It was around 7:30 a.m. on the East Coast when I sent an email to my friend Cate. She had just quit a job that no longer fulfilled her and had agonized about the decision, so I sent a quote I thought would encourage her during a trying time. I figured she’d see it in the morning when she woke up — she was on the West Coast.
But Cate replied almost immediately, at 4:30 a.m. her time. She told me she’d gone to bed, but woken up at 2 a.m. feeling anxious about the changes in her life.
“I worry about the dumbest things,” she confessed. “I'll never have a corporate Amex card again, never stay in nice hotels paid for by my employer, never be invited to certain conferences.”
America's Sleeplessness Epidemic
Once she started worrying, it was hard to shut off her brain. That puts her among the estimated 50 to 70 million Americans who suffer from sleeplessness, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The CDC calls this an epidemic.
Most people know the standard advice about getting sleep: go to bed at regular times, unwind before lying down and keep the room dark.
But there’s more to it than that. As a yoga therapist, my students tell me that what keeps them awake is worry and angst, the kind Cate so aptly described.
How to Release the Day’s Tension
When it comes to insomnia, what you do during the day will either help or hinder your ability to sleep at night. If you have a stressful work- or home life, you can’t just turn it all off at bedtime. Anxieties rise like phantoms as you replay painful scenes from the past or obsess about future events.
Further, many people go to bed without systematically releasing physical and mental tension. They can wake up stiff, sore and unrefreshed. Instead of slipping into slumber, fatigued from healthy physical exertion, we lie awake after sitting cooped up behind desks.
Many of us are not lulled by soft winds or waves lapping the shore: urban dwellers hear car alarms and traffic noise. After-images of violent episodes from the evening television news or entertainment can intrude on what should be a tranquil time.
On top of all that, our society perversely lauds those who sleep little, favoring a frantic pace of work and overdoing.
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The practices of yoga and meditation are invaluable for insomnia. Yoga relaxes your muscles, and that, in turn, helps you calm your mind through meditation.
The ancient sages were wise: They knew that it was difficult to tame your unruly thoughts if you had pain in your body. So they developed methods to make it easier to sit still for long periods. Without bodily discomfort to interrupt and distract you, it is easier to quiet the mind.
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And dedicated meditators enjoy wonderful benefits: lower blood pressure, reduced anxiety and pain and more clarity about difficult life situations.
What Yoga Is — and Isn’t
There is a distinction between traditional yoga and some of the hybrids that you might encounter at the gym. Yoga postures are meant to be steady and comfortable. As you do the posture, there’s a relaxation of effort, even in challenging poses.
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A lot of “yoga” classes today are taught like Western forms of exercise where students strain to achieve, competing with each other, the teacher and themselves. Often they push to perform a posture beyond their physical limits. If yoga is performed this way, much of the benefits are lost and there’s a high risk of injury.
Which yoga methods are best for insomnia?
At night, skip Sun Salutation or other vinyasas (series of poses that are linked together into in an unbroken flow); these are best performed in the morning or afternoon. If you have had an energizing daytime session, be sure to finish with savasana (deep relaxation done lying on your back).
At night, to regulate and deepen slumber, it’s wise to do easy, slow poses finished by 20 minutes or more of savasana. Unless you are extremely anxious, another excellent choice is Restorative Yoga. In this method, you are supported by bolsters and blankets in a comfortable position for several minutes at a time.
Be mindful of any uncomfortable sensations during your session, and discontinue or modify the pose. If the discomfort is minor, use your breath to release it. Think of your tension as ice and your breath as the warmth of the sun. Then let your tension melt.
By doing yoga and meditating consistently, you'll learn to function in the world in a more relaxed fashion even though your stressors remain constant. The more you practice, the easier it will be to let go at bedtime.
If You Still Can’t Sleep
Occasionally, even the best sleepers have a wakeful night. The hours pass by and apprehension grows as you think of what you have to accomplish the next day — and wonder how you’ll do it without a good night’s rest.
Comfort yourself with the thought that you can lie in bed and rest, which will help you tomorrow.
You might even have an important insight like Cate did the night she wrote me. The quote I sent was about how important it is to remain true to yourself, even if it means leaving familiar people or situations.
Cate was on a last work trip as she transitioned out of her job with a large nonprofit. She wrote: “Instead of having my usual blissful experience, where those who are trying to get our funds pay homage to me and listen with rapt attention to anything I say, I felt like a complete outsider/imposter.” She realized that she was a gatekeeper; the funds had never been hers and her identity was falsely attached to her job.
Cate now understood, “I am not my old job, I am not my new job, I can only be Cate. I must be.”
By quitting her position to follow her heart, Cate intuitively followed one of the great precepts of yoga: Truthfulness. And by looking at her own thoughts and behavior, she adhered to another precept, self-study, which allows you to get at the source of a problem.
The following night, Cate slept like a baby.