the year 2000. But as Bradley discovered, drugs aren’t always effective, some have negative side effects, and worst of all, as soon as you stop taking them, the insomnia often returns.
“Sleeping pills are not always a cure; they treat the symptom but not the underlying problem,” explains Sat Bir Khalsa, a Kundalini Yoga teacher who’s also an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and a neuroscientist at the Division of Sleep Medicine of Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. Beneath the symptoms of insomnia are the anxiety, fatigue, and stress that our increasingly fast-paced world seems to be creating. These days, who hasn’t worked long hours without taking a break, binged on too much caffeine, or left the cell phone on 24-7?
You may feel that you’ve adapted to the intense rhythm that modern life requires, but if you’re experiencing sleepless nights, your nervous system is probably rebelling. It may be stuck in a state known as arousal, where your sympathetic nervous system is triggered. In this state your mind will race or your palms might sweat. Your body will secrete more stress hormones, and your temperature and metabolic rates will rise, as will your heart rate.
“There is very good evidence that people with chronic insomnia have elevated levels of arousal in general,” Khalsa says. “And some insomniacs have higher levels right before they go to sleep.” But Khalsa, who is studying how a form of Kundalini yoga breathing called Shabad Kriya helps people with insomnia, offers good news: “Treating the arousal should treat the insomnia.” By creating a routine of soothing rituals, you can bring your nervous system back into balance and transform your sleep patterns for good.
Rituals for Relaxing
Whether it’s yoga to reduce muscle tension, breathing to slow the heart rate, or an herbal massage to calm a racing mind, a simple routine can be the most effective and safest road to a better night’s sleep. There is growing evidence that small behavioral changes can make a big difference in getting some good shuteye. A 2006 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that participants who made modifications like reducing stimuli in the bedroom and learning relaxation techniques improved their sleep more than those who took drugs.
To find out which rituals will work best for you, it helps to understand insomnia from an Ayurvedic perspective. Yoga’s sister science and India’s oldest known system of medicine, Ayurveda is based on the idea that the life force that exists in all of us manifests as three different energies, or doshas, known as vata, pitta, and kapha. Though everyone has some of each dosha, most people tend to have an abundance of one or two.
Vata, ruled by air and ether, governs movement in the body. Pitta, ruled by fire, governs digestion and the metabolism. And kapha, ruled by earth and water, governs your physical structure and fluid balance. Ayurveda categorizes insomnia as a vata imbalance, because vata is controlled by air—and air controls the nervous system. Calming yoga and Ayurvedic rituals reduce vata in the body.
Know Your Timing
The first step to feeling well rested is to institute a regular bedtime. Maintaining consistency will help keep your circadian rhythms—the biological changes that happen every 24 hours—steady. Eventually, your body will naturally understand and crave sleep during these hours.
How do you find that magic time? Ayurveda offers helpful guidelines. Douillard says that each dosha corresponds to a time of day: Vata time is between 2 and 6, both in the early hours of the morning and in the afternoon; pitta time is between 10 and 2, both midday and late at night; and kapha time is between 6 and 10 in the morning and evening. Ideally, you should start your bedtime rituals during the slow kapha hours of 6 to 10 in the evening and head for bed before 10 p.m., which is when the fiery pitta time begins.
Tuck in Early
Although eight hours has long been considered the ideal length for a night’s sleep, Douillard says that it’s not just the number of hours you sleep that matters, but the time of day you go to sleep as well. He insists that our bodies naturally want to arise around 5 a.m., since humans started their day around daybreak before the advent of modern technology. So, if you go to bed at midnight and wake up at 8 a.m. (a lazy kapha hour) you’ll probably feel groggy even though you’ve had the recommended eight hours of sleep. But if you hit the pillow before 10 p.m. and arise before 6 a.m. (during lively vata time), you’ll likely feel refreshed and ready to go.
Create a Wind-Down Period
The next step is to create some space between your busy day and sleep time. “You can’t just work until 9 at night, and then stick your head on the pillow and fall asleep,” Khalsa says. So turn off the television, computer, and radio. Cut down on or eliminate evening classes and exercise that leaves you feeling amped up. When you come home, honor this transition by playing relaxing music, lighting candles, or putting on your favorite pajamas. Think of the yoga precept of pratyahara: Withdraw your senses in order to turn inward.
