The second line of the yoga sutra says “yoga citta vrtti nirodha,” which loosely translated means, “yoga stills the churning of consciousness.” There’s no better time to experience the churning of consciousness than at three in the morning when you’re lying in bed wide awake watching the minutes tick by. Being sleep deprived is a common phenomenon in our over-scheduled, over-stressed, over-stimulated culture. Most of us will suffer from it at some point or another, and it can have detrimental effects on our ability to cope during the day as well as for our long term health.
As a very experienced insomniac I’ve experimented with a lot of different techniques for trying to get to sleep (or back to sleep). Of course some of the common tips such as keeping a regular routine and not watching screens after dark, while helpful, are not possible for most people (particularly if you are one of the many whose employment spills over into the evening hours). Also, there are conflicting opinions in the literature about the best techniques to use, for example whether you should just lay awake in bed, or whether ‘tis nobler to get up and do some ironing. Sometimes, insomnia is a result of hormonal changes (e.g. menopause) or simply a lack of exercise.
New research has discovered that the brain actually flushes itself out while we are sleeping, and that this cleaning process may be important in the prevention of illnesses like Alzheimer’s. Sleep also allows our brains to integrate and file away what we’ve experienced during the day, and often our dreams also give us useful emotional insights from parts of the brain we don’t ordinarily pay attention to. The more we learn about the functions of sleep, the more we realize that it’s critical for good health and immunity.
Although insomnia causes us suffering, it also can be an important signal. It can be an indicator that we have psychological work that we need to do, or that there are aspects of our life we need to re-examine. Yoga offers a number of techniques for tackling insomnia, and there is good research to support the use of mindfulness meditation as a tool to support better sleep.