Sleep Series, pt. 2: How to Create a Sleep Ritual using Yogic Practices

To sleep tonight
I gratefully surrender
The summer stars

– Michael McClintock

In part 1 on my series on sleep, I talked about the importance of shifting our perspective about sleep and considering how our daytime habits and activities affect our ability to fall asleep, stay asleep, and wake feeling rested in the morning.

In this post, I look at how we prepare for sleep and what we do when falling asleep or staying asleep doesn’t happen.

Most sleep guidelines address the importance of good sleep hygiene, referring to how we prepare for sleep and create the sleeping environment of our bedroom. With respect to our sleep environment, we look at how well it pacifies and calms our senses.

Is it dark and quiet? Is the air cool and pleasant in its smell and feel? Is it absent of electronics, including our cell phones? Are the bed and pillow comfortable, the bedding and our own bedclothes soothing and pleasing? Does the environment promote a sense of comfort, safety, predictability, and security, all of which allows us to stay calm, peaceful, and at ease?

We may think it does, but it’s worth taking a fresh eye to the many details of our bedroom to see how we might create even more agreeable and conducive surroundings that allow us to surrender to sweet, restful sleep.

How to Cultivate a Soothing Sleep Ritual

How we prepare for sleep matters a lot to how easily we fall asleep and stay asleep. Again, a shift in perspective here can be helpful. Thinking in terms of creating a soothing sleep ritual can elevate the importance of the things we do to get ready for bed. As we create a bedtime ritual, we should consider these six elements.

1. Make Peace with Our Day

The importance of this aspect of a bedtime ritual cannot be overstated. Often what keeps us up at night are undigested or unresolved parts of our day, particularly any aspect of our day that left us agitated, whether positively or negatively. Or it might be apprehension or some other form of anxiety about the day or days ahead. Can we spend some time journaling, meditating, or quietly reflecting on the events of the day, being mindful of not judging, evaluating, or drawing conclusions about those events?

2. Practice Yoga

Can the way we make peace with the day include a gentle yoga practice in which engage in relaxing, calming postures and breath work as preparation for meditation, quiet self-reflection, or journaling? If we include postures, they should relieve muscular tension and begin to quiet the mind. Consider using:

  • cross-crawl, right/left brain integration movement
  • supine postures
  • forward bending and twisting postures, which are done on exhale
  • mantra or other positive affirmations
  • guided relaxation/visualization

3. Try Yoga Nidra

Yoga nidra is a wonderful alternative to a movement-based practice and includes all the above attributes. In place of movement, we rotate our attention through our body, encouraging each part of the body to relax. As an alternative to this method, we could use progressive muscle relaxation, in which we gently but firmly tighten muscles and then release them. Whether in a movement based practice or Yoga Nidra, breath work should stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system to continue quieting the mind.

4. Decrease Stimulation as We Get Closer to Bedtime

This includes watching TV, being online, working on a laptop or other screen-based electronic device, working or studying from books or other printed material, and listening to stimulating podcasts or other audio.

5. Become Mindful of What We Eat or Drink

Within 2-3 hours of going to bed, avoid anything that would stimulate our system, particularly our digestion. If we have anything to drink, we should gravitate towards calming drinks, such as warm milk or herbal tea, and avoid large meals or sweets.

6. Prepare Our Bodies For Getting into Bed

This includes changing out of our daytime clothes into bedclothes along with bathroom routines. Do we wear bedclothes that are comfortable and signal sleep? What bathing and personal hygiene routines do we follow? Can we consider taking a warm bath or shower? Ayurveda, the sister science to yoga, recommends soothing practices such as oiling the soles of our feet and the crown of our head using sesame seed oil by itself or that’s infused with calming herbs, such as lavender.

Research on the value of ritual bears out its health promoting effects on our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Ritual tends to reduce anxiety and increase confidence, which supports our sense of agency and self-efficacy. Among its soothing and calming effects, ritual offers structure and order to a world that is inherently disordered and chaotic, eliciting a sense of personal control, orderliness, safety, and security.

When we consciously create a bedtime ritual, we infuse it with meaning, adding to its potency over time.

Yogic Strategies and Practices that Support Falling Asleep

When we get into bed, it should take us, on average, 10–15 minutes to fall asleep. When we have difficulty falling asleep or to ensure that we fall asleep easily and quickly, we can turn to in-bed practices that help our mind and nervous system quiet, allowing us to surrender to sleep. These may include these two elements:

1. Mini-movements with right/left brain focus.

This could be something like alternately opening/closing each hand, starting with the left hand; or tapping each fingertip to thumb of each hand, starting with the left hand; or, with eyes closed, alternately shifting eyes left/right, right/left, starting by shifting left; or alternately paddling feet, starting with the left foot; or alternately spreading/releasing the toes of each foot, starting with the left foot.

2. Mental focusing techniques, with or without tactile techniques.

This could be something like;

  • Breath counting with or without attention on the sensation of the breath
  • Body scanning or progressive muscle relaxation
  • Visualization that evokes a felt sense of calm, peace, safety, and security in the body
  • Chanting mantra or some other positive affirmation with or without finger rubbing. Finger rubbing involves sliding the thumb up and down each finger. One silent repetition of the mantra or affirmation is made on each slide of the thumb.

If we remain awake much beyond 15 minutes, then rather than allowing frustration to build, it’s best that we get up and out of bed and engage in some kind of meaningful, quiet, and quieting activity using as little light or no light as possible. When we stay in bed sleeplessly staring at the ceiling, watching the clock, or tossing and turning, bed becomes associated with sleeplessness. We want to avoid this association or break it if it already exists. Meaningful, quiet, and quieting activities can include things like list making, knitting, organizing something, practicing yoga or yoga nidra. It’s best to avoid turning on lights, or at least bright light, or a computer or other screen-based device. An exception might be the use of audio of guided visualizations/meditations/yoga nidra; or audio of stories, such as genre fictions (mysteries, fantasy, sci-fi, historical fiction) that can act like a bedtime story; or audio sounds from nature, such as gentle rain, waves, night sounds.

Strategies for Falling Back to Sleep

When we are challenged by waking up in the middle of the night, once or multiple times, or waking early, we can use some of the same in-bed practices that are described above. If falling back to sleep remains elusive, then we want to work on shifting our perspective on our inability to fall back to sleep.

We might try journaling about the feelings, emotions, and thoughts that arise when we can’t fall back to sleep. Some people find it helpful to imagine a feeling, emotion, or thought related to sleeplessness as a character, real or imagined, and having a conversation with that character in order to come to a new perspective on what is happening for them

Similarly, imagining a feeling, emotion, or thought as a shape or texture or color and looking at that shape, texture or color from a distance can offer a new perspective on the situation. The idea is to begin putting some energetic space between us and our feelings, emotions, and thoughts to allow their tidal power to dissipate.

Staying in a place of self-compassion, acceptance, and loving kindness supports this kind of perspective shifting. It also supports our short and long term goals when we’re actively working toward improving our sleep. In the short term, we’re looking to sleep, and when that’s not possible, we look for rest and relaxation and to shift our perspective on our sleep situation. In the long term, we’re looking to sleep well on a consistent basis, and when that’s not possible, we also look for rest and relaxation and to develop meaning ways of using the time when we’re not sleeping.

Get Blog Updates in your Inbox