by Angela

You taught yourself to wake up for yoga. And how to wake up for yoga again. Maybe the nervous system needed a month or so to repattern. And maybe, by now, your body has forgotten what it felt like when that was really hard.

Now that you can be wired in the morning, is it just as easy to be tired at night? In a culture where rest is something we pay to experience in artificial (spa) or far-flung (vacation) environments, the winding down skills aren’t so obvious. So it may take more clarity and subtlety to learn deep relaxation than it took to learn to wake up for yoga. If you choose to accept this mission, it might take an explicit commitment, and deliberate placement of the attention, over and over again.

One Ayurvedic definition of health is ability to maintain a balanced environment both within and around the body. I use this as a lens for examining my actual behaviors. Looking at the matter clinically, am I balanced in my inner being and in my actions? To clarify that question, my physicians have offered 15 points of daily self-assessment. The first pair is waking up easily/going to sleep easily.

Waking up, check. Around here, we like intensity, sharp focus, and fire. Life on the razor’s edge is sweet and clear. But if you only practice getting up strong, and do not practice going to bed soft, then imbalances can form in the nervous system over the long term. Some of the first indicators of lack of deep rest may be: fuzzy mind, emotional unavailability or reactivity, and susceptibility to illness. In this light, deep rest enables creativity, meaningful relationships, and vibrancy.

Conscious relaxation shows in a person’s bodily tissues, in the personality, and in how she relates with time and with the earth. It is the foundation of Jedi mind training. Here are some practical ways in.

First, a note for those of you with young kids. You may be tired often; maybe for years. I have not been through this, but I sense what you’re going through. Possibly this article can inspire you to take deep rest if and when you can, and to cradle yourselves sometimes with the same comforts you give to the little ones. Also, in case it helps, here’s one very strange piece of information. Some of the most intense spiritual warriors across the world, and across generations, have pursued insight in part with a long term schedule that deprives them of sleep. I do not understand this, but Shinzen Young lectures often on the ways that sleep deprivation can enable a person to let go of her in-born clinging to the small self. (On retreat, I have gone without sleep and experienced subtle pain, astonishing clarity and a kind of self-transcendence as a result.) I have no clue if lack of sleep plays some role in the self-transcendence you sometimes describe when raising children. In any case, if accepting some tiredness is part of your parenting, then it’s the path. And… when you can…. deep rest is a good idea.


  1. Decide to care. Sleep hygiene is a thing.
  1. Screens off two hours before your intended sleep time.

Deal breaker? I disagree. That might be a push notification dopamine addiction talking. Or a tendency to simulate productivity by keeping up with the feeds. The highly stimulated and rapid activity associated with screen life is itself usually not conscious or relaxed, but there’s a simpler problem here.

Screens flicker. The blips land on the permeable, glassy surfaces to each side of the nose and from there fall right in the center of the brain. We don’t fully know what mysteries go down in the command-and-serenity center around the third ventricle, but it’s probably safe to say your pineal gland abhors screens. It’s not fair to expect a melatonin brain-marinade on demand as soon as you close your laptop. Even if you can get away with pushing your screen right up until bed time, it’ll probably result in relatively tense sleep.

Personally, I read at night. Because I teach, I feel it’s important to read from the wisdom traditions daily. Either that or sci-fi novels. Whatever content I take in the last two hours before sleep invariably shapes the content of my dreams.

  1. Build a practice of directing the mind as you fall asleep.

Here’s what I do. I lie down either in bed with the head on a Therapeudica pillow (recommended), or on the wood floor in our yoga room. I briefly review my day, think and feel how grateful I am for several specific aspects of my life, and see myself waking up refreshed and on fire to practice very early the next morning. I give thanks for the space to extend my whole body to rest. I notice the quiet, the fact that there is no violence or conflict around me – only peace. This is really humbling. It is rare as a human to enjoy this safety, ample space, peace, and quiet. Then I take note of the feeling of my head on the floor or on the pillow, and I relax my face. This takes time, and is so pleasant that it holds my attention. Then I relax the head, and then a set series of locations around the physical body, and so on until I transition in to sleep.

Developing this practice took discipline at first. In the book Yoga Nidra, Satyananda wrote: Most people do not know how to sleep. They fall asleep while thinking over some problem or while prey to some anxiety. In sleep their mind runs on and their body is tense. I hear from a lot of people that they have a stock of fantasies or anxiety scenarios they go to before sleep. Before building a more conscious way to go to sleep, notice the default patterns and ask if they truly express the person you want to be. Because again, the last things you do with your mind before sleep strongly impact the quality of your rest.

