Insomnia; the Medicine of Sleep
Sleep is one of the deepest medicines. It is simple, old, natural, and timeless. Sleep is absolutely necessary to maintain good health both mentally and physically. The body gets a break and the mind and Soul get to retreat to the Void, the place of great nourishment.
When the body is sick, it naturally craves sleep and it will get it no matter what it has to do to knock you out. It is like Yin and Yang. Sleep is the Yin. It is the balance we all need to function on high levels. We cannot always be up without the down. The older I get, the more clearly I see that balance is usually the answer.
I am amazed at how many students and friends complain about not sleeping well. I find myself reiterating the same dialogue over and over, so I thought it is about time to write it down since there are so many people who could benefit from this message....
One aspect of this is the over stimulation of our current society. To say the amount of stimulation the average American experiences is damaging to the sense organs, is an understatement! There are so many things to do, experience, see, hear, look at, eat, etc...it is no wonder that quietness is avoided!
Sleeping well has a lot to do with being able to accept and surrender to the inner silence. To the space within yourself where real rest is available to you. This is meditation.
A study conducted in 2013 and reported in the New York Daily News states that nearly 9 million US adults take prescription sleeping medications to fall asleep! This cannot be healthy. And, is this real restful sleep?
When a student expresses their frustration over not being able to sleep, I usually respond by asking them what is on their mind. Is it always this way? Or, just right now?
Some people have chronic issues and for others it may be a stint they are in. If it is a stint, I suggest sitting with it and ask, "what is happening in my life to cause discomfort or anxiety? Where is the conflict?" Journaling is a wonderful tool to get deeper into the psyche and unravel your thoughts.
If it is short term, it is usually a decision you are struggling to make, or an inner knowing pushing against your outer life. This needs to be addressed, allow to surface, trust your deeper wisdom, and act accordingly. Often when you do get to it, resolution occurs and sleep continues as usual.
In both short-term sleep disturbances and chronic cases I think the root problem is a dissonance between your conscious and unconscious mind, thus creating tension internally. The conflict needs to be resolved and inner peace will be realized.
Sleep takes us deeper into our unconscious, therefore, if there is a conflict, it is possible the conscious mind is doing everything it can to stop the unconscious mind from being realized. Thus, keeping you from falling into the deeper spaces of the mind by not allowing sleep.
Pretty smart, eh? Perhaps the truth is inconvenient? Some call this Ego or the conditioned mind. In the famous story from Mundaka Upanishad with the two golden birds that my teacher Tim Miller is fond of telling, it is known as the "eating bird."
In chronic cases, I believe this is much deeper and will take a lot more work to change. I realize that as we age, sleep gets more difficult. I hear this a lot, and a certain amount of insomnia could be due to the changes the aging process brings. I also think that as life goes on the weight of our decisions adds up. If you have habitually acted against your higher self and there is guilt or pain or regret within your unconscious, the dissonance is greater and becomes more embedded.
Healing is available, and here is an opportunity to do some really deep work with yourself and bring resolution to your wounds. The key is forgiveness and acceptance. Learn from your past, yes, but you cannot change it. "Mistakes" are a necessary part of the life and learning process. "Mistakes" can be great teachers. By learning to accept and forgive oneself for anything in the past that was done or not done, inner peace is achieved. Accepting that you did the best you could in the moment and learning to accept that you do not have control over everything that happens.
Here are some tips I suggest to help you work towards connecting to the Void or the deeper places within yourself:
-Watch your caffeine intake throughout the day. For some of us, drinking caffeine late in the day can cause insomnia or problems falling asleep. You may want to set some parameters for yourself with caffeine.
-By using any conscious breathing modality, you should be able to get a handle over your mind and begin to relax deeper into yourself. In Ashtanga Yoga we practice Ujjayi breathing. This works great. Regular breathing is fine too as long as you are being present with it. Watch and feel very deeply the flow of your own breath. Ebb and flow. Up and down. In and out. As you do this use the exhale to let go and the inhale to bring in something new and comforting.
When doing this it is possible that uncomfortable feelings may come up. If this happens, I suggest getting up and writing down what it is you are feeling. Explore in more depth through journaling.
As you breathe let yourself fall deeper and deeper into what feels to me like "the nourishing Void." It is the center of your being, deep inside yourself. Your inner "cave" perhaps. The more familiar with this place you get, the better. Personally, I find great comfort there and a well of inner reserve and answers. You will get better at returning to this place over time. It will begin to feel like the safest place in the world and as you keep breathing worries will drift away because in the end you know that one way or another everything will be ok.
-The other technique I recommend is visualization. What you choose to visualize is a personal choice. Choose a visualization that creates the comfort, safety, and nourishment that I spoke of above. Whatever image triggers this all encompassing, comforting feeling.
For example, I personally prefer to absorb my mind in images and feelings of my Ishta Devata (personal Divine vehicle) which is Goddess Kali. The fierce Divine Mother that I love is a great protectress and she is happy to look after her cubs. In Ma's love, I feel whole and calm....my mind absorbs in the sea of infinity...
-Make bedtime a ritual. Do things that nourish yourself before going to sleep, slowly winding down your day and energy. If after a busy day you want to chill out and watch tv, that is great, but at some point take some time to turn off the tv, turn off the radio, stop talking, etc...Take a bath or read quietly. Teach yourself to enjoy stillness.
-If you need a little supplement while you are trying to get there, that is fine. The problem is if you become dependant on a drug without doing any other work. Look at it as self exploration! How exciting!
If you do not need a prescription drug but need a little help, I will tell you what I find to be VERY effective and strong. Everyone thinks that chamomile tea is the sleep tea. Personally, chamomile alone is not as good as the Masters at Celestial Seasons have discovered! I cannot say enough about the rave reviews I give to Celestial Seasons Sleepytime Tea which is a blend that contains chamomile along with other herbs that seriously knock me out! I often joke with friends and say, "the world could get off valium if they discover this tea!" Sleepytime tea is a combination of chamomile, spearmint, lemongrass, tilia flowers, blackberry leaves, orange blossoms, hawthorn, and rosebuds. So good. There is also Sleepytime Extra and a friend of mine says that Tension Tamer works even better for her. All are Celestial Seasons brand. Make this a part of your quiet down and nurture yourself ritual. Have a nice cup of tea before bed while closing down and getting quiet. The herbs will help.
I am sure there are herbs that also help promote sleep. A student of mine works for a company called Herbalife that makes some pretty good blends. I really enjoyed a blend called Deep Relaxation. My personal favorite herb that I take to calm down is Passion Flower. One of my students use to call this herb "tranquilizers." Passion Flower is pretty strong. It helps with anxiety which promotes relaxation. Passion Flower is in the herb formula Deep Relaxation. There are natural supplements available. The less chemical, the better.
Bottom line...do the psychological work to achieve a greater sense of inner peace so you can rest well and deep and maybe even Soul travel in your dreams! Dream journaling has been the corner stone of my morning practices for over a decade. I could not live without it.
I wish to see all beings in love and at peace. When you are not sleeping well, look to the answers within your own psyche. Be honest with yourself and get back to this place of nourishment.
Owner, Director, Teacher – Ashtanga Yoga Center, Outer Banks, NC