Restorative, or low-intensity movement that’s deeply relaxing for the body, is a subtle but powerful tool in anyone’s sleep kit. As well as stretching out muscles, it can soothe a frazzled sympathetic nervous system and improve your stress response.
As a rule of thumb, restorative movement is something that feels relaxing and doesn’t get your heart rate up too much. Some examples include going for a walk, Tai chi or yoga.
Over the course of the day, we naturally build up tension just going about our business. Your brain usually takes your body’s lead, so if your muscles are tense and your breathing is short and shallow, then your brain goes into stress mode, pumping out cortisol to keep you on high alert. And if not released properly, we head to bed with, quite literally, a head full of stress.
When you can release that tension, relax your muscles and deepen your breath, you’re not only creating a more relaxed body, you’re also creating a more relaxed mind, as well as a perfectly calibrated neurochemistry that encourages better sleep.
Relax your body to calibrate your neurochemistry and encourage better sleep. Stock image
PERFECT POSES TO HELP YOU DROP OFF
These poses have been part of Frank’s ‘prescriptions’ for patients for years and are particularly helpful in the evening just before bed to power down. Just a short time spent in them is the ultimate sleep send-off, not to mention a great way to fend off night time wake-ups caused by pain or cramping.
They will put your mind at ease, steady your breath and reduce muscle tension without getting your heart rate up, creating the perfect conditions for you and your body to receive sleep.
EASY FORWARD BEND
This modified version of the head to knee bend pose ensures that you can rest your forehead on a soft surface, thereby fully activating the relaxing benefits of the stretch.
Sit on the ground or a mat with your legs stretched out in front of your body. Arrange a chair in front of you so you’ll be able to comfortably rest your head on its seat. You will want to pad it a bit with a folded towel or cushion.
Bend your right leg in toward your chest and then open the right hip so that the right foot connects to the inside of your left leg close to the groin.
Reach forward toward your left leg to stretch, resting your head on the chair and your arms on your left shin or ankle. You don’t want to feel too much strain in your leg. Stay in this position for up to 30 seconds total. Then slowly lift your arms up and repeat on the right side.
EASY FORWARD BEND
This posture, a modified version of the reclined cobbler pose in yoga, only takes about five minutes to generate a strong beneficial effect that calms the breathing and softens the emotional centre of the chest. It also comes in handy after meals to soothe digestion, if that’s an issue for you.
Before you get comfortable, grab a yoga bolster, sofa cushion (a rectangular one from the back), or two neatly folded towels. You’ll also want a thick blanket folded in thirds, or another towel folded the same. You might also want additional towels or blankets to use as additional supports, especially if you have tight hips.
Sit on the floor with loosely crossed legs. Snuggle the short edge of your cushion up against your sacrum at the base of the spine. Lie back and place the yoga blanket or towel under your head for support.
Your head should be higher than your heart, and your chin parallel to the floor, not tipping up to the ceiling or down to your chest. If your knees are hovering above the ground, feel free to tuck the extra blankets or towels under each knee so your legs can completely relax.
You’ll know when you’ve hit the mark on your supports — your whole body will feel blissfully ‘held’ and relaxed. (We’re sleepy just writing about it.)
Melt into this posture for about ten to 15 minutes, watching as your breath moves in and out of your body. Don’t force your breath, just notice that it’s flowing.
LEGS UP THE WALL
This do-anywhere pose regulates blood pressure, refreshes the abdominal organs and encourages circulation (for some people, it can even offer relief from varicose veins). First, locate a blanket or towel you can use to cushion your bottom and/or head, along with a wall that has an unobstructed bit of floor in front of it.
Sit with your side to the wall with your knees bent so that your left hip is pressed up against the wall. Slowly roll onto your back so that your bottom is right up against the wall with both feet just above. Extend your feet straight so that your body forms an L, keeping your bottom as close to the wall as your hamstrings will allow.
LEGS UP THE WALL
You may want to put a cushion under your bottom and/or under your head. Make sure your chin stays parallel to the floor, not tipping up to the ceiling or pressing down to your chest. Extend your arms to your side and bend them at the elbows 90 degrees so they’re making a ‘cactus’ shape.
Relax your head, face, neck, shoulders and belly. Breathe, and stay in this pose for ten to 15 minutes. To come out, bring your knees back into your chest and roll to one side.
Note: It’s normal to feel a slight tingling in your legs. But if it becomes painful, bring your legs down and take an easy cross-legged position with your legs still resting on the wall.
Also known as savasana, this closing posture for your practice helps seal in all that relaxing work you just did. Lie flat on your back on the floor or bed, comfortably. Keep eyes closed and separate your feet about a foot apart. Keep your arms out by your sides, with palms facing up. With eyes closed, silently instruct your body to relax.
Slowly move your attention to each part of your body, from your left foot to your left leg and then move your way to the right feet and legs, followed by your hips, abdomen, chest, hands, arms. Then move your attention to each part of your head.
Focus on imagining and relaxing all of your organs — your brain, lungs, heart, stomach, kidneys, colon, bladder. Bring your attention to all of your five senses, which will automatically start to surrender.
Finally, begin to observe your own mind without attaching to any particular thought, but rather allowing thoughts to arise and melt away.
