How I Improved My Sleep with Meditation and Yoga Lifestyle
When it comes to health and wellness, most people probably think, “I’ve got it all together.” I am a yoga teacher, yoga therapist, personal trainer, and wellness coach. I do my best to “walk the talk” and practice what I preach. I exercise, meditate, practice yoga, and eat a whole foods diet.
For many years, though, I suffered with an invisible problem. I wasn’t sleeping well. Specifically, I wasn’t staying asleep well. And I’m not alone in this. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one third of US adults get less than the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep per night.
Chronic sleep debt is linked with type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity, and depression. It increases our risk for accidents and injuries. It’s a big deal for individuals, and it’s a big deal for communities.
Why Sleep Eludes Women Over 60
Many women over 60 suffer from sleep challenges, including aches and pains, nocturia (the need to urinate during the night), and hormonal changes. Additionally, they may take new medications due to age-related changes.
Research shows that the stereotypical “senior problem” of nodding off at 7 pm and waking up at 3 am isn’t just because you are bored in the evening. As we age, our internal clock really does change. It’s called “advanced sleep phase syndrome.”
Sleep aids are often prescribed when women voice concerns to their doctors. According to CDC, over nine million Americans take some form of prescription sleep aid. Sometimes sleep aids are necessary to get through a crisis time, but sleep aids are not designed to be used long-term.
Each has its own side effects. A big concern for older women is that sleep aids are associated with an increased risk of falls and fractures.
It’s essential to rule out sleep disorders and health conditions with your medical team. Concurrently, you may benefit from improving your sleep hygiene and sleep mindset. I’ll share what I did, and how meditation and a yoga lifestyle helped me improve my sleep.
Two Main Obstacles to Good Sleep and What to Do About Them
Sleeping well requires adjustments to our physiology and psychology. Sleep happens in our body, and our brain-mind must cooperate with the process.
I used the lens of yoga philosophy and practices to view my sleep challenges. Applying yoga philosophy to sleep helped me condense all the “reasons” that I didn’t sleep into two categories.
- Not living in harmony with nature;
- Not surrendering my ego to the Infinite.
Identifying the problems made the solutions clear.
Get in Harmony with Nature
For me, to live in harmony with nature means get up with the sunrise (or close to it), wind down with the sunset, and observe good sleep hygiene. I’ll go into more detail on that in a moment.
Surrender My Ego
On the yoga path to enlightenment, we ultimately do surrender our egos to a higher power, God, Ultimate Reality, Cosmic Consciousness, or whatever you want to call it. In Sanskrit, this act of surrendering is called Isvarapranidhana, and it’s one of the 10 core lifestyle principles of yoga.
On a more mundane level, it can mean letting go of the need to be in control, to be perfect, or to get one more thing done tonight. For me, it means recognizing that worrying about things instead of sleeping doesn’t help one bit, so I can just let it go and literally “sleep on it.”
Clean Up Your Sleep Hygiene to Get in Sync with Nature’s Rhythms
You likely know about sleep hygiene, but are you doing it? Connecting yoga principles and practices to sleep hygiene helped me do what I knew was good for me. Here are the steps I took that made the biggest impact and how I connected them to my bigger purpose.
Pratyahara means we calm our senses inward instead of outward to stimulation. This step involves:
- Making my bedroom dark, quiet, and cool (60-67 F);
- No clocks with lights;
- Nothing plugged in;
- Cell phones and Wi-fi off.
Brahmacharya means continence. It is the conservation of vital forces. Yogis do not dissipate their energy with non-useful activities that distract us from what is good for us. Here I:
- End screen time early (cut-off is 7:30 pm).
- Use my computer and screen time in the daytime and “unplug” in the evening with non-tech activities.
Saucha means cleanliness, which applies to our dietary habits. Eating processed foods and using caffeine and alcohol interrupts sleep.
Gut health and good digestion are key. 80 percent of our serotonin is made in the gut, and serotonin is necessary for the production of melatonin, which helps us fall and stay asleep.
This final step includes:
- Minimizing/eliminating alcohol, caffeine, processed foods, and sugar.
- Aiming to eat just the right amount at dinner so that I don’t need a snack or wake up hungry. I try to have dinner by 7:30 pm.
How Yoga and Meditation Help Us Sleep
When we breathe smoothly, and practice yoga meditatively, we send physiological signals to our brain and body that everything is OK. This helps us lower cortisol, feel calmer, fall asleep, and stay asleep.
Besides the lifestyle guidelines discussed above, yoga practice also includes postures, breathing, and meditation.
Ideal yoga postures for relaxation include:
- Legs up the wall – Viparita Karani
- Reclined cobbler’s pose – Supta Baddha Konasana
- Bridge pose – Setu Banda Sarvangasana
- Child’s pose – Adho Mukha Virasana
- Corpse Pose – Savasana
You can learn these from a certified yoga instructor and practice them before bed, or any time, to relax.
There are many yogic breathing and meditation techniques. Meditation has been shown to aid in sleep and reduce the need for sleeping pills. Scientists believe this is due to the decreased stimulation and decreased cortisol.
Over time, meditation practices strengthen the pre-frontal cortex of the brain. This “command center” helps us do what we know is good for us and follow through on good sleep hygiene.
It also helps us adjust our sleep mindset and let go (surrender) what is not in our control. We can put worries to bed, and then put ourselves to bed!
Measure It to Improve It
I’m not done learning about sleep. Most of the time, my sleep patterns are far better than they used to be. I work at it every day and strive to make sleep a top priority. When I’m rested, I do better in all areas of life.
To help me and my clients stay on track with good sleep hygiene, I created a Daily Sleep Habits Tracker. I hope it serves you well.
How do you make sleep a top priority? What sleep hygiene tips do you find most useful? How do you shift your mindset around sleep? Please share your comments with the community!