There are those among us who are able to turn in for the night without giving it a second thought — they lay their heads on their pillows and are off to sleep within minutes and wake up feeling refreshed and energetic the next morning. There are also those who dread the arrival of bedtime each night, craving the rest that it promises but loathing the struggle that it takes to finally fall asleep each night. Then there are those who fall somewhere in between. Sleep doesn’t come easily all by itself, but they have found a method that works for them, and rely on it each night. For some this may be sleeping pills, for some it is the establishment of a nightly routine that preps brain and body and sets it to drowsy mode, and for some, it is the nightly practice of meditation.
Meditation is a method of training the mind into a specific state of consciousness. There are a number of different types of meditation, and people practice it with different goals in mind. For some it provides renewed energy or spirituality. For some it improves concentration. Some feel that it increases their capacity for generosity, forgiveness, or patience. And for some, it is the key to a good night’s sleep.
A study that was recently published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine revealed that when compared to educating insomniacs about the steps recommended by sleep experts for improving sleep, mindfulness meditation provided much more significant improvement in the ability to fall asleep and stay asleep.
Though more studies are needed to determine the clinical usefulness of the practice, there is nothing to keep those of us who are in need of sleep from trying good old fashioned meditation exercises to see if they offer us some relief from the frantic thoughts that tend to keep us staring at the ceiling each night. Mindful meditation is simple, but takes practice, so the best way to start is with a guided meditation that leads you through the steps and tells you exactly what you need to do.
Sonia Choquette is an author and spiritual teacher, and she recently provided Elle Magazine with some simple instructions for meditation practices that can help you relax and fall asleep easily. Her instructions follow:
“So the first thing you want to do is you want to breathe. Just a few breaths, and if you put your tongue on the roof of your mouth, what happens is you quiet the part of the brain that is overactive. Put your tongue on the roof of your mouth and breathe in through your nose, and then exhale like you’re blowing out a birthday candle with your tongue still on the roof of your mouth, completely emptying your lungs. Breathe in again with your tongue on the roof of your mouth, like you’re sipping air, expanding your rib cage, not fighting but relaxing and letting it go deep into the core of your body, and then again blowing out, completely emptying your lungs, like you’re blowing out a birthday candle. Sip the air in. Notice how you fight it in the chest and try to relax the chest area and breathe in more deeply, and then exhale. You can do this up to ten times, and the key is not to rush. The key is to go very slowly and expand. …. We hold our anxiety in what’s called the solar plexus, the belly area and the heart area. Breathing releases and it becomes more fluent. Inhale, exhale.”
In addition to this exercise, which is easily learned and done before going to bed each night, Sonia also offered a number of other tricks and tips that may be helpful to those looking for the secret to relaxing and falling asleep at night.
It may sound funny, but there have been studies that have shown that when you yawn, even as an act of repetition or mimicry, it triggers the brain to release certain pleasure hormones that relieve tension. Sonia says, “Before getting into bed, open your jaw and yawn a few times. Even if it feels forced, this still releases stress and tells the brain that it is now time for the body to rest.”
• Add color to your breath
When doing breathing exercises, it is easy to become distracted and lose your focus. Sonia recommends that if you add a visual image to your breath, such as imagining that the air you breathe in is red and then seeing yourself exhale red, then switching to another color with each breath, will increase your ability to remain in the moment and block out other thoughts.
• Add scent
Aromatherapy that uses essential oils such as lavender, chamomile or ylang ylang can help to calm your thoughts. Sonia suggests using them strategically on pulse points and areas where you are more likely to inhale their scent. “Place several drops of lavender on your pillow case, and two drops on your temples before you lay down to go to sleep.” Some people recommend rubbing it in the palms and then holding the palms cupped over the mouth and nose and inhaling deeply.
• Use music to relax
Sonia advises, “Listening to calming music for a half hour to an hour before going to sleep helps to unwind the thinking brain and helps relax your body as well.” She suggests that the best way to go about it is to relax and let your brain be completely enveloped in focusing on the music. “This helps regulate your breathing and bring it into a deeper more relaxed meditative state.”
There are a number of guided meditation videos and audios available online at no charge to help those who would like more help with using meditation to help them fall asleep.