Sleep is sacred. It is vital to our health and well-being, and is probably the most powerful healing practice there is. You need seven plus hours a night to reap the benefits. Anything less is dysfunctional and brings with it health risks. As sleep scientist Matthew Walker bluntly puts it, the shorter your sleep the shorter your life. We spend so much money on supplements, gym memberships and other ways to boost our health, when one of the most beneficial (if not the most beneficial) practice is free and available to us every day.
Investing in sleep is never wasted. Yet often our society sees sleep as lazy or something that can be traded for work or socialising. I would encourage you to read up on the benefits of sleep and then decide about how you prioritise it. From cancer, heart disease, strokes to Alzheimer’s, heathy sleep has been shown to reduce your risk dramatically.
So what if you have difficulty sleeping? Or if there’s room for improvement?
Well, there are loads of good pieces of advice already out there about pillows, mattresses, optimal temperature, essential oils, herbal teas and baths. So I thought I would share some of the wisdom from the traditions I teach.
How you breathe during the night will have an enormous impact on the quality of your sleep.
Contrary to what we believe, carbon dioxide is the driver when it comes to breath, not oxygen. You can take in as much oxygen as you like but if you’re CO2 deficient, your body won’t be able to do anything with it. The oxygen will circle through your body and leave unused. When we sleep the body heals itself and regenerates – it stands to reason that you want to optimise oxygen uptake then.
Carbon dioxide is a sedative and linked to the restful part of the nervous system, vital to good sleep. Taking time before you get into bed to increase the amount of carbon dioxide in the body is a great investment. Five to ten minutes of controlled breath will be sufficient.
Try this: Inhale & exhale softly and relaxed through the nose. Hold the breath out by pinching your nose for 5 seconds. Take two normal breaths, then repeat the breath hold of 5 seconds.
(If this seems too easy, then omit the 2 normal breaths, and continue with the breath hold after the exhale).
Do this until you start to feel air hunger – the desire to breathe more. If you can, keep that slight feeling of suffocation at a manageable level – in other words, if you have to gasp in air, you’re doing too much. Find a state of “comfortable uncomfortable”. Continue for at least 3 minutes.
Spend 2 or 3 minutes after this exercise breathing light, slow and deep. The breath should feel so soft that you can barely feel it in the nostrils. You should be breathing about 5 to 6 times a minute. And the breath will be coming down into the base of the lungs ie you’re breathing diaphragmatically.
Breathing through your left nostril is also a way to calm the system down and encourage you to snooze. The next time you can’t sleep, check which nostril is more dominant. If it’s your right, then take 5 minutes and just breathe through the left nostril, blocking the right.
Those of you with the Members Package might want to check out the following in the Breath Archive; Chemicals and Breath, Heart-Centred Breathing, Focus on Exhale and 5.5 Breath
Snoring or mouth breathing during the night is a huge impediment to sleep. You can be the World’s most perfect breather during the day, but if you’re a mouth breather at night, you’ll be undoing all of that good work. Menopausal and post-menopausal women be warned, you’re at a much higher risk of this due to the loss of hormones that previously helped keep your airways open. If you suspect you are mouth breathing throughout the night (dry throat/mouth in the morning? Partner wants to kill you?) then you might want to check out this article from last year. Mouth breathing / snoring can cause you to wake up throughout the night, even briefly, interrupting the cycle. Left unchecked this can lead to sleep apnea.
Sleep is a rhythm of the body so make your sleep habit a constant in that cycle. Try to sleep and wake at the same time to build a healthy habit. Your body likes habit and whilst it’s healthy to disrupt some habits that the body likes, this is not one of them!
Your body’s rhythm is affected by light and darkness (think jetlag) so try dimming the lights two hours before you go to sleep. Turn off all laptops, TVs and other sources of artificial light and make the room as dark as possible.
The pineal gland is largely responsible for maintaining the body’s rhythm. Meditation is a great practice for boosting pineal secretions – practising any form of meditation you like for about 20 minutes before you hit the hay will help.
If you’re a Babacool member, perhaps try some of the Short Sets like Quiet Your Mind or Sitali Breathing.
We engage in two activities throughout the day – we charge or we discharge. When we take stuff in to the body – food, water, inhaling, energy, media, activities that trigger the sympathetic nervous system – we charge ie we become more activated. When we take stuff from inside us and move it out – exhaling, punching, shouting, some physical exercises, elimination – we discharge or down-regulate the system. Clearly the last thing you want to do before bed is charge yourself!
