By Shannon Sexton, Yoga+
We are a sleep-starved nation. About 60 million Americans suffer from insomnia, and according to the National Sleep Foundation, nearly seven out of ten report frequent sleeping problems–although most remain undiagnosed.
Alarmed? You should be. As Stanford University “sleepdebt” expert William C. Dement, MD, PhD, warns: “Lost sleep accumulates as a debt that must be repaid or health eventually deteriorates.” This year, the Institute of Medicine released a report linking sleep disorders and sleep deprivation to a host of ills, including an increased risk of hypertension, diabetes, obesity, depression, heart attack, and stroke.
Scientists are confirming what yogis and ayurvedic physicians have reported for centuries: deep sleep rests the body and the mind. Our daily dose of shut-eye regulates our weight, strengthens our immunity, protects our cardiovascular health, repairs our tissues and cells, and restores our energy. Sleep also allows us to process, consolidate, and retain new memories; it balances our emotions, makes us better problem solvers, and feeds our creativity.
Try these simple 6 bedtime rituals from yoga and ayurveda to help you relax, sleep better, and ultimately, live better.
1. Try Nutmeg
According to The Yoga of Herbs by Vasant Lad and David Frawley, nutmeg is “one of the best medicines for calming the mind.” This common kitchen spice helps reduce high vata in the colon and nervous system and promotes sound sleep. Here are two treatments–one internal, and one external.
Warm, spiced milk. Add up to 1/8 teaspoon of nutmeg to a cup of warm milk (which contains a sleep-inducing amino acid called tryptophan).
Nutmeg facial mask. Mix equal parts of ghee (clarified butter) and nutmeg powder into a paste and smear it around your eyes and across your forehead at bedtime.
2. Give Yourself a 5-Minute Massage
According to Lad, a scalp and foot massage is a shortcut to full-body relaxation. Why? Because all meridians, or nadis (subtle channels of energy), begin in the scalp and end in the soles of the feet. Plus, many neural endings, receptors, and marmas (pressure points) are clustered in the head and feet. By giving yourself the following mini-massage, Lad says, “You will get the benefits of an entire body massage.” Here’s how:
– Sitting on a chair or bed, rub your hands with comfortably warm sesame, brahmi, or jatamansi oil. Alternately using the flat of your hand and your fingertips, make small, circular motions along the surface of your scalp for two minutes. Then switch to your feet.
– Put more oil on your hands and in small, circular motions, rub the top of your right foot from the ankle to the toes; from the ankle to the heel; and on the soles.
– Press your thumb on the top of the foot at the base of the shin. Gently and slowly drag your thumb toward the big toe.
– Return to the base of the shin and drag your thumb toward the second toe. Repeat this motion to the third, fourth, and fifth toes.
– Cross your right ankle over your left knee, place your right hand on the top of the right foot, lace your fingers between your toes, and push the foot inward, outward, and in a circular motion.
– Unlace your fingers and, using your right thumb, apply pressure along the inner border of the sole from the big toe to the heel.
– Drag your thumb along the outer border of the sole, from the root of the fifth toe to the heel.
– Make a fist and massage the sole of the foot in little circles. Slowly pull each toe away from the foot as though you are “popping” the joint.
– Repeat the entire process on your left foot.
When you’ve massaged both feet, soak them for five minutes in a bucket of warm saltwater to draw out the dislodged stress and toxins. Put on cotton socks, place a towel on your pillow, and settle into sleep. (In the morning, leave time for a longer shower; it will take a few shampoos to remove the oil from your hair.)
3. Make Time for Yoga
A regular, balanced hatha yoga practice circulates the lymph and blood, tones the channels of elimination, and balances both the endocrine and nervous systems, calming vata and helping the body and mind digest the events of the day. Whether you practice in the morning, afternoon, or at bedtime, yoga paves the way to a good night’s sleep.
4. Take a Hot Bath
It removes the day’s residue, relaxes the muscles, soothes vata, and induces sleep. (Try soaking in a magnesium-rich epsom salt bath)
5. Take an Herbal Sedative
Mix equal parts of powdered tagara, valerian, and chamomile. Put 1/4 teaspoon of the mixture into a little warm water and drink just before bed. Tagara (valeriana wallichi) and valerian (valeriana officinalis) are vata-pacifying sedatives, and chamomile balances the emotions.
6. Do a Relaxation Practice
Yogic relaxation techniques train the body and mind to relax completely while remaining in a waking state. They also help you let go of sleep-disturbing stress and emotions. If you’re new to relaxation practices, try this tension-relaxation exercise:
Lie in shavasana (corpse pose) with a cushion under your neck and your legs spread three feet apart. As you inhale, scrunch up the muscles in your face and pull them toward the nose. Hold for two seconds, then exhale and completely relax. Next, clench your right shoulder, arm, and hand on an inhale. Hold for two seconds, then exhale and let your muscles melt into the floor. Repeat on the left side. Now tense your right leg from the buttock to the toes; hold briefly; exhale and release. Repeat on the left side.
Next, inhale and tense your entire body. Hold for two seconds, deepen the contraction, then exhale and surrender into the floor. Repeat this contraction two more times. Then surrender into shavasana. You can follow this practice with a systematic relaxation or simply lie resting, breathing as if the whole body breathes. As you exhale, let the breath release tension and wastes from the entire body. As you inhale, let the breath nourish every cell and tissue. Continue for five to ten breaths.
As you become more advanced, there are a number of other systematic relaxation practices that train the mind to focus on and relax different parts of the physical body and, later, the more subtle energetic body. You can find some of these exercises outlined in yoga manuals. You can also try guided relaxation CDs such as Relax into Greatness by Rod Stryker or Guided Yoga Relaxations and Advanced Yoga Relaxations, both by Rolf Sovik.
Shannon Sexton is the editor at large for Yoga+.
Yoga+ is an award-winning, independent magazine that contemplates the deeper dimensions of spiritual life--exploring the power of yoga practice and philosophy to not only transform our bodies and minds, but inspire meaningful engagement in our society, environment, and the global community.