The Secrets of Slumber
Sleep hacks for those who have tried everything else.
My parents used to throw loud parties with people dancing and singing late into the night. One night I woke up and complained. My mother promptly brought me back to bed and said, “I know the music is loud, but you have to learn how to sleep through it. There will always be noise around you. If you want to sleep, just put your mind to it.” I’m guessing not too many 4-year olds were given that advice. But guess what? For the most part, I have slept comfortably ever since.
Nature or nurture? I’ve been on an 8-hour a night sleep regimen for most of my life. My ability to sleep may be genetic (thanks Mom) but I also believe it’s a good habit I’ve developed over the years. Like most people, I’ve been challenged with insomnia at times and have had to figure out how to recapture a good night’s sleep. That’s why I believe sleep hacking is available to anyone who is willing to learn how to activate and pacify their body naturally. It’s a commitment and it will take time, but daily habits can impact your sleep in powerful ways.
There’s a lot of literature on the importance of sleep so I won’t go into that here. Arianna’s book, The Sleep Revolution (The Sleep Revolution-Transforming Your Life, One Night at a Time), is today’s go-to resource on the subject. In addition, sleep experts have a top 10 list of things to try: Let’s Talk About *Sleep*
For this article I’ve tried to include suggestions that you don’t generally hear about, or ways to vary what you’re doing to get different results. Many are things I learned in Kundalini yoga. I’ve tried them all, which is why I love sharing them.
Create your own personal sleep routine. This is the cornerstone of good sleep and I can’t recommend it enough. Set up your nighttime ritual and stick with it. Once your body finds its sleep groove, it will become easier and more natural to maintain.
Get to sleep earlier. Yogis say the best hours to sleep are 10 PM — 2 AM. Your automatic circadian body rhythm follows this same pattern. These are the hours when you get your most restorative sleep, so if you’re serious about sleeping better, re-engineer your life so you’re in bed by 9:30 PM. Yes, 9:30 PM!
Wear PJs. I’ve learned that part of a really great sleep ritual includes changing into garments that are designated for sleep only. It’s part of the emotional and mental set-up that helps get you into the sleep mode. Doesn’t putting on your ski clothes or ballet shoes put you in a specific mindset? PJs do the same thing.
Stretch your jaw. It may sound odd, but many people hold a lot of tension in their jaw. Use the index and middle fingers of each hand to gently pull your mouth open; also use these fingers to massage the upper jaw area around your ears. Press gently behind the earlobes and make small circles with your fingers. It will feel a little sore but it’s like being your own massage therapist. You should feel results quickly as you help your body relax.
Try left nostril breathing. Most relaxation techniques involve some kind of deep breathing. My go-to technique is very simple. Before you lie down, sit on the edge of your bed, block off your right nostril, and breathe for 2–3 minutes through your left nostril. Your body will automatically activate the parasympathetic nervous system, your rest and digest system, which will allows you to sleep more easily. If possible, try to get the most from this by sleeping on your right side. This allows your left nostril to remain open and dominant.
Take a warm bath. Try doing this every other night until your sleep ritual kicks in. I like to use Epsom salts with a little lavender essential oil. While you’re in the tub, don’t turn on any strong lights; they will stimulate instead of relax you. Consider listening to soothing music as you soak. This is a personal choice, but try to choose music that’s in sync with winding down instead of winding up.
Run cold water on your feet. Does that sound like the opposite of what you’d do? Me too. However, cold water on your body has many benefits, one of which is deeper breathing based on the physical jolt of the cold. This helps your body naturally work to keep warm and increases your oxygen intake, which results in physical relaxation. Do this for three minutes, dry your feet and put on socks. Then go to sleep with your socks on. Warm feet help you sleep better.
Do a sleep meditation. There is an excellent Kundalini meditation that helps your body relax as well as sleep. For non-yoga people, don’t worry: you don’t have to chant or say the mantra out loud.
Posture: Sit tall, hands in your lap, palms face up, right hand on top, with thumb tips touching and pointing forward, away from your body.
Eyes: Focus eyes at tip of the nose. Why? This stimulates both the pituitary and pineal glands to secrete more effectively. You’ll trigger natural melatonin release which will encourage more restorative and regenerative sleep.
Breath: The breath technique below helps focus the mind and relax the body. As you do the breathing, you mentally chant a mantra, which will give you a specific focus, allowing your mind to become still. This combination, in my opinion, is the magic behind this incredibly effective sleep aid:
- Inhale four equal sniffs, while mentally thinking “Sa-Ta-Na-Ma.” Each inhale has its own sound. First inhale “Sa”; second inhale “Ta”; etc.
- Hold the breath while mentally thinking the entire mantra four times, which totals 16 beats (Sa Ta Na Ma, Sa Ta Na Ma, Sa Ta Na Ma, Sa Ta Na Ma);
- Exhale in two equal parts, mentally thinking Wahe (“wah-hay”) on the first exhale, and Guru (“goo-roo”) on the second exhale.
Meaning of Mantra: Sa (infinite); Ta (beginnings); Na (endings); Ma (new beginnings); Wahe (wonderful or amazing) “Gu” (darkness) and “Ru” (divine light of knowledge).
Repeat for 11 minutes.
Drink a glass of water before you go to sleep. You get dehydrated when you sleep. This can wake you up or cause you to sleep poorly. Many people don’t want to get up after they’ve gone to bed, but it doesn’t matter. If you need to get up, try not to turn on the bathroom lights. Finish and get right back to bed. Once your sleep routine is firmly established, you’ll find falling asleep easier.
Consider a sleep APP. Not a new idea, but worth thinking about (you’ll have to keep your smart phone in your room, so consider the trade-offs.) Specifically, try a yoga nidra APP for sleep; it’s not the same as meditation, which is meant to “train the mind” and is usually done in a seated position. Yoga nidra (yogic sleep) is done lying down with pillows and blankets, and involves letting go and relaxing your body slowly. Yoga nidra has helped me turn my attention inward in an incredibly easy way. By simply following the instructions, you visualize and relax individual parts of your body one by one. Relaxation is more complete and easier to achieve, which makes it easier to sleep.
I’m a fan of Jennifer Piercy whose recordings are on Insight Timer (https://insighttimer.com), a free APP that includes hundreds of other yoga nidra variations, nature sounds and “sleep music.” Try different ones to see what may work for you.
Finally, sleeping better means letting go of habits that you’re comfortable with. That includes challenging your mental assumptions about sleeping (“I could never go to bed before midnight!”) and perhaps DVRing your favorite shows. These small habits, done consistently over time, can break your cycle of insomnia. Isn’t that worth making a few changes?