Take care in the hours leading up to bed. Ask yourself, is this activity charging or discharging? Just as you wouldn’t drink coffee before bed, don’t watch or look at anything that’s going to trigger you. A comedy on the telly that makes you laugh will be better than watching something that’s going to make you angry or nervous (take it from me, I used to be the queen of pre-bed Twitter – I’d be so angry I’d be bouncing off the walls!). Facebook before bed isn’t great either – you’re invariably going to see something that triggers you. I read for an hour in bed, and I tend to read things on the drier end of the spectrum, like a science book, or something with lots of facts. Soon my brain is begging for sleep!
Most physical exercise will help you to discharge HOWEVER you need to factor in the chemicals released during exercise and leave sufficient time after exercising before you go to bed. The runner’s high isn’t conducive to restful sleep!
Here are some things you can try if you’re jangling just before bed:
- Point and flex your feet. This can be done in bed – inhale and flex your feet, exhale and point your toes. Continue until you feel sleepy.
- A discharging yoga practice involves fatigue-ing muscles without re-charging them. Long holds in plank or a squat, stretch pose, or pelvic lift all work well. Held standing poses can be very charging and are best avoided. (For stretches see below).
- Bang it out – I’m a big fan of slapping the floor or the bed with your hands, as fast as you can and for at least 3 minutes. You’ll be a bit buzzy afterwards but as that fades, you’ll start to feel restful. Shout or yell as you do this if you want and if other people in the room allow. If you can’t bang the floor or bed, shake it out – arms overhead, shake for 2-3 minutes.
- Frogs – if you do Kundalini with me, you’ll know what this is all about. Rapid squats, fingers on the floor. A powerful way to discharge energy and also flush the blood round the body.
- Hold the arms overhead or out to the side – 2.5 minutes minimum. Your elbows must be straight and you must stretch out to the side or up until you feel a slight pull into the armpit. This will slow the breath and re-set the nervous system.
Members, check out Kundalini classes Sleep (obviously), Stress Patterns, Reset Your Nervous System, The Will & The Flow, and Total Balance. Processing Anger is also worth trying if you’re ruminating about something.
Stretches held for 2 or more minutes also allow a release of tension from tissue. But not all stretches are equal when it comes to discharging. When you want to boost sleep. work with lengthening the back of the body, rather than stretching the front which can be really energising.
- Stretch the backs of the legs – this is recommended across most traditions. You will need a yoga strap or something that can work as a strap such as a scarf, dressing gown belt or tie. Lie on your back, hook the strap around the middle of one of your feet and raise the leg up towards the ceiling. You can keep the knee bent, you just need to feel a stretch. Hold for 2 minutes plus, then gently lower the leg and swap sides. You could also take the leg across the body for a rotation or out to the side for a hip stretch.
- Legs up – this is similar to the above. Lie on your back near a clear wall and swing your legs up it. Squoosh your bum in as close to the wall as you can manage. Relax here – it’s a gentle stretch for the backs of the legs. But this works more by resting the systems of the body and causing the more restful part of the nervous system to become dominant. To come out, bend your knees and either push yourself away from the wall or roll onto one of your sides.
Members check out the Yin section in the Archive. I would recommend Yang to Yin, Yin for Sleep, and Yin for Anxiety.
There is evidence that sleep gets more difficult as we age. However this is not just something to accept. It just means you have to work a little harder at it. When I was a teenager I could sleep anywhere at the drop of a hat and for hours. I can still sleep soundly for 7 plus hours but I have to work at it. I have to set aside time to prepare, I tape my mouth, I’ve invested in good quality bed linen, and use essential oils. I also recognise that I sleep much better when I’ve been physically active and so try to exercise during the day as much as possible.
Having a yoga practice in the evening, if you have the time, is also great – it resets your nervous system, settles your breath, balances your blood chemistry and encourages the glandular system to secrete the right hormones.
ATTITUDE & HABIT
One of the most difficult things about not sleeping, especially over an extended time, is the expectation that it’s the norm. People come to believe that they can’t sleep and accept 4 or 5 hours as all they’re capable of. Often, in addition, an anxiety around sleep builds up. Bed is no longer a place of rest and recovery.
In meditation and reflective yoga practice, you can start to examine your attitude toward sleep and see how much of it is real. Are you really unable to sleep or is this a belief you’ve reinforced over time? Practises such as Kundalini balance the nervous and glandular system, undoing unconscious patterns. Yin Yoga helps change the shape of the body and release deep stress patterns, often linked to habits and beliefs.
And then change it up a bit in the bedroom. Create your ultimate haven of calm – invest in some quality bed linen, place a plant you love near the bed, perhaps even change the position of the bed. Bring in everything that inspires rest and recovery for you. Break the pattern by creating a sense of newness and then be open to the possibility that maybe you can sleep for 7 hours or more. Practice some of the things listed above and see. It might take time but there’s no reason why it won’t work.
For more on sleep, Matthew Walker’s book, Why We Sleep? is highly recommended. If you don’t want to read about it, then listen to him on the Rich Roll Podcast.