Meditation for Sleep
How to Set Your Mind and Body Up for Deep Rest
Sleep is the best meditation.
- Dalai Lama
How do meditation and sleep go together? And what is the best type of meditation for sleep?
Well, it turns out that there are two different types of meditation practices that can make a difference when it comes time for your head to hit the pillow:
Gentle, Mindful Yoga (Moving Meditation) and a Body Scan Meditation. Together, they will help you get out of your mind and into your body. It’s amazing, but true - relaxing your muscles allows your brain to relax too.
If sleep challenges are disrupting your mood and quality of life, I'd recommend an intense dosage. I'll get into exactly what that could look like in a bit.
If sleep isn’t much of a problem for you, but you still find yourself struggling, you can still benefit from learning these practices, and being able to turn to them when needed.
It all boils down to stress
Back in fall of 2018 I taught an Intensive Stress Reduction course, for University students, most of whom were graduate or Ph.D. level.
I jumped right into guiding the group in 20 minutes of Mindful Yoga followed by inviting everyone to lie down for a 45 minute Body Scan meditation.
Afterwards, nearly everyone shared that they slept through most of the meditation, but woke up feeling more rested than they had after a full night's sleep.
The youngest among them, a freshman, who I'll call Tim, couldn't believe he'd rested so deeply. He said he felt he'd gone to a different dimension.
"I'm gonna do this everyday this week. That was amazing! I feel so refreshed!"
"Great," I said," because that's your homework!"
A week passed and everyone was back in class, doing an exercise called Mindful walking.
This practice is about focusing attention on your feet and walking slowly, so, to an outsider, it looks like a room full of three-toed sloths walking in a circle.
Inhaling and exhaling, the sloths stepped one toe at a time around the room.
Suddenly, Tim broke out of his slow walk and into a twirl, and then a sachay across the floor.
Shocked, and amused, we all turned our attention toward him.
There he was, dancing around us in pure joy. His movements were reminiscent of a movie scenes, like someone dancing in the rain under the glow of moonlight.
Tickled and inspired, everyone started to move in more fluid ways.
The circle broke and soon there were dances, skips, and swirls happening wherever you looked.
Flow, freedom, energy and laughter filled the room.
When we eventually sat down after the practice period, I asked him,
"What inspired you to start dancing?!"
"I'm 18 and I haven't slept through the night since I was a little boy. I've struggled for so long with this. This week, I did my homework every night and I've been sleeping! I never thought I'd be able to sleep, and here I am. I broke out in dance because I feel so relieved and grateful and free.”
If you can't sleep at night, the first thing you need to know is that your Sympathetic Nervous system is overactive.
What that means is: you're living in a state of constant stress activation. In other words - your fight or flight response is switched to always on.
You don't know what baseline, or total relaxation feels like in the body. Instead of being able to fully relax, your system is stuck in a ‘high-stress’ or ‘less-stressed ’state.
Stress shows up in our minds as anxiety and intense pressure - it can even lead to situational depression, and feelings of overwhelm. Furthermore, it takes over your body as feelings of tension and tightness. You might have gastro issues, persistent neck/shoulder discomfort, lower back pain, or any other number of clear signs that your nervous system is on edge, on high alert, code red, overdrive---all the time.
This constant ON-ness, with no conscious and adaptive way of turning it off (or at least lowering the volume) is why you can't sleep.
It's why your mind races at night and you putz around the house wishing you could sleep.
It's why when you do sleep, you sleep in interrupted intervals.
It's why you feel like you were hit by a truck every morning.
It's why you start the day exhausted and irritable, even after you've had coffee.
You're more stressed than you may think or feel you are
You might not think, or even feel like you're always stressed - but that is because you (like most people) are so used to a constant state of stress that it feels normal.
Have you heard the analogy about the frog and the pot of boiling water?
It goes like this - put a frog into a pot of boiling water, and it will hop out instantly! But start with warm water and slowly turn it up over time, and the frog will be cooked before it knows what’s happening.
It’s a graphic example (and we feel sad for the frog) - but point is - that’s most of us! The water has been turned up over time, and now we hardly notice that it’s boiling over, or that we are in a stress response nearly all the time!
Like most of us, you may only notice your stress when it's extreme - like when your back pain gets worse, gastro issues become more severe, or when the spinning of your mind accelerates like a jet engine.
Yet you've been stressed all along, and that's why those spikes of even more stress are so intense.
The only way to finally sleep through the night and experience deep rest is to target the two underlying reasons you can't sleep.
You've never been taught how to deactivate your Fight / Flight (Sympathetic) Nervous System and activate your Rest & Digest (Parasympathetic) Nervous System.
You've never been coached in how to direct your attention outside of your thinking mind. You don't have an anchor to ground your attention.
Gentle Yoga + Body Scan Meditation, performed in that order, teach you both
Gentle stretching or gentle yoga prior to bed primes the mind to slow down, and primes the conditions for you to meditate.
