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. Some insomniacs have higher levels right before they go to sleep. However, by creating a routine of soothing rituals, you can bring your nervous system back into balance and transform your sleep patterns for good.
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. A 2006 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that participants who made modifications like reducing stimuli in the bedroom and learning relaxation techniques improved their sleep more than those who took drugs.
Tuck in Early
The first step to feeling well rested is to institute a regular bedtime. Maintaining consistency will help keep your circadian rhythms—the biological changes that happen every 24 hours—steady. Eventually, your body will naturally understand and crave sleep during these hours.
Create a Wind-Down Period
The next step is to create some space between your busy day and sleep time. You can’t just work until 9 at night, and then stick your head on the pillow and fall asleep. Try and cut down on or eliminate evening classes and exercise that leaves you feeling amped up. When you come home, honor this transition by playing relaxing music, lighting candles, putting on your favorite pajamas, or end your evening with a sequence of slow passive yoga poses. Think of the yoga precept ofpratyahara: Withdraw your senses in order to turn inward.
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.” Depending on your constitution, bedtime snacks might include spelt toast and butter, organic milk, or lentil dahl. And of course, during the day, it’s important to eat healthful fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and grains to promote rest at night. “Sleep is a yin process, but when food has chemicals in it, it becomes yang and the mind goes into an aroused state. Eating foods such as cooked apples, Brussels sprouts, tofu, millet, oats, walnuts, and squash are also good choices to keep energy levels up at night. Also, use common sense: If you want to sleep well, don’t drink alcohol or caffeine after 5 p.m.
Strike a Pose
After you wind down from your day, notice how you feel before doing an evening yoga routine. Are you wired or tired? “These need to be treated differently. If you are amped up, 10 minutes of poses like twists, standing poses, and active forward bends to burn off excess energy. If you are tired, do some restorative poses or breathing until you feel more refreshed and relaxed—and then hit the sack. Though it seems contradictory, it’s common to be too tired to sleep. Everyone thinks that when you can’t sleep, you have too much energy, but usually people have too little energy: They are too exhausted to get to sleep. Restorative poses can help.
Massage Away Tension
A soothing massage releases muscular tension and helps the transition to bed. Try rubbing your head, neck, face, and arms with warm, unfiltered organic sesame oil. This puts a shield around the body and also makes you feel nurtured. You can also include someone in your ritual by asking them for a yawn-inducing rubdown: The spine from the neck downward should be stroked for about five minutes with a gentle touch.
Breathe for Ease
Breathwork is another excellent addition to your nightly sleep routine. “Every time you exhale, it slows your heartbeat and that helps calm you down,” says Roger Cole, an Iyengar Yoga teacher and a research scientist specializing in the physiology of sleep. Try two parts exhalation to one part inhalation. For example, start by exhaling through your nose to the count of 6 and then inhale through your nose to the count of 3. Do this for 5 to 30 minutes before bed.
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.
When you go to bed, you want your skin to be warm. If you’re feeling a bit cool, drink a warm cup of herbal tea or take a bath and remember to bundle up. Have a blanket, socks, and a sweater nearby.
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 to help. This is good for people who have mental chatter.
Once you’ve chosen your specific nighttime ritual, repeat it every night to cue your body that it’s time for sleep. After a few weeks of practice, your sleep will improve. These things don’t work instantly, but over time you normalize arousal and sleep starts to get better.