Conscious Rest: Yoga for Insomnia
It’s 3:00 AM. You look at your blinking clock and think, “I have to get up in four hours. I need to get to sleep.” You toss and turn, worrying about the fact that you are not sleeping, and the more you worry, the harder it is to sleep.
Sound familiar? I’ve struggled with insomnia for most of my life, and while exercise, bedtime routines, and diet adjustments have helped, I still have the occasional night wondering why the heck I’m not sleeping.
Sleep is fundamentally vulnerable. If we are worried, our primitive brains think we need to be on guard for predators and won’t let us relax into the dangerous zone of unconsciousness. While we can’t simply turn off stress, we can send signals to the body and brain that we are safe right now.
Below is a simple restorative yoga practice you can do under the covers with two or three pillows when sweet unconsciousness eludes you. It follows the advice my mom used to give me as an insomniac child: “It doesn’t matter whether you are sleeping, as long as you are resting.”
In fact, resting in your parasympathetic nervous system (the “rest and digest” state) can be more restorative than sleep if, like me, sleep sometimes means bad dreams and teeth grinding. This is a practice of conscious rest, and if you do happen to drift off, that sleep will be rich and restful.
The most important tool for this practice is relaxed belly breath. Focus on the belly softly expanding as you inhale and releasing as you exhale. Focusing on sensation can help us switch into the present moment in our bodies. Even if there is a specific issue keeping you up, focus on what it feels like in your body, not what you should do about it. The second key is to move slowly. Jumping up to yank your blanket around will send the signal to your brain that you are under stress again and need to be alert.
From sitting, place one pillow horizontally behind you and lay back so that your hips stay on the bed, and your shoulders dip off the top edge of the pillow. Your second pillow supports your head. If you have a third pillow, place it under your knees. This pose opens the belly and creates space for the breath. It is excellent for back sleepers.
From the Reclined Backbend, roll onto your right side so that one pillow is under your head, and the other supports the curve of your waist. Your right hip is on the bed, and your right shoulder dips into the space between the two pillows. Curl your knees in; your third pillow can support between your legs. This is an excellent pose for side sleepers who get neck pain, and laying on the right side is physiologically slightly more relaxing than laying on the left side. Switch sides whenever you like.
Supported Sleeping Baby
Lay on your belly. Slide your left knee up towards your armpit so that your shin rests on a pillow. Tuck the second pillow under the left side of your chest at a diagonal so that you can wrap your left arm around the pillow and rest the left side of your chest and your right cheek on it. Your right shoulder, arm, and hip are all still on the bed. This is a helpful pose for lower back pain and is great for stomach sleepers. Switch sides whenever you like.