Can’t Sleep? Try This Smiling Practice for Insomnia - Yoga Journal

Can’t Sleep? Try This Smiling Practice for Insomnia

For nights when stress + anxiety get the better of you, try this simple smiling practice to peacefully drift off to sleep.
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sleeping girl

Do you struggle with sleep from time to time, whether it's falling asleep, staying asleep, or getting enough sleep? You're not alone in your tossing and turning. More than a third of American adults are not getting enough sleep (at least seven hours per night) on a regular basis, according to a 2016 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study.

For quality, consistent sleep every night, it’s critical to develop a healthy bedtime routine, as well as lifestyle factors such as proper nutrition and physical activity, all of which affect your sleep patterns. That said, there are some nights where anxiety just gets the better of you despite all of your best efforts.

So, the next time you find yourself in "mind overdrive" (incessant worrying, ruminating, and thinking about things like work and to-do lists) when you should be snoozing, try the following technique. I like to call this practice The Smiling, Sleepy Buddha. It’s one of my favorite methods to peacefully fall asleep or fall back to sleep when anxious thoughts wake me up in the middle of the night. It incorporates mindfulness, a breath technique, body temperature regulation, and a tiny smile.

See also Can’t Sleep? Try These 6 Restorative Poses Right in Bed

The Smiling, Sleepy Buddha: A Mind-Body Practice to Help You Fall Asleep

Step 1: Ease into Savasana.

Roll over onto your back (so you can effectively take long, deep, full breaths) into Savasana (Corpse Pose).

Step 2: Smile and relax.

Add an-ever-so slight and comfortable smile to your face. Use just enough pressure to gently engage the muscles around the lips without straining or overly forcing. (If someone were to look at you, they might not even notice you’re smiling.)

The mind can influence the body (hence the mind-body connection), but the reverse communication linkage—body to mind—is also true. The body can inform the brain and, in this case, it’s a small brain hack meant to signal to the brain and nervous system that everything is OK, that you’re safe and you’re content. Your nervous system darn well knows you wouldn’t be smiling if you were in actual danger. The smile helps both the brain and the body to relax (and you’ll resemble a peaceful, happy, meditating Buddha!).

Step 3: Practice diaphragmatic breathing.

Picture a Buddha figure with a nice round belly. This breathing technique calls for “soft belly,” or diaphragmatic breathing, where the belly rounds, fills, and puffs up on the inhale (imagine that Buddha belly!), and contracts and empties on the exhale (remember “e” for exhale and empties).

Many of us simply aren’t breathing correctly. Adrenaline in the system often leads stressed, overworked adults to take shallow, chest breaths (rather than full belly breaths), which isn’t as effective at oxygenating the blood. Additionally, something I've learned in my various health, mindfulness, and yoga trainings is that shallow, sharp breaths from the upper chest area (and not from the belly/diaphragm) may lead to neck stiffness and pain over time.

When the body’s stress response has been triggered, engaging the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS)—the “rest and digest” system that allows the body to reset and recuperate—signals to the brain that you’re OK and safe. One way to actively engage the PNS is through effective use of the breath.

Lying on your back, inhale (filling the belly) to a count of 3, and then exhale (emptying the belly) to a count of 3. You can experiment with 4-count and 5-count breaths as well (and don’t forget to add that tiny smile!).

Continue breathing in this manner. Use the breath as the mind’s anchor. When you notice your mind wandering, recognize that it has drifted, detach from the distraction or thought (imagine it floating or passing by like a cloud in the sky), and return to the breath count. Every time your mind drifts, return to the breath again and again.

See also Six Different Views on Breathing in Yoga

Step 4: Regulate your body temperature.

Anxiety and stress may have an effect on your body temperature, according to the CDC. Normal body temperature is approximately 98.6°F, but bouts of stress and anxiety, or a panic attack may cause the temperature to fluctuate somewhat in either direction (an increase or decrease in body temp, depending on the person).

To help regulate body temperature, place a slightly damp washcloth—using cool or slightly warm water depending on how you want to adjust your body temp—over your forehead. Keep a bowl or tray on your nightstand, and when you feel yourself drifting off to sleep, simply place the washcloth in the bowl.

Continue practicing this technique until you peacefully drift off to sleep.

About Our Writer

Founder of High Vibe Office, Shelby Wayte is a Holistic Health & Stress Reduction Expert for busy women who are ready to break the destructive cycle of stress + burnout—to live a more energetic, vibrant (high vibe!), happy, and healthy life.