Setting the Stage for Better Sleep

We can’t all fall into a restful sleep at the drop of a hat like Puff in the picture here. Most of us need to do a little advance planning to prepare for a more restful night, starting with getting a handle on those things that are keeping us up. Let’s face it, sleep issues knocking at your door at 2 AM have likely been lurking on the porch all day. Getting better sleep is a day-long project! 

Whether from work or other factors, stress and anxiety both sit atop that list of sleep robbers and merit special mention. Yoga offers numerous techniques to assist in managing both conditions. You can find ideas here, here, here, and lots of other places. It’s most effective to work with a teacher, either one-on-one or in a workshop setting devoted to the issue that’s keeping you awake. (Watch this space for workshops with me on managing stress and getting better sleep in the next few months!) 

To eliminate underlying health issues and resolve long-term or seriously disruptive sleep problems that interfere with your mood, overall energy level, or ability to enjoy life, be sure to include your doctor and healthcare team in your sleep improvement effort.

Any discussion of this nature generally leads to a recitation of the rules of sleep hygiene, the low-hanging fruit of making a positive change. You can read my take on those here. The list includes items such as keeping a regular sleep schedule, avoiding ingesting things that will keep you awake, and creating a sleeping area that is comfortable, cool, quiet, and technology-free. These are all great suggestions, but they can sound a bit rigid. Smart yogis always modify postures that don’t suit them. In this case, feel free to soften “absolutes” that don’t work in your case. The ubiquitous instruction to never watch TV in bed, for example, would be more helpful if it ended: unless TV in bed is what helps you sleep!

As you are considering underlining causes, pay particular attention to how you’re transitioning away from your work day. The line between working and not working has been blurred tremendously over the past decade. In the September 2013 issue of Honest to Goodness magazine, I shared lots of ideas for moving from work to leisure time. There’s also a brief posture sequence to ease you into the chill out mode.

Watching them sleep when you can't can be a welcome reminder of the joy they bring during the day.

Watching them sleep when you can’t can be a welcome reminder of the joy they bring.

One very effective way to prepare your body for rest is to create an evening ritual. A regular sequence that signals your body that sleep is on the horizon can go a long way toward eliciting a sweet surrender. Unlike other sequences I’ve created for you, you’ll need to devise this one yourself, based on your own unique needs. But it won’t be totally unfamiliar.  You’ve undoubtedly already encountered an evening ritual in action. It goes something like this: dinner, quiet play, bath, story, another please, favorite part of day, under the covers, kisses and hugs, lights out.

This tried-and-true sequence has lasted the test many generations. Your adult version will most likely not include a recitation Goodnight Moon. (But far be it from me to discourage any effort to resolve a situation as complicated as troubled sleep. In fact, if you think it’ll help, here you go.) Your sequence should relax you body, mind and spirit. And it really is personal. What sounds good to me may be the opposite of helpful to you.  For example, many people enjoy a pillowcase spritz of lavender–a relaxing aromatherapy staple that would drive me straight to the closet in search of fresh linens.

A good place to start is with the 400-gallon elephant in the room. There’s a reason warm baths are so popular. So many bases covered in one soothing soak: Cleansing away the day, relaxing the things we’re holding onto, opening the breathing passages with gentle steam, possibly enhanced with a drop of essential eucalyptus oil, and surrendering to the soothing sounds of the water. For aching muscles, throw in a cup of Epson salt or baking soda. Indeed, a bath would make an outstanding beginning, middle, or end to any nighttime preparation.

Additional ideas to relax all five senses, with suggestions for lowering the volume of internal chatter:

Sight: When it’s time for sleep, a completely dark room is best. Gradually lowering the light in the room from overhead, to spot, to a soft reading lamp is a lovely entree to total darkness. Consider not placing a clock right next to you on the nightstand, especially one that glows in the dark to constantly remind you what time it is during waking spells. This is especially true of your smart phone, which in addition to the LED light will helpfully ping or vibrate the arrival of every new message or tweet, prompting you to consider getting up to check.

Speaking of the visual, did you know that clutter in the bedroom could be a source of stress? It provides visual stimuli that makes us think (mostly about the clutter) and even feel guilty (again, about the clutter). Part of your ritual might include some aspect of de-cluttering the space, or at least dealing with clothes piled on the floor or furniture.

Touch: Whether it’s a bath or just washing your face and hands in the sink, follow your evening cleanse with a nourishing application of body oil or lotion. You might also consider massaging your tired feet and legs with oil while the bath water is running, then sinking into the tub for your soak. Explore your local Ayurveda store for an oil that is suited to your disposition. Follow up with non-binding clothes in comfy fabrics.

Sound: Silence (or white noise) is golden when it comes to sleep, but there are literally thousands of free recordings of guided relaxations, soothing music and night-time meditations available to you on the internet. Just Google, “sounds that calm the mind,” to see what I mean. There is also a wide assortment of music available on CD or MP3 that’s been engineered to elicit specific brain wave reactions. Look for those that sedate beta waves (waking state) and elicit Alpha (deep relaxation), Theta (light sleep), or Delta (deep sleep) states.

Smell: We’ve already determined that I don’t like the scent of lavender. But you might love it or one of the many other calming scents that are widely available. Many people swear by aromatherapy. You can either spray, diffuse, or apply the directly to your pulse points. 

Taste: What could be lovelier than an evening tea ceremony? There are so many delicious, calming teas available, it may be difficult to stop at one cup. If some variety of warm milk is more your taste, there’s always cocoa, provided the caffeine is not too stimulating. Or try the Ayurvedic trick of adding a dash of nutmeg, a calming spice, to your warm mug.

Calming the mind: Activities that bring you to your higher self are a wonderful way to release the mundane thoughts of the day. These might include keeping a gratitude journal, praying, practicing lovingkindness meditation, or writing a mental or physical thank you letter to someone who has been important or influential in your life. To physically relax while quieting your mind, try this simple breath practice: Take an easy breath and count how long it takes to exhale. Gradually build your exhale by three seconds. Repeat for 6-10 breaths, or till you’ve fallen asleep.

It’s possible that you’ll create a brilliant ritual and still find yourself occasionally awake in the night. Plan B should include activities that elicit feelings of joy and gratitude, rather than anxiety about tomorrow. Counting your blessings, reliving happy memories, taking yourself mentally to your favorite place, or watching your breath all fall into that category. If you are not back to sleep within 15 minutes, just get up and do some quiet activity, possibly in preparation for your second sleep.

This should get you started thinking. I’m sure you’ll come up with things that I’ve missed. If you hit on something that’s particularly useful, please share it in the comments so others might benefit. And pleasant dreams, y’all!

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