Yoga Nidra, a Nightcap, and the Quest for Rest

Woman Sleeping

Author: Jami Crook

Published Date: August 3, 2020

“Your future depends on your dreams.  Go to sleep.”  – Mesut Barazany

My absolute favourite time of day is those few minutes in bed just before sleep descends upon me.  I have some of my most brilliant ideas in those moments.  My least favourite time of the day comes usually between 2 and 4 hours after that.  I have some of my most horrific thoughts in those moments.

For people with anxiety, the hours between waking in the middle of the night and the onset of dawn are often the hardest and loneliest.  They are filled with replayed grief from past losses and gut-wrenching torment of clearly imagined future trauma.

During the daylit hours, I thrive on my own independence.  I manage reasonably well in an often stressful career to keep my head above water, and usually feel a sense of deep satisfaction at the end of a long day, having checked off a series of boxes on my challenging daily to-do list, as I head to bed exhausted.  But at night the shadows win.  Despite having tried a myriad of nighttime routines, it has been years since I was able to achieve a full 8 (or even 6) hours without chemical assistance.

As I lie awake in my bed before sleep rolls in, I am temporarily excited about what tomorrow might bring.  I start to plan out my day, vowing to be calm, cool, and open to whatever the Universe might offer.  But for me, sleep is never difficult to find.  It usually comes quickly and interrupts me mid-thought.  It is the elusive sustainment of sleep that erupts nightly into hours fraught with worry and dread.  During these hours I wish desperately that I weren’t so alone; that I had someone to buffer the terror I feel before the sun comes up.

While having a bedmate eases my suffering, chronic insomnia has turned me into a grown woman who is afraid of the dark.  My bedroom has more coloured lights than Rockefeller Centre at Christmas, the intention being that I will have a cozy and happy cocoon to land in when my horrifyingly realistic nightmares rip me, terrified, from my measly 2 or 3 hours of pitiful sleep.  

My mind starts torturing me hours before I even go to bed.  As soon as the sun goes down, I start experiencing a vague sense of trepidation that intensifies as the clock ticks its way toward the day’s end.  I can temporarily ward off the noxious feelings by performing my evening ritual of bubble bath and a good book.  I can even squeak out a few calm and happy moments as my eyelids get heavy, thinking about all the possibilities held by tomorrow.

And then it happens.  In an instant, I am awake – and spiraling.  About work.  About my family.  About my finances.  All of which in my head, are totally falling apart.  All of which in reality, are just fine.

This goes on for as long as I can tolerate it.  Some nights it’s hours; others, only a few minutes.  Eventually one of two things happens: Either I get up and get on with my day at some ungodly hour, or I fall back asleep, exhausted from battling invisible demons, only to be awakened what feels like seconds later by my alarm obnoxiously proclaiming “YOU SHOULD HAVE JUST GOTTEN UP AT STUPID O’CLOCK!”  Either way, I feel physically awful throughout most of my day.  Then night rolls around and I get ready to do it all over again.  It is a self-fulfilling prophecy with an endgame I have yet to decipher.

Thankfully, over the years, I have managed to unveil a few life hacks that do help me achieve at least a modicum of rest.  If not for these tricks, I would be unable to function as a normal human being (and probably also totally strung out on sleeping pills). 

One thing I have established is that drinking alcohol before bed is a definitive no-no.  Having a glass of wine any closer than a few hours from lights out is the best way to ensure I am wide awake again in a measure of minutes.  Although many adults rely on a nightcap to bring on the head bobs, science suggests any intake of alcohol an hour or less before bed could mess with your circadian rhythms?  Wait – my what?

Our circadian rhythms are our natural sleep cycles, and they are so ingrained that studies have shown people on night shift may take several decades (yep, you read that right – decades!) to get a truly restful night’s sleep.  Think about what that means is you happen to be a shift-worker! Our brains produce chemicals that act as organic sleep inducers and rousers, and research shows alcohol imbibed too close to bedtime may bring on an earlier release of the adenosine that naturally puts us to sleep (hence the feeling of drowsiness often brought on by that drink).  However, it also promotes a faster reuptake of that same chemical, causing us to wake up much faster than we should.

