How did you sleep last night? If your answer is “not well,” you join a line of people who are on the hunt for tools to bring Mr. Sandman to their bed. Relaxation meditation should be one of your tools.
A good night’s sleep is of utmost importance. Sleep influences your overall health. Sleep, and the unfortunate lack thereof, deeply influences the workings of your brain and the functioning capacity of your body. Ask any new parent, any graduate student, or anyone going through a high-stress period or experiencing insomnia: sleep matters!
Sleep Is the Cornerstone of a Healthy Lifestyle
According to Dr. Suhas G. Kshirsagar, sleep is the cornerstone of a healthy lifestyle. In his book Change Your Schedule, Change Your Life, Dr. Kshirsagar writes, “If you aren’t sleeping well, no diet will make you thin, no exercise program will make you fit, and there’s almost no way to achieve calm in the face of ordinary stress.” During sleep your cells repair themselves and regenerate, immune function is strengthened, stress is eliminated, hormones are balanced, and memories are consolidated. Studies show that when you get enough sleep, your cognitive capacity improves, including creativity and memory.
Since sleep is so important, the more quality sleep you can get, the better. Meditating before bed can be one of the most beneficial ways to help you relax the body, de-stress the mind, and ease into a restful night’s sleep. Because meditation is intended to help focus the mind and body on the present moment, it can help prepare you for receiving all of those glorious health benefits of sleep. Practicing meditation throughout the day, at any time, can pave the way for a good night’s sleep; practicing relaxation meditation right before sleep can further deepen your capacity for a peaceful slip into dreamland.
Meditation Styles to Practice Before Going to Sleep
Below you will find some meditation styles to practice before bed. These suggested styles are particularly perfect for preparing you for sleep because they are designed to be relaxing, reflective, and calming. These styles can be practiced sitting up comfortably, reclining on a bolster, resting on the couch, or lying right in your bed. Begin your relaxation meditation by setting up the conditions for calm:
- Make your space dark.
- Keep yourself warm but not hot.
- Get prepared to settle in.
You may choose to practice restorative yoga, drink warm tea, and/or take a bath to help prepare yourself for pre-sleep meditation.
1. Yoga Nidra
Yoga nidra is a practice that combines deep relaxation, self-inquiry, and meditation. While the Sanskrit word nidra means “sleep,” in yoga nidra, you enter a state of awareness that is between sleeping and waking consciousness. What a perfect meditation style to try right before actual sleep! Yoga nidra for sleep involves an intricate step-by-step relaxation of each part of your body, release of mental effort, guided visualizations, and mindful awareness of the senses, sensations, and emotions. This meditation practice is usually practiced lying down and with the use of comfortable props to allow for a restful, non-distracting position for the body.
There have been several studies showing the beneficial effects of iRest, a modern version of yoga nidra, on a range of ailments such as insomnia, pain, stress, traumatic brain injury among veterans, and depression. For example, one study of college students found that iRest yoga nidra improved sleep improved sleep, reduced stress, decreased worry and depression, and increased mindful awareness.
Try yoga nidra before a long airplane flight, before bed, or any time you need a deep relaxation reset.
2. Guided Meditation
Set up your phone, tablet, or stereo to play a guided meditation. A guided bedtime meditation, in which you are listening to someone with a soothing voice offer prompts or guidance for meditation, can be helpful to listen to in bed. Choose a guided meditation with positive affirmations, meditative mantras, visualizations, or guided breath practice. It’s also helpful to choose a guided meditation with someone who has a voice that feels calming to you, as this will facilitate slumber.
You can find guided meditations for sleep through the Chopra Center, on YouTube, on apps such as Insight Timer and Calm, on Spotify and iTunes, and anywhere you download audio programs. Allow someone else to help you drift off into dreamland.
3. Gratitude Meditation
Start with some deep breaths and then think back on your day or weekend. Consider all of the people, places, activities, and experiences that you feel grateful for. Perhaps there is one person you want to focus on because you feel especially grateful for him or her. Perhaps there is a train of recent experiences that you can recall and feel an almost immediate flood of thankfulness in your heart. You can do a present moment gratitude practice by focusing on the things you notice around you that spark gratitude:
- Your next breath
- Your home
- Your body
- Your beating heart
- The possibility for growth
- Your seat cushion or pillow
- Your warm clothes
- Your nourished stomach
- The scents you smell
- The sounds you hear
- The mental capacity to practice gratitude
Even if it feels as though everything is going wrong and you have nothing to be thankful for, give this exercise a try. Look for the good in your life and free yourself of negative distractions. Begin with something small. Are you grateful for the beautiful shade of your nail polish? Are you grateful for this morning’s warm cup of coffee or chai tea? Can you find one thing to be grateful for and focus on that? Gratitude is consistently linked with greater happiness, so try an evening gratitude meditation and your dreams may just be a little sweeter at night.
