Q: I often find it extremely difficult to fall asleep, even though I avoid caffeine and alcohol and eat dinner early. (I've been practicing yoga for over a year, including meditating every day for 15 minutes.) What do you suggest?<i>—Nilesh Ganjwala, Mumbai, India</i>
Read Scott Blossom's reply:
From the standpoint of Ayurveda, the traditional Indian healing system, the kind of insomnia you describe is usually caused by an imbalance in your vata dosha, the most energetic and mobile of the three basic elements that make up your constitution. (Vata is wind; pitta, fire; and kapha, water.) Vata affects your central nervous system and your ability to relax and sleep.
First of all, you should avoid emotionally and mentally stimulating activities for several hours before bedtime. Also, if your yoga practice includes vigorous asana or Pranayama (breathing) practices, cutting back may ease your insomnia, since they can overstimulate the nervous system and make it hard to fall asleep.
If you still have difficulty sleeping, try these strategies:
An hour before bed, take a warm (not hot) bath, then massage some oil into your feet and scalp. (Better yet, get your spouse or significant other to do it.) Ayurvedic supply companies, like Banyan Botanicals (www.banyanbotanicals.com), sell medicated oils for your head that are specifically blended to balance vata; sesame oil with brahmi, a sedating herb, works especially well. Though you might not want to smell it on your hair all night, castor oil on your feet can also calm excess vata. (Put on light cotton socks before going to bed to avoid staining your sheets.)
Half an hour before bed, drink a glass of warm organic milk spiced with a half teaspoon of dried ground ginger and four or five crushed cardamom pods. If milk upsets your stomach, try a mug of chamomile tea laced with a little honey (preferably raw; Ayurvedic tradition says cooked honey is indigestible and toxic). Then do a few soothing poses like Salamba Supta Baddha Konasana (Reclining Bound Angle Pose supported by a bolster), Viparita Karani (Legs-up-the-Wall Pose), and Salamba Paschimottanasana (Supported Seated Forward Bend). Incorporate relaxing pranayama into these poses: Breathe slowly and deeply while mentally repeating a mantra you like. If you don't have a favorite mantra, just think "peaceful" on each inhalation and "relaxed" on each exhalation.
Get up and meditate the next time you find yourself tossing and turning. That, too, should put you in a calmer, more sleep-ready state-if nothing else, you'll be putting those midnight hours to good use.
A certified Integrative Yoga therapist, Ayurvedic consultant, and licensed acupuncturist, Scott Blossom lives in Berkeley, California, with his wife, Chandra, and their daughter, Tara. He can be contacted at www.shunyatayoga.com.