I’ve been challenged by insomnia since I was a kid, so I’m pretty familiar with what it means to be “ungrounded” or “out of your body.”
As a socially uncertain sixth grader, I remember lying in bed and staring at a small rectangular patch of light which reflected onto my bedroom door (from the bathroom nightlight that my mom turned on to keep me company) and listening to the clock tick. My mind played an endless rerun loop of the day’s events.
But sixth grade was also the year my hippie social studies teacher, Ms. Gayle, started yoga club on Wednesday afternoons. It sounded exotic and I loved being around her, so I signed up.
What I remember most is lying in Śavasana and allowing the sounds of Ms. Gayle’s voice to guide my mind through all the different parts of my body, and feeling a soothing sense of peace and relaxation wash over me, like I had never experienced before.
It occurred to me that when I was having trouble falling asleep, I could imagine Ms. Gayle’s voice. And then I discovered that I had some control over my insomnia. Even today, when I’m struggling with sleep, I use the same technique she taught me.
Lately, I’ve been dealing with some particularly stressful extended family stuff (Happy Holidays!) and I’ve been dealing with a spike in my insomnia. The other night I started my usual routine listening to the gentle voice in my head saying, “Your feet are heavy…your feet are heavy… your feet are relaxed…your feet are completely relaxed,” etc. when it occurred to me that I had a pretty good sense of what was going on neurobiologically.
Luckily, I fell asleep before I went down that rabbit hole!
But now that I’m well rested, I’ll take a stab at it.
When I’m having trouble falling asleep and I switch my attention from the superhighway in my head to the expansive, radiant sensations in my body, the ever-present but typically under-the-level-of-consciousness messages my body sends to my brain begin to come online and percolate up into awareness. My anterior insula lights up and interfaces with my orbitofrontal cortex which then helps my hippocampus understand that no threat is present and that my Hypothalamic Pituitary Adrenal Axis can chill out. This helps me let go of any unconscious muscular tension I may be holding.
My brain stem slows my respiratory and heart rate, further kicking in the parasympathetic response. My Reticular Activating System softens its attention to whatever happens to be on my mind. Dopamine and serotonin mostly downregulate, oxytocin, endocannabinoids and other opioid receptor agonists upregulate. My brain waves begin slowing down, shifting from alpha to theta.
And then I slip into Lala Land.
The key point is this: It’s the connecting to and grounding of my body that allows my mind to slow down and let go into sleep.
And that process, that linking of the body and mind, in order to surrender into sleep, well, you could call that practice yoga, couldn’t you?
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