Slow movement and paying mindful attention to the body as you move helps to slow down the mind and empty it of the busyness and stress of the day.
Moving the body to settle the mind is an ancient model that has been used to great success in a variety of traditions and wisdom practices.
Yoga asanas (postures) were invented by meditators who observed how animals stretched in the fields.
They figured they could stretch in similar ways before and in between meditations as a way to limber up the body so they could sit and meditate for longer periods of time.
This is why yoga classes usually end with a meditation. It was invented to prepare you to withstand a period of stillness.
In fact, any mindfulness class for children or teens begins with movement before transitioning into meditation because kids are famous for not being able to sit still.
Moving first slows them down, shakes out the excess mental, physical and emotional energy, and allows them to settle into, and appreciate, a relaxed posture later on.
The same goes for you.
It's a Warm Up
Yoga is like warming up your muscles on the treadmill before going to lift.
It begins the activation of the Parasympathetic Nervous System, so you can land lightly and smoothly into your Body Scan Meditation.
It's the huddle, the ritual, the sweat you need to get your head in the game.
The Relaxation Response
That warm up is setting you up for the relaxation response.
This is the moment, about 20-25 minutes into a meditation where real release can occur.
Where a real shift happens.
Where you enter that land of true rest.
That dimension Tim spoke of.
The relaxation response is a self-induced quieting of brain activity. It leads to a body-wide slowdown and a feeling of well-being that have measurably positive effects on disorders caused by stress or made worse by it.
- Lloyd Resnick, Former Editor, Harvard Heart Letter
With 20 minutes of a moving meditation out of the way, you're already entering the territory of the relaxation response once you start your Body Scan meditation.
Doing this practice daily trains your mind and body in knowing what baseline is, what relaxation feels like, and how to return there.
A daily practice of inducing the relaxation response allows you to coast right into your dreams.
Mindful Yoga + The Body Scan Meditation also train you in accessing a much needed anchor for your attention
When you’re on the emotional rollercoaster of life and trying to get to bed at night, it's vital to have a grounding tool at your disposal.
Your body and your breath are those tools.
Practicing bringing your awareness to your body and your breath will give you a solid anchor, a solid place to turn to whenever you need to step out of the chaos and busyness of your mind.
It gives you a place to land, a place outside the storm of thoughts that keep you up.
Get out of your mind and into your body
By learning to focus and sustain your attention on the body, in both the yoga and the meditation, you're training your attention to be present-focused, on the here and now.
Your mind and thoughts can be anywhere, but your body can only ever be in the present.
The more you direct attention to the body, the more you're present and grounded.
The more you’re present and grounded, the more you're able to relax.
And the more you're able to relax, the better you will sleep.
On Sleeping Well
Before I started meditating, I'd wake up throughout the night with my chest heaving, my body anxious about the work day ahead.
As I took on these two practices, my world shifted.
My sleep improved, my stress and anxiety softened, and I began to wake up rested, refreshed and with a deep sense of peace in my mind and body.
Like Tim, I had never known what true relaxation was until I experienced it for myself.
Once I did, I knew it was something that I wanted to have for a lifetime. I knew I would have to make it a priority, and do it regularly.
And that's what you've got to do, too.
Make the Commitment to Better Sleep, and to Yourself
I know this is an intense prescription, but if you're really struggling, believe me - it is worth it!
You're unwinding a lifetime of mental and physical tension and tightness.
Begin with this protocol: 20 minutes of Gentle Yoga, followed by a 30 minute Body Scan.
If you don't need a total reset, go for 10 min of yoga and a 10 min Body Scan.
Aim to do it daily for 4 weeks. Make it a challenge for a month.
Reduce or increase thereafter based on what you notice works best for you.
I can’t wait to see what spontaneous dance moves you come up with once you begin experiencing the relaxation response, developing your anchors, deepening your presence and most importantly, deepening your sleep. At the end of the day, the best meditation for sleep is the one that gets you out of your head, and into your body, so that you can finally relax into the present moment. And the best part about it? (apart not being a sleep-deprived zombie anymore) You realize that you are the one who has the ability to soothe, relax, and calm yourself when you need it most.
Author - Linnie Vassallo
Linnie is a meditation coach. She was among the very first coaches brought on by Calm Scholar, and has recently taken a step back from private coaching to focus on sharing her experience through writing and mixed media. You can learn more about Linnie in our podcast episode here.
Calm Scholar makes finding a meditation coach easy. We offer a diverse team of guides and will help you find the guide right for you. All of our sessions are virtual and one-on-one with the guide of your choice.
Your personal guide will take the time to get to know you and why you are looking to meditate in the first place. Whether it is unaddressed trauma, grief, or a sense of disconnection that is causing you to look towards meditation, your guide will use meditation and mindfulness to bring healing and acceptance to the areas you need it most.