How to Build Better Sleep Part 2


July 1, 2020

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i'm cassandra marcella

80 years ago we slept an average of nearly 8 hours every night. Today the average is about 6.5, and seems to decline with every year. This devolution is likely due to the cult of productivity and busyness. A lack of sleep seems to be a badge of honor that signals how important we are.

I call bullshit. This just plain dumb. Folks who aren’t getting enough sleep will age faster and die sooner. And let’s be real, they’re probably crankier too.

But if you’re the kind of person who accidentally finds themselves wide awake at 2 a.m. staring at the shadows on their ceiling and worrying about tomorrow’s to-do list, I get it.

Let’s face it –  some of us aren’t sleeping because, well, June was a rough month for all of us. 

I’ve been deep diving on sleep hygiene taking courses on trauma and on recuperation and on rest. And reading up on sleep in the Ayurvedic realm too. Mostly it’s a helpful refresh for me during these unusual times, but the information is so good – especially all the scientific backing. Much of that research I’m now seeing didn’t exist when I started studying yoga to teach nearly 20 years ago. It’s all super exciting and really helpful.

In part 1 I offered some lifestyle changes we can make to build better sleep. First and foremost, we need to feel safe. I like to think of the sleep safety net as a garden, one we need to mindfully tend to with how we conduct our lives… and we need the right soil, water, sunlight, weeding and trimming. We also talked about diet, sunlight therapy, routine, environment, and breathing techniques.

Here are 5 additional recommendations to cultivate that sleep safety net so you can surrender to deep sleep and rest ::

1 | Meditation

Even if you haven’t tried meditation before, hear me out. There are no associated risks or side effects of trying meditation, so if you struggle with insomnia it’s worth a try! Meditation increases mindfulness and your awareness of the sensations inside your body and is one of the top habits you can take up to improve your sleep. Even if you meditate in the morning. Meditation helps us befriend and reconnect to our bodies, which is key for optimal sleep.

Sleep meditations specifically, when you are trying to sleep, can help calm your inner stress & anxiety – which is exactly what you need for a truly restful night. When you settle the mind, you can also rest the body… and that restfulness is what makes it easier to wind down and drift off to a deeper, healthier sleep.

2 | Journaling

Worry is what keeps us awake. It’s so much easier said than done to wind down and flip the switch and stop thinking about all of the stress in your life at the end of the day, but expressive writing may help. Don’t know what expressive writing is? You simply write without worrying about grammar, punctuation, and run-on sentences. You turn off that part of the mind that wants to edit and do not worry about the how or even the what. Just get the thoughts down.

You can even simply jot down a list. In fact, research shows that those who write down a to-do list fall asleep faster, so you could try that too. Another finding – gratitude helps too. If you can come up with aspects or things in your life you are grateful for, that state of gratitude helps you fall asleep.

There’s just something about the act of writing – physically writing something down on paper, not tapping it into your phone, or on a keyboard – that helps us hit the pause button. Journaling before bed is a practice that can help clear your mind in order to help you sleep better at night.

3 | Release muscle tension

During these days of Covid, we can not get bodywork or massages to help release muscle tension, so we have to help ourselves out. Cultivating this self-reliance and ability to care for ourselves is a useful skill – especially for us who love to travel because travel can mess with our bodies.

One of my favorite ways is self massage, an specific ayurvedic practice called abyanga. This practice has changed my life. I am an evangelist about this type of massage and right now working on a guide to teach how to do this practice.

Self-massage soothes the nervous system in a powerful way.

Here’s the abbreviated version –

Warm up some sesame or avocado oil (baby bottle style) and massage it into your body, working from the extremities in to your heart. Do long strokes on your limbs and circles around your joints. (Use a firm touch, but don’t get too deep.) Let this oil soak into the skin for 10-20 minutes before having a warm shower or bath. PS: Avoid this practice when on your menstrual cycle.

Don’t want to do all that? Then just take a tennis or a squash ball and use it against a wall to release tension in your upper back and shoulders (the trapezius). You can also stretch your neck and massage your scalp. Even scratching your head can help bring awareness to muscle tension and promote relaxation so you can sleep.

4 | Restorative yoga

Every day, we face new challenges, worries, and anxieties that can make drifting off feel impossible. Slow down your body with a simple yoga routine at the end of each day – you might be surprised by how much even a short practice helps! Judith Lasetar, the premier restorative yoga therapist, calls restorative yoga “yoga that does you.” (I was lucky enough to be certified in her signature Relax & Renew restorative program in 2003)

Restorative yoga can be very effective in preparing the body for sleep… and it’s a calming, gentle way to ease yourself into a deeply restful night. See below for some specific resources.

5 | Do a body check in

This is one of my favorite ways to drift off to sleep. Just lay back on your bed and tune in to the sensations that your body is feeling… scanning from head to toe (or the other way around) for pressure, movement, pain, heaviness, temperature changes, or other vibrations. Don’t worry about trying to change anything – just bring a mindful attention of curiosity and openness to the present moment.

If you notice yourself tuning out of your body to worry about things in your life, don’t stress… that’s totally normal. See if you can redirect your attention back into the sensations you’re feeling, and gently let go of those thoughts. (I like to remind myself in these moments that this is a moment for ME… and nobody needs anything from me right now.) Hopefully within 15-20 minutes, you find yourself drifting off to sleep.

Yoga Nidra is a specific yogic technique that guides you through this body scan and I love using this guided relaxation method to just lay back, listen, do, and surrender.

Sweet dreams!

Additional Resources

Yoga Nidra – from Insight Timer (10 million plays. Yes, we are a sleep-deprived nation!) Jennifer Piercy also offers a class on Insight Time Your Guide to Deeper Sleep which I think is awesome!

iRest – developed by Richard Miller. iRest yoga nidra made more accessible to a Western audience. I’ve been honored to meet him and study with him. He’s doing amazing work using iRest to help veterans with PTSD.

Thrive by Ariana Huffington. She makes an impassioned and compelling case for the need to redefine what it means to be successful in today’s world. And to sleep more.

Expressive Writing: Words that Heal by James Pennebaker. “From the instructions: ”Write about what keeps you awake at night. The emotional upheaval bothering you the most and keeping you awake at night is a good place to start writing.”

Note:: the links above may include affiliate links which means I may earn a commission on these items (at no extra cost to you). Purchases made through these links are very appreciated. Thank you!

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