I’ve had insomnia since I was a kid.
I remember lying on my back with my covers pulled up to my ears, staring at the stars through my window, acutely aware of the stillness of the rest of my family sleeping peacefully, and wondering when I’d finally drift off too.
And actually, rather than indulge in the hopelessness of labeling myself an “insomniac,” I prefer to call myself a person who occasionally struggles with insomnia (a little cognitive reframe can go a long way).
When my sixth grade social studies teacher guided us through śavasana during the first meeting of our “Yoga Club,” I realized I had found something that could help me on those sleepless nights. And even today, when I struggle to get to sleep, I can hear Ms. Gayle’s gentle voice saying, “Your feet are heavy, your feet are heavy, your feet are relaxed, your feet are completely…relaxed.” Guiding myself through her body scan relaxation, all these years later, is still one of the most effective techniques that I use to manage my insomnia.
Over the years I’ve picked up several other yoga practices that have helped.
Here’s a list in no particular order:
- Meditation – I find that if I make sure to take time to meditate when I first get up in the morning and right before I go to bed at night, that I generally have better sleep quality. Meditation is an opportunity to take a vacation from the mad monkey that tends to hang out in my head. It has been the single most important yoga practice for me in managing my sleep challenges because it is something that helps me to tune into (and learn how to self-regulate) my nervous system.
- Legs Up the Wall – This is a pose that I do pretty much daily. Often, around 5 in the afternoon I like to take a 10-20 minute legs up the wall break from whatever I’m doing. On busy days, I often will do legs up the wall when I get home and then again before bed. Legs up the wall before bed is another excellent diversion for the insomnia fairies. When I travel through different times zones, legs up the wall helps me to manage jet leg. I will even do it during a layover in a corner of the airport somewhere. And, in the middle of the night if I wake up and can’t get back to sleep, legs up the wall is an excellent practice to help me drift back off. The other night I got out of bed, went into another room and put my legs up the wall. I fell asleep quickly and opened my eyes an hour later, went back to bed and slept till 7. Happy dance!
- Self-guided Body Scan Śavasana or Yoga Nidra – I prefer to guide myself through these interoceptive awareness practices but many people love listening with headphones. There are many different free resources out there including iTunes and YouTube.
- Īśvarapraṇidhāna (Letting Go or Surrender) – When I’m struggling with sleep, remembering that this is a temporary condition, that I could fall asleep again at any moment, that being awake for a little while in the middle of the night is a lovely opportunity to quietly and gently repeat mantras, notice my soft breathing, connecting with my higher power, or enjoy sweet nocturnal vibes, is another technique I use to manage insomnia. I remind myself that tomorrow is always another opportunity to engage in self-care, to steep myself in gratitude, and to enjoy my not-always-sleep-deprived-and-for-the-most-part-pretty-awesome life.
- Other Self-Care Tips – While not necessarily from the yoga tradition, some of these have been quite helpful:
- Limit Screen exposure in the evening – or use a blue blocker app.
- Get some sunlight in the morning – going out in the morning for a walk or stronger exercise can make a huge difference.
- Don’t eat too late – if my body is not too busy digesting a heavy meal, I tend to sleep better.
- Darkening curtains – oh yes, the darker the better!
- CBD oil – that cannabidiol can be a great addition to everything else.
- Lose the coffee and chocolate – as much as I hate to admit it, sleep is less elusive when caffeine is absent from my typically wide awake enough bloodstream.
Here’s something my mom would say when I was having trouble sleeping (and I still like to remember it when insomnia visits): “It’s okay sweetie,” she’d remind me as she gently brushed the hair off of my forehead. “even if you can’t fall asleep, you are still resting.” It doesn’t always help me fall asleep, but it always makes me feel like everything is going to be okay.