  1. Insomnia? If you’re stuck awake, that’s not a problem. No kidding. If you can consciously relax, while awake, you will still be fine the next day. This is common on meditation retreat, where there is some pull in consciousness away from sleep. Conscious relaxation is sufficient, but to stay with it for hours requires dedication.

Yoga tricks for insomnia: inhale gently through the mouth, exhale through the nose. This slows down the exhalation, privileging its calming effects on the nervous system. Or roll to the right side and rest the head on the right bicep until the left nostril clears. It’s not just that you’re stuffed up – there is erectile tissue in the nose that usually keeps one nostril relatively less clear. For restful states, it’s best to have the left nostril more open and the right nostril less open.

  1. Self quantification is a slippery slope. This is not a vote for bringing a fit bit to Mysore practice, but using a sleep app for a little while might generate some useful self-knowledge. I like Sleep Cycle.
  1. Floor sleeping. Weird but great. If you’re a pro at conscious relaxation at the shala, but cannot find the same depth of rest in bed, reconstruct savasana. I got in to the habit of sleeping on the cool marble floors in India. It’s a strange habit, and one your family may not appreciate for the long term, but I’m telling you about it because a long-term student shared that he does it too and finds it beneficial for his lumbar spine.
  1. Yoga Nidra. I first listened to a Yoga Nidra cassette about 10 years ago. This brilliant practice has changed my consciousness and my life. Yoga Nidra is not sleep – it’s deliberate re-patterning and gentle self-hypnosis. Over time, what I have learned in Yoga Nidra has shaped the personal practice I gestured to above for taking myself over the threshold from the waking to the sleeping state.
  1. But I’m a night owl. I have to stay up late for my creativity. (Insert image of Angela not buying it.) Yes, maybe you do have trouble switching off at night. Because of screens.

Here’s how a lot of people around here have finished the book, prepared for the trial, taken 5 finals in three days, and so on. They place a tourniquet around the creative mind. When they get up, they learn to float in the space of don’t-know-mind, in the space of felt sense, in the long-term marriage with their breath. When they are finished, they make their tea, sit down, and un-kink the hose. Against that slight restriction, so much discursive, creative, useful content has accumulated. Morning productivity is sharp, and it’s consistent.

You don’t have to be a victim of the muse. Dance with her and give her down time she can depend on. Put routines in place, and do your creative practice every day. Year in, year out. Life-long creativity is a practice.

  1. Food. I don’t have much to say on food, because I think your practice can sort this out over time if you really listen.

But… eating late really messes people up. I have a feeling that much of the dis-ease in western culture comes from our lack of relaxation skills and resulting tendency to rely either on (a) total exhaustion or (b) late, carb-heavy meals in order to get to sleep.

Eating late (especially carb-heavy meals) strongly affects sleep. (It also makes it hard to wake up refreshed.) If you get in the habit of eating large breakfasts and lunches with light activity after each meal, then it’s possible to learn to enjoy the feeling of going to bed with the stomach fairly empty. Your digestive system will thank you.

  1. Some of us have the option to ride the hormonal cycle.

Mother nature serves cocktails once a month. If yours fatigues you for a day or two, is that a problem? What if rest days were your feminine entitlement? Some cultures see it that way – it’s just us westerners that believe we have to hide or fight the cycle. (I have come to see our western, capitalist approach to menstruation as not very feminist.)

Some people tell me you want to practice right at the start of your cycle – even though you’re tired – because there’s sudden relief as your energy moves downward. The body opens again. Ok. But where is that openness? Is it in the connective tissues around joints, perhaps due to sudden hormonal shifts? If this were the case in your body, the very start of the menstrual cycle would be the most important time to back off the bending.

On the other hand, if you give your system serious rest when it asks for rest time, it can give you serious activity when it’s action time. It might be useful in this regard to check out what western science says about the effects of a consistent hormonal cycle for metabolism, bone density and emotional stability. There are esoteric reasons we put so much attention into the 28-day moon cycle around here.

  1. Cultivate positive triggers. Babies often learn to understand bath time as the cue to switch over into rest mode. For me it is shutting off email and settling in to my reading chair. Find a whole-body experience you can give yourself every night as an initiation into down time. Brush your teeth, and then brush your brain. It’s not time for sleep per se; it’s just the time to turn in that direction and let the different functions of the body gently power down. So that when sleep comes, it can be truly restful.