My year of insomnia was thirty five years in the making. Just like the guy from the movie 127 hours stated with his hand jammed in the rock ‘every thought, action and deed led me here’. It started off gently, a little taste of sleeplessness and then culminated into a full blown ten course meal with all the trimmings. Sleep or getting it became my new desire, and I desperately sought out it’s company every night. Here is what I learnt.
There are two typical sleep disturbance patterns, one is the inability to fall asleep, the other is early morning waking and then having trouble getting back to sleep ( sleep maintenance).
The more you think about trying to sleep or the more you fixate on it the worse it gets. The more you fixate on any problem the more it becomes a part of your habitual patterns. The more something becomes habitual the more stuck you become. When you become obsessed about getting sleep there is no way you are going to get it. Sleep does not like being pressured or bullied.
Some people like to go to bed early and get up early, some go to bed late and prefer to sleep in. The pattern you prefer may not suit your Ayurvedic Doshas or classifications of Pita,Vata, and Kapha. We tend to choose what comforts us not what is good for us. Also if you have more Vata and you are stressed then you tend to lose sleep, that is how it manifests, however when you are Kapha and you are stressed/depressed then you may want to sleep all day long.
Research indicates that those who sleep poorly don’t have more stressful events in their life they just perceive them as more stressful. If your nervous system is in a constant state of arousal because you ‘feel’ more stressed you will have higher levels of stress hormones in your body. The hormone cortisol increases adrenaline surges in your body which are helpful if you want to run from a tiger, not so helpful if you want to sleep.
Here are the things I found helpful in overcoming my sleep issues.
1)Breaking the thought patterns
If you have a thought about the night ahead and that you won’t be able to sleep it’s really important to acknowledge you had that thought but then no longer fixate on it. Don’t dig the groove any deeper than it already is. Cognitive behavioural therapy can be effective if you are unable to break the habit of worrying about getting to sleep. Treat the thought as an amusement with a ‘oh there it goes again funny thought’ attitude.
2)Reverse psychology, trying to stay awake in order to fall asleep.
Lie in bed and shut your eyes. Now imagine that there is something really important you have to stay awake for. It works on the principle that we attract what we want and also what we don’t want. The desire to stay awake has the opposite effect.
3) Breathing exercises.
Slow breathing with an emphasis on lengthening the exhalation. Breath through the nose for the count of four and exhale for a count four. Gradually, without straining, increase the length of the exhale to five, six and maybe up to ten. Extending the exhale activates the calming parasympathetic nervous system.
Ujjayi or ocean breath counting. Practice Ujjayi breathing and count each exhale until you reach ten. Keep repeating this until you sleep. If you lose count start at one again. A version of this technique is also used in Yoga Nidra which is a type of deep yogic sleep. It is said that one hour of yoga Nidra is worth four hours of normal sleep.
4) Yoga Asana to promote better sleep.
These poses are conducive to calming and restoring; Supported downward dog with your head on a bolster, headstand, supported shoulder stand or legs up the wall. If you wake in the night the best calming pose to do is a forward fold.
5) Sleep hygiene
Reduce stimulants, tea, coffee, alcohol after mid afternoon. TV and computers are also stimulating. Keep the room dark, use ear plugs and eye patches. A gentle massage or bath will relax you. Lavender essential oil is soothing. Go to be at the same time and get up at the same time. Ayurveda recommends bed by ten up by six.
Insomnia is not a disease, it’s a red flag to indicate that something is out of balance in your life. These messages we get from our body are our teachers. For me a combination of the above techniques helped me bring back the awareness and balance my body was asking for and now I sleep like a baby.
Richard Millar, Yoga Nidra. http://www.irest.us/
Yoga as Medicine, Timothy McCall