Insomnia—the inability to get to sleep or to sleep soundly—can be either temporary or chronic, lasting a few days to weeks. It affects a whopping 54 percent of adults in the UK at one time or another, and insomnia that lasts more than six weeks may affect from 10 to 15 percent of adults at some point during their lives. To get a decent night’s sleep, some people are turning to pills.
“Sleeping pills are not always a cure; they treat the symptom but not the underlying problem,” explains Sat Bir Khalsa, a Kundalini Yoga teacher who’s also an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and a neuroscientist at the Division of Sleep Medicine. Beneath the symptoms of insomnia are the anxiety, fatigue, and stress that our increasingly fast-paced world seems to be creating. These days, who hasn’t worked long hours without taking a break?
You may feel that you’ve adapted to the intense rhythm that modern life requires, but if you’re experiencing sleepless nights, your nervous system is probably rebelling. It may be stuck in a state known as arousal, where your sympathetic nervous system is triggered. In this state your mind will race or your palms might sweat. Your body will secrete more stress hormones, and your temperature and metabolic rates will rise, as will your heart rate. “There is very good evidence that people with chronic insomnia have elevated levels of arousal in general,” Khalsa says. “And some insomniacs have higher levels right before they go to sleep.” But Khalsa, who is studying how a form of Kundalini Yoga breathing called Shabad Kriya helps people with insomnia, offers good news: “Treating the arousal should treat the insomnia.” By creating a routine of soothing rituals, you can bring your nervous system back into balance and transform your sleep patterns for good.
Rituals for Relaxing
Whether it’s yoga to reduce muscle tension, breathing to slow the heart rate, or an herbal massage to calm a racing mind, a simple routine can be the most effective and safest road to a better night’s sleep. There is growing evidence that small behavioral changes can make a big difference in getting some good shuteye.
To find out which rituals will work best for you, it helps to understand insomnia from an Ayurvedic perspective. Yoga’s sister science and India’s oldest known system of medicine, Ayurveda is based on the idea that the life force that exists in all of us manifests as three different energies, or doshas, known as vata, pitta, and kapha. Though everyone has some of each dosha, most people tend to have an abundance of one or two.
Vata, ruled by air and ether, governs movement in the body. Pitta, ruled by fire, governs digestion and the metabolism. And kapha, ruled by earth and water, governs your physical structure and fluid balance. Ayurveda categorizes insomnia as a vata imbalance, because vata is controlled by air—and air controls the nervous system. Calming yoga and Ayurvedic rituals reduce vata in the body.
Nosh and Nibble
The diet mantra “Don’t eat before bed” isn’t always the best advice. Some folks benefit from nighttime noshing. “When you sleep, you are repairing your tissues,” says Aadil Palkhivala, a certified Ayurvedic practitioner and the founder-director of Yoga Centers in Bellevue, Washington. “The body needs nutrition when it’s going into a state of healing.”
Keep a Journal
When it’s time to go to sleep, do you start replaying the day’s events or think of what you need to do in the morning? A great evening ritual is putting your thoughts on paper: Write down the contents of your mind to get all of your worries out before your head hits the pillow.
Guide Your Relaxation
After getting into bed, try a body scan as you lie in Savasana (Corpse Pose): Progressively tense and then relax each part of your body. If you have trouble doing this on your own, get an audio CD of meditations, guided imagery, or Yoga Nidra (yogic sleep), to help. “This is good for people who have mental chatter,” says Cole. “It takes their mind in a different direction.”
Whichever ideas you take on, we hope you are able to find peace and rest easy.