If your schedule allows you to practice yoga only in the evening and you enjoy a vigorous practice, be sure to end your session with a sequence of slow, passive poses. (Go to Yin Yoga)
Nosh and Nibble
The diet mantra “Don’t eat before bed” isn’t always the best advice. Some folks benefit from nighttime noshing. “When you sleep, you are repairing your tissues,” says Aadil Palkhivala, a certified Ayurvedic practitioner and the founder-director of Yoga Centers in Bellevue, Washington. “The body needs nutrition when it’s going into a state of healing.” Depending on your constitution, bedtime snacks might include spelt toast and butter, organic milk, or lentil dahl. And of course, during the day, it’s important to eat healthful fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and grains to promote rest at night. “Sleep is a yin process, but when food has chemicals in it, it becomes yang and the mind goes into a vata state,” Palkhivala says. Douillard recommends eating a vata-balancing diet no matter what your type. This includes foods such as cooked apples, Brussels sprouts, tofu, millet, oats, walnuts, and squash. Also, use common sense: If you want to sleep well, don’t drink alcohol or caffeine after 5 p.m.
Strike a Pose
After you wind down from your day, notice how you feel before doing an evening yoga routine. Are you wired or tired? “These need to be treated differently,” Palkhivala says. If you are amped up, he recommends 10 minutes of poses like twists, standing poses, and active forward bends to burn off excess energy. If you are tired, do some restorative poses or breathing until you feel more refreshed and relaxed—and then hit the sack. Though it seems contradictory, it’s common to be too tired to sleep. “Everyone thinks that when you can’t sleep, you have too much energy, but usually people have too little energy: They are too exhausted to get to sleep,” Douillard explains. Restorative poses can help.
Massage Away Tension
A soothing massage releases muscular tension and helps the transition to bed. Try rubbing your head, neck, face, and arms with warm, unfiltered organic sesame oil. “This puts a shield around the body and also makes you feel nurtured,” says Palkhivala. You can also include someone in your ritual by asking them for a yawn-inducing rubdown: The spine from the neck downward should be stroked for about five minutes with a gentle touch.
Breathe for Ease
Breathwork is another excellent addition to your nightly sleep routine. “Every time you exhale, it slows your heartbeat and that helps calm you down,” says Roger Cole, an Iyengar Yoga teacher and a research scientist specializing in the physiology of sleep. Try two parts exhalation to one part inhalation. For example, start by exhaling through your nose to the count of 6 and then inhale through your nose to the count of 3. Do this for 5 to 30 minutes before bed.
Keep a Journal
When it’s time to go to sleep, do you start replaying the day’s events or think of what you need to do in the morning? A great evening ritual is putting your thoughts on paper: Write down the contents of your mind to get all of your worries out before your head hits the pillow.
“When you go to bed, you want your skin to be warm,” says Cole. If you’re feeling a bit cool, drink a warm cup of herbal tea or take a bath based on your body type. And remember to stay toasty when practicing passive yoga poses: Have a blanket, socks, and a sweater nearby.
Guide Your Relaxation
After getting into bed, try a body scan as you lie in Savasana (Corpse Pose): Progressively tense and then relax each part of your body. If you have trouble doing this on your own, get an audio CD of meditation, guided imagery, or Yoga Nidra (yogic sleep), to help. “This is good for people who have mental chatter,” says Cole. “It takes their mind in a different direction.”
Once you’ve chosen your specific nighttime ritual, repeat it every night to cue your body that it’s time for sleep. Khalsa says that after a few weeks of practice, your sleep will improve. “These things don’t work instantly, but over time you normalize arousal and sleep starts to get better.” And as opposed to suffering from side effects such as headaches, dizziness, daytime drowsiness, and long-term dependence on drugs, you’ll feel better overall, instead of worse, with your nighttime routine. “It improves individuals on a holistic level, and other problems that they might have had also might start to dissipate,” says Khalsa. Now that sounds like a side effect we can all live with.
The following three sequences—Before Bedtime, Sleep Soundly, and Upon Awakening—were created by Roger Cole.
Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend), supported
Benefit: Quiets the nervous system.
Fold one or more blankets and place them on a chair so they cover the entire width of the seat. Stand facing the chair in Tadasana (Mountain Pose). On an inhalation, reach your arms up overhead and lengthen your spine. Exhale and fold forward until your forehead rests on the blankets. Rest your arms, including your elbows, on the blankets so they do not slide off when you relax them completely. Stay here for 3 to 5 minutes or as long as you’re comfortable. Inhale as you come out of the pose.