Alcohol consumption can also affect the type of sleep we get, often inhibiting REM sleep in favour of deeper, slower delta waves.  This may sound ideal, but in reality, REM sleep is thought to be the most restorative.  Without REM, we can sleep for hours and still wake up feeling tired or groggy.

So, Ixnay on the ightcapnay (For those of you younger generations out there who aren’t familiar with the intricacies of pig Latin, that’s a hard pass on the Nightcap – with a sad face emoji).

OK, there goes my glass of wine (again!), but there IS a silver lining.  Research has shown one thing does lead to improved sleep if consumed in relative proximity to bedtime: Carbs!  I might not be able to have my favourite cab sauvignon before bed, but my milk and chocolate chip cookies are looking pretty solid.  Honestly, it might just be wishful thinking, but I do believe the pre-slumber snack helps and the extra calories are worth it.  After all, a placebo effect is still an effect.

As with everything else in my life, when all else fails, I turn to my mat.  No, scratch that.  I usually turn to my mat first.  Yoga fixes everything – or at least makes it better.  I have a few tried and true yoga poses and pranayama that take the edge off whenever I make the time to squeeze them in.  I have added these at the end of this post in hopes they might be of use to someone else.  But in the interest of full disclosure, on my craziest days, the ones bulging at the seams with stressful deadlines and demands that exceed my capacities, I often neglect my mat because I just can’t find the energy.  

For this very reason, my discovery of Yoga Nidra was a game changer.  When I moved into my current home, I converted the spare bedroom into a yoga studio that is without question my Happy Place.  Now, when the terrifying sensations of Somnus Interruptus become overwhelming, this is where I head.  I either lie down on my mat or sit on my meditation cushion and practice yogic sleep in place of the traditional Western variety.

Yoga Nidra is a relaxation practice that causes the brain to descend into lower levels of consciousness while the practitioner remains awake and alert.  The body hovers in the space between being asleep and being awake and awareness is directed to the breath and somatic – or physical – sensations alternately.  Studies have indicated that a 45-minute Yoga Nidra practice might have the same effect on the human brain as up to 3 hours of REM sleep, not the least of which is the feeling of being well rested.

To practice Yoga Nidra, simply find a comfortable position of your choosing in a space where you are not likely to be interrupted.  You may wish to set a timer in case you actually fall asleep (yay!) or lose track of time.  Make sure your body is well-supported and that you do not have to work to maintain your posture.  All major muscle groups should be relaxed and you should feel secure.  Either close your eyes or soften your gaze so that it is not focused on anything in particular.  Bring your awareness to your breath.  Do not do anything to alter the breath; simply start to notice how the air feels as it moves in through your body and out again.

Scan your body from the top of your head to the very tips of your toes, allowing as much time as you need to sort through the various sensations you encounter along the way.  Try not to create a story around the sensations as they arise.  Instead, make a mental note of them, and continue as though you were taking a sensory inventory.

Return your awareness to your breath, following each inhale from its start to the very end, then doing the same with the exhale.  Try counting each breath.  When you get to 7, start again.  Do this for 3 cycles.

Keep consciously moving your awareness between your physical sensations and the breath for as long as you like or until your timer signals the end of your rest.

Be sure to leave yourself enough time to come out of Yoga Nidra purposefully.  Bring small movements into your fingers and toes, gradually increasing the movements into the larger muscle groups.  If your eyes are closed, let the lids gently flutter open, allowing them to readjust to the light.  Take your time getting up as positional changes may temporarily affect blood pressure, leading to dizziness.  Take a moment to notice how you feel.

Perhaps the Quest for Rest might be achieved by solving our Sustainable Sleep Equation. That is: Bedtime minus nightcap, plus bubble bath, good reads, and a snack, carry a few nocturnally-oriented poses and breathwork, substitute Yoga Nidra for a few hours of the classic stuff and you get a functional human. 

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