SPEEDY BEDTIME SOOTHER…
Unwinding before bed calls for slowing your breath and climbing deep inside the cosiest parts of yourself. The best way to do this is with easy breathing practices or guided meditations that focus on relaxation and letting go of the day. Try this abdominal breathing to power down:
Time: ten to 30 minutes
- Find a quiet spot where you won’t be disturbed. Get into a relaxed position, whether lying down or sitting up.
- Put your hands on your abdomen, gently close your mouth and touch your tongue to your upper palate.
- Begin to breathe through your nose. If your nose is blocked for any reason, it is fine to breathe through your mouth.
- Inhale deeply and slowly into your abdomen (rather than your chest), being aware of your diaphragm moving downward and your abdomen expanding. Your hands on your abdomen will feel the expansion like a balloon filling.
- At the end of the inhalation, don’t hold the breath; exhale slowly, so that your abdomen falls automatically as you exhale.
- Try to get all the breath out of your lungs on the expiration. The expiration should normally be about twice as long as the inhalation when you get relaxed.
- Keep repeating this, keeping your focus on your hands rising on the abdomen with inhalation and falling as you exhale.
Change how you breathe to banish your stress
Many of us walkaround fired up from stress all day long, and then can’t turn off that switch when it’s time to go to sleep at night.
As a result, our sleep suffers, leading to more stress, less sleep and on it goes. So we end up exhausted but unable to relax. But you won’t find the solution in the bottom of a bottle. Instead, the (side effect-free) answer to your problem is in your own head.
Meditation and breath work are two of the most effective tools we have when it comes to actively turning off the stress response and turning on the relaxation response.
Changing how you breathe and where you’re focusing your mind can physically reprogram the brain via the vagus nerve, which connects the brain and the body. Just as a tense body and short, shallow breaths can trigger the brain into thinking it’s in trouble, a calm body and deep, slow breaths do just the opposite.
It tells the brain that we’re safe, and calls forth the release of GABA, an anti-anxiety neurotransmitter that promotes a sense of serenity and ease.
In addition to promoting the kind of adaptability and resilience that are necessary if you’re going to be able to handle the endless waves of stress that life will bring, meditation and breath work give your brain a workout, improving attention, memory, processing speed and creativity. They may also counteract age-related atrophying that can lead to cognitive conditions such as dementia. But most notably, for our purposes, the benefits are:
- Meditation and breath work decrease blood pressure and decrease stress and anxiety, basically ‘priming the pump’ for easier sleep onset.
- They have been shown to increase sleep time, improve sleep quality and make it easier to fall (and stay) asleep, mostly because they reduce hyperarousal in the brain.
- They create physiological changes like early phases of sleep: a slowed pulse, lowered blood pressure and decreased stress hormones.
- They have been found to be as effective as a prescription drug in some individuals with insomnia.
- They can be used with other sleep techniques such as cognitive behavioural therapy for insomnia (CBT-I) — shown to improve sleep better than CBT-I alone.
TAKE 15 MINUTES OUT
aim for a minimum of ten to 15 minutes a day. No month-long retreat is required to reap the benefits. If you are on a walk or in a park, spend 15 minutes of that time relaxing into that space. Take your shoes off if you can and take in your surroundings. Take ten deep breaths, inhaling through the nose and exhaling through the mouth.
After a few more breaths, let your feet become more sensitive to what they are touching — grass, rocks, sand. Feel where your weight is. Maybe it is more over your heels. Maybe you are leaning forward slightly. Notice how your body feels. What feels sticky, tired, achy? Which parts feel loose and easy? Take five more breaths, direct them to the sticky places.
If your hips feel tight, inhale, picture the breath travelling down into the hips, then exhale, picturing the tension and pain streaming out of the hip socket.
Likewise, if your shoulders feel as if they are rolled forward, inhale, bringing the breath into the shoulder socket and exhale, imagining the shoulders easing back into their sockets, shoulder blades sliding down the back.
Begin walking again, and for the rest of the time, take in every detail of your surroundings and how it makes you feel. Look at the bark on trees, stones in the sand, a spider’s web, a flower, the shape of seaweed, the shape of your footprint, the length of your stride. Become sensitive to where the air meets your skin — maybe on your face and hands. Notice how you feel. Maybe your breath is easier, you are more relaxed or feel more connected.
YOUR BODY’S RHYTHM
observe your circadian rhythm when choosing when and how to meditate. While most meditation styles feel relaxing, as you hone your practice, many approaches to mindfulness are meant to create a sharp, alert mind.
True meditation (not just deep breathing exercises) is best done in the morning or at a few hours before bed. There are also mindfulness and breathing practices to help you tune out and drift to sleep (there are some on the left). Both methods will help you sleep better at night. Be sure to pick the practice that fits the time of day you intend to meditate.
FIND YOUR OWN STYLE
FIND a style that works for you. There are many meditation techniques, styles and philosophies (Transcendental, Kundalini, Vedic, Zen Buddhist, to name a few). Shop around, try a few, and see what works for you. Many meditations focus and energise the mind, making them better suited for earlier in the day but they still support your journey toward sleep. They completely relax the body, returning it to an even-keeled baseline. That ultimately helps keep your sympathetic nervous system and cortisol levels in check, making it easier to fall asleep at night.
explore smartphone apps such as Headspace, Calm, Aura, Insight Timer and Ten Percent Happier for some personalised, inexpensive guidance.