Why do we sleep? Do we need more energy than food alone can provide? Or does sleep occur simply to facilitate restorative processes in the body? While there are numerous hypotheses surrounding this matter, one thing is for certain: people need sleep. When we are well-rested, we wake up feeling refreshed and ready to take on whatever the day may bring. We are happier, more energetic, and much more productive. Even one night of poor sleep can throw our systems out of balance. Most modern adults can easily remember a sleepless night (either due to working late, studying, worrying, taking a red-eye flight across the globe, etc.) and how groggy they felt the next day. It is common to be familiar with such an experience, however when it becomes a consistent pattern, it can wreak havoc on our lives.
Being chronically sleep-deprived tends to result in moodiness, higher rates of depression (it is difficult to enjoy much of anything when we barely have the energy to make it through the day), lower productivity, and much lower rates of life satisfaction. One night of poor sleep may not seem like such a big deal, but chronic insomnia can take a serious toll on life and happiness.
According to the National Sleep Foundation, 48% of Americans report experiencing insomnia occasionally, and 22% report difficulty sleeping at least every other night. This means that almost 1 in 4 people are consistently lacking sleep!
So how can we fix this? First, it is important to address the underlying causes of insomnia. While there are many (ranging from side-effects of medications to having a newborn baby in the room to obstructions in the respiratory tract), one of the most common reasons why Americans experience insomnia is anxiety. When we want to go to sleep, our minds, like our bodies, must be calm and relaxed. Worrying about tasks and concerns of the day tells our brain that it is not safe to relax, that we need to fix or solve something first (whether or not the issue keeping us awake is within our control). This anxiety keeps us from drifting into the initial stages of sleep. To make matters worse, many people look at the time, see that they have less hours left to sleep before the alarm goes off, begin worrying about how tired they will be the next day, and as a result become more anxious. Their minds slip further away from sleep than when they initially got into bed.
While it is impossible to turn off the brain, there are many ways to create an environment that is more conducive to sleep. A good place to begin is to maintain proper sleep hygiene. Going to bed at a regular time, turning off electronic devices, and giving yourself time to unwind are helpful. This routine will calm down your mind and signal that it is time for rest. For many insomniacs though, proper sleep hygiene alone does not bring about much improvement, as their minds are still racing.
Once proper sleep hygeine has been established, it is time to turn to the thoughts and anxieties that keep us awake. Letting go of worries and concerns is far from easy, however there are effective ways to deal with them. Practices such as yoga and mindfulness meditation have been found to be very helpful. A study conducted by the Harvard-affiliated Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine found that a mindfulness awareness program was very effective in improving the sleep of participants. The researchers recruited a group of middle-aged and older adults with sleep difficulties to participate. The participants were divided into two groups; a mindfulness meditation group and a sleep education group. The latter would learn about healthy sleep habits and sleep hygiene in general, while the former learned meditation exercises promoting mindfulness and being fully present. The mindfulness group learned how to focus on the breath and moment-to-moment experiences, such as thoughts, feelings, and emotions. After six weeks, those in the mindfulness group experienced less fatigue, depression, and insomnia than did those in the sleep education group. This makes logical sense–once people are able to focus on their present experience, they are better able to decrease worries about the past and future, and more easily attain a state of tranquility and calm.
Yoga practice has also been observed to effectively prepare the body for sleep and relaxation. Yoga breathing and stretching can have a calming effect on the physical body as well as on the mind. A preliminary study at Harvard Medical school found that engaging in a 45 minute Kundalini yoga practice before bedtime eased the symptoms of insomnia. Kundalini yoga utilizes deep breathing and meditation, helping practitioners to calm racing thoughts and anxieties. The study found that participants were able to fall asleep easier and awaken less often throughout the night after consistently practicing the yoga sequence.
How can we apply these findings to our own lives? The clear answer is to start practicing yoga and mindfulness meditaion! Try it and see what works best for your body and mind. It is very easy to begin, here are a few exercises you can try at home:
Mindfulness meditation: Choose something to focus on. This can be a mantra, such as “ohm” or “relax”, or your breath. Breathe deeply, in and out. As thoughts arise, allow them to pass and observe them, as if each thought were a leaf floating down the river in front of you. Return your focus to your breath or mantra. Visit our posts on Mindfulness and Meditation for more info.
Yoga: A simple pose to begin with is the Forward Bend. This pose eases tension and opens the hips. Begin sitting cross-legged on the floor, and slowly bend forward at the hips, stretching your arms in front of you on the floor. Hold this pose for at least 30-45 seconds, remembering to breathe. For more pose ideas click here.
Consider taking a yoga class for more guidance, or use the Yogatailor app to better fit your schedule (try the Guided Calm Meditation to help you to relax in the evening and prepare your mind for rest). As mindfulness meditation and yoga become a part of your routine, you may experience more moments of calm and an easier time sleeping. Good luck and namaste!
Feel free to share your experiences with us on Twitter @yogatailor or in the comments section below.
For more information on the studies mentioned in this article, visit:
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