Benefit: Triggers relaxation response, slowing heart, breath, and brain waves.
Bring a folded blanket or a bolster about 6 inches away from a wall (or farther away if your hamstrings are tight). Sit sideways on the support, with the right side of your body against the wall. On an exhalation, slowly turn to your right, lowering your shoulders down to the floor as you swing your legs up the wall. Adjust yourself so that your sitting bones drop down slightly between the support and the wall, the back of your pelvis rests on the bolster, and your shoulders rest on the ground. Bring your arms into a position that supports the opening of the front of your chest, whether out to your sides or reaching overhead on the floor. Relax your legs, face, and jaw. Stay here for 5 to 15 minutes. To come out, slide back off the support, turn to the side, and stay here for a few breaths before sitting up. You can do this right before bed or earlier in the evening. Make sure you don’t fall asleep in the pose; save your sleep for when you are in bed.
Benefit: Calms the nervous system.
Come to a comfortable seated position and breathe normally. Start Ujjayi breath on an exhalation: With your mouth closed, slightly close the root of your throat as though you were whispering and exhale for 2 counts. You should hear a smooth, audible sound (akin to the ocean, the wind in the trees, or even Darth Vader) coming from deep in your throat as you breathe out. Release the restriction in your throat and inhale normally for 1 count. As you become more adept, increase the counts to any ratio of 2:1, such as 4 counts exhaling to 2 counts inhaling or 6 counts exhaling to 3 counts inhaling. Do this breath for 3 to 5 minutes, followed by 10 to 15 minutes of meditation.
Benefits: Helps keep spine aligned and reduces snoring.
Get into bed and turn to one side. Put a pillow between your knees and another under your head for support. Your head pillow should be just high enough to prevent your neck from side bending up or down; your whole spine should be straight when viewed from the side. Draw your bottom elbow and shoulder forward far enough so you do not lie directly on your arm. Optionally, place a third pillow in front of you and support one or both hands on it.
Benefit: Releases craniosacral tension.
Caution: Don’t use this position if you are prone to snoring or sleep apnea.
Lie on your back in Savasana (Corpse Pose). Bring your hands behind your head with the right hand touching the back of the head and the left hand on top of the right. The hands should be underneath the occipital ridge (the prominence at the base of the skull). Allow your elbows to rest on the bed and let your neck release into your hands so that your head is in slight traction. This is a great position to fall asleep in, although you don’t want to stay here all night with pressure on your hands and your shoulders stretching upward.
Ardha Adho Mukha Svanasana (Half Downward-Facing Dog)
Benefits: Alerts the mind, stretches the back and legs, and relieves shoulder tension.
Stand at the side of your bed, with your palms resting on the bed. Step back, one foot at a time, so that the arms remain straight and the spine elongates as in a regular Downward-Facing Dog. Adjust your feet so that you feel you are getting a nice stretch through your shoulders, hips, and hamstrings. As you breathe, draw your hips away from your head and let your head gently descend between your arms. Stay here for 10 breaths.
Benefits: Invigorates the body and gets the blood flowing.
Sit sideways in a chair, with the right side of your body alongside the back of the chair. On an inhalation, lengthen the spine. On a soft exhalation, twist to the right, bringing both hands to the back of the chair. Relax your right shoulder and make sure you aren’t cranking your neck so that it’s uncomfortable. On each inhalation, lengthen the spine, and on each exhalation, deepen the twist. Stay here for 10 breaths. Release back to center, then sit with the left side of your body alongside the chairback and repeat to the other side.
Benefits: Stretches the hip flexors and abdomen, opens the chest, and awakens the cardiovascular system.
From Half Downward Dog, come into a lunge by bringing your right foot forward between your arms, bending the right knee and keeping the left leg straight behind you. Try to keep the back heel on the floor. On an inhalation, bring the arms out to your sides and up overhead, lengthening the spine. On an exhalation, bring your hands back to the bed. Return to the Half Dog, then repeat the lunge on the other side. Do this sequence several times until you feel invigorated.
Nora Isaacs is a freelance writer and the author of Women in Overdrive: Find Balance and Overcome Burnout at Any Age. She tries to get eight hours of sleep at her home in California.