4. Candle Gazing Meditation
Practicing trataka, or focused gazing meditation, is a beautiful way to fall asleep. Using a candle to focus your gaze can be very relaxing. Have you ever gazed at a fireplace or a camping bonfire and zoned out or gotten relaxed and drowsy? This meditation is like a mini version of that. The movement of your eyeballs reflects your thinking, so allowing your eyes to be fixed on the flame of the candle (or another chosen focal point) helps reign in stray thoughts and brings on a steady, concentrated state. (This is part of a six-part ancient yogic purification technique process called shatkarmas.)
To practice trataka, find a comfortable seat. You will remain sitting up for this meditation. Light a small, unscented candle and place it close enough to you that you can see it without straining your eyes or blowing it out with your breath. The candle can be at eye level or just below. In this meditation, you’ll look at the flame for as long as you can without blinking. See how long you can go. It will be longer than you think you’ll be able to! When you do need to blink or close your eyes, allow yourself to do that and decide if you’d like to reopen them or keep them closed. If you choose to keep them closed, visualize the candle flame before you. Just make sure you wake yourself up and blow out the candle before falling asleep.
5. Playing a Movie of Your Day
Begin by visualizing yourself when you first woke up this morning. Then watch your day unfold as you picture in your mind what you did next. Recall (or try to feel how it felt) waking up, making breakfast, getting dressed, going to work or going about your daily activities at home, interacting with any people you encountered, coming home, eating dinner, and so on. Look back over the day from beginning to end.
Another way to meditate with this technique is to play the film of your day backward: start by observing yourself where you are in this moment and play the movie from end to beginning. Reflect on your emotions, physical sensations, choices, and mental state throughout the day if you wish, or simply enjoy mindfully watching the movie reel of your day. Then visualize yourself climbing into bed and settling in for a restful night of sleep. Visualize yourself sleeping soundly and awakening refreshed and ready for the day ahead.
6. Your Favorite Peaceful Place
Picture your favorite calm place. Hopefully, this is somewhere you have actually been that reminds you of a time you felt centered and at peace. Perhaps it is a beautiful body of water, a warm beach, a hammock with a view, or a cozy couch by a fireplace. Bring to mind a location that allows your entire being to relax when you imagine yourself being there. If you have never been somewhere that brings you this peace, conjure a clear image of a beautiful calm, safe setting, and focus on that. Centering your mind on a peaceful image helps the body to relax and sets the tone for a peaceful night of sleep.
7. Relaxing Breath Meditation
Practicing calming pranayama, or breathing exercises can help you fall asleep. Look for a meditative guided pranayama practice or try this simple breathing practice called alternative nostril breathing, or nadi shodhana in Sanskrit. Here is how to do it:
- Begin by sitting comfortably. With your right hand, rest the tip of your index finger and middle finger in between your eyebrows. If this isn't comfortable, you may relax the fingers towards the palm, gently tucking them in. Or allow these fingers to simply float or hang in front of your forehead.
- Close off your right nostril with your thumb. Inhale slowly through your left nostril the way to the top of your breath. Then use your ring and pinky finger
sto close off your left nostril.
- Release your thumb and slowly exhale through your right nostril (all the way to the bottom of your breath. Then inhale through your right nostril all the way to the top of your breath.
- Now place your thumb back over your right nostril, and release your ring and pinky fingers to exhale through your left nostril all the way to the bottom of your breath.
- Repeat this pattern for a few rounds. Remember that nadi shodhana is an effortless, continuous flow of the breath with no controlled pauses.
You can practice nadi shodhana before bedtime and whenever you want to cultivate a sense of calm and balance.
Give yourself the gift of a good night’s rest by practicing meditation before sleep. Whether you try a candle gazing meditation before you doze off or listen to a guided yoga nidra practice, a daily meditation practice before bed may help you fall—and stay—asleep. Happy meditating and sweet dreams!
*Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only; it does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Chopra Center's Mind-Body Medical Group; and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health programs.
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