Confession time: I am a meditation teacher and I have a lifelong history with insomnia.
(I know people think that meditation teachers are super chill. Well…let me clear that up for you. That’s FALSE. No one becomes a meditation teacher because she is super chill.)
I don’t like to say things like “I have insomnia,” or “I am an insomniac,” because I don’t like to make it a part of my story or identify with it more than I already do. But it’s a real thing. It’s a real part of my life.
I didn’t have a traumatic childhood. Not by a long shot. But I have struggled with insomnia since early childhood. As a little kid, I remember needing my mom to lie in bed with me until I fell asleep. I remember after she tiptoed out of the room, calling out to her “I’m still awaaaaaake!!” After she stopped lying in bed with me, I insisted on falling asleep with the light on. Late in the night, my mom would come in and turn it off.
It continued intermittently through high school, but it got really bad my freshman year in college. I remember calling my dad late one night, sobbing from exhaustion. He drove the 2.5 hours from South Jersey to Gettysburg, PA and brought me home to the safety of my childhood bed.
But after I lost my best friend (and lifelong next door neighbor) to heroin, it got BAD. Just three days after his funeral, I had to head back to the ashram in Australia to complete the second year of my Yoga Teacher Training.
To this day, I know very little about the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali because during those lectures, I was sitting in the back of the class quietly sobbing and reliving the moment I saw his body being carried out from my bedroom window. For 4 months, I slept (on average) 3-4 hours a night. Sometimes less. I practiced Yoga Nidra twice a day. I meditated twice a day. It SUCKED. But I was fine. I survived.
In fact, I’m grateful for that period of my life. Because it helped me effectively neutralize insomnia’s emotional charge. It was also the first time that there was a real external cause I could link to my insomnia.
More often than not, my ‘insomnia periods’ (that’s what I call them) come completely randomly. Sometimes they happen during a stressful time, or before an early morning flight – but usually, they come out of the blue and last anywhere from three nights to two weeks. Insomnia is annoying, to be sure. But it doesn’t affect me or define me.
Most importantly, I try not to ‘cast the second arrow’ of suffering. It sucks when I don’t sleep. But it sucks even more when I stress about it. When I am dealing with an ‘insomnia period’ these days, I have a few tricks up my sleeve that I like to throw down…sometimes they work…sometimes they don’t – but I have learned not to attach expectations that my little ‘sleep hacks’ will result in sleep!! Desire is the root of all suffering…especially if it’s the desire for sleep!
Here are a few of my favorite ‘sleep hacks,’ in no particular order.
- Move to the couch. Yes. You have permission to get out of bed. Sometimes being awake in bed can create a ton of mental tension…but the couch is a neutral space, associated with relaxation, rather than sleep!! Try it!
- Read a book. Preferably a boring book!
- Progressive Muscle Relaxation. This helps release physical tension from the body – basically it’s tensing and releasing different muscle groups, one at a time.
- Deep abdominal breathing. Equalize the length of your inhale and exhale.
- Blink 100 times. It sounds weird, but it works.
- Pop on a Yoga Nidra Playlist- on repeat!
- Lie on a heating pad. A heating pad will help relax your back and hip muscles…which are usually pretty tight when you’re all wound up about not sleeping!
- Take a shower. Sometimes taking a hot shower can make it feel like you’re beginning the bedtime process again…I like to do some self-massage after with coconut or sesame oil. In Ayurveda, it’s called abhyanga…and it’s awesome.
- Journal or make a list. This basically serves as a brain dump- getting everything in your head down on paper so you (hopefully!) don’t have to ruminate anymore.
- Walk around the block. Yes. You have permission to leave the house at this hour.
- Make a cup of chamomile tea.
- Have a small snack…maybe a banana or a piece of toast with peanut butter.
- 15-20 minutes of Restorative or Yin Yoga.
I’d love to hear about your struggles with insomnia, and if any of these tips have helped you out!