These days, a good night’s sleep seems to have become an elusive thing. Even if we’re one of the lucky ones who doesn’t have trouble drifting off, we rarely seem to wake up feeling energised and refreshed as we should. We might have all the gadgets to record our shut eye; the latest mattress and pillow, the aromatherapy oils and rituals in place. Yet….when we lay down and close our eyes the mind starts. Or worse still, we drift off only to find we’re waking up in fitful starts in the wee small hours.
Of course, sleep hygiene practices are important, but in the end, a restful night comes from having a rested mind. All too often it’s the case that our sleep anxieties have become rooted in our thought processes. This is where meditation can really help – research has shown that it can reduce stress and anxiety levels – and a calmer mind makes way for peace of mind which leads to a more restful night. Also, studies indicate meditative practices bring about what’s known as the relaxation response in the body including physiological changes such as a lower heart rate, regular breathing and enhanced melatonin levels conducive to falling asleep.
Perhaps most importantly, meditation has been shown to bring about balance in the nervous system. Very simply, our autonomic nervous system has two sides – the sympathetic, AKA the ‘fight or flight’ state which regulates the inflammation response; the other, parasympathetic or ‘rest and digest’ which is anti-inflammatory. We need both, but often without realising we can be stuck in sympathetic mode – a form of overstimulation/chronic stress which hijacks our sleep and ability to rest. Regular meditation restores balance allowing our nervous system to respond naturally as required.
So how do we get the benefits? Well, excuse the pun, but it’s not necessarily an overnight sensation. It takes time and daily meditation practice to change our thought processes and bring about lasting change to our sleep patterns. However, there are simple techniques we can begin with today in order to kick start a better night’s sleep, starting with resting the body, relaxing breathing, and a simple gratitude visualisation technique.
Try one or all three every evening as part of your bedtime routine:
The restorative yoga posture known as Viparita Karani is a quick and efficient way to relax before bed. Lie on your bed on your back in a way which allows you to raise your legs up and rest them against a wall. Let your upper body go completely, and let the wall take the weight of your legs, resting hands on your lower belly and simply watch your body breathe. Rest for 5 minutes (or longer).
Sit or lie comfortably, and allow your breath to settle naturally for about 30 seconds. Then, inhale through the nose for a count of four, hold for 7 and breathe out for 8 through your mouth. Do 6 rounds like this – make your count as fast or slow as you need so you’re not straining – it should be very relaxed. This ratio of breathing, combined with the number of rounds switches the nervous system from ‘fight or flight’ to ‘rest and digest’, ready for sleeping.
Lying in bed on your back relaxing, begin bringing to mind the people you are grateful you encountered during your day. Whether loved ones, a friend, colleague or even strangers – the barista at the coffee shop or dog walker. Visualise each person, smile at them and thank them for being in your life. Sounds odd, but doing this you will find so much to be grateful for, bringing the day to a close on a positive note, helping you drift off to sleep more easily.