WHEN I BEGAN my career as an educator in New York, I woke up early to plan lessons. Then I spent the day setting up materials, teaching a full classroom of students, meeting with families, and attending staff meetings. After an already long day, I went to evening graduate school classes, then graded papers while commuting home on the subway. I regarded rest as something I would “earn” if I were productive enough. But there was always one more thing to finish. Then another thing always came along.
In my endless chase, my anxiety mounted and restoration never arrived. One day after about a year, my body reacted. I spiked fevers and my skin became inflamed. I suspected it was the result of my severe stress. I eventually recovered, but the episode was enough to remind me that I needed real self-care—including getting more rest during the day and better sleep at night.
Research shows that when we sleep, our cardiovascular and immune systems are reinforced and memory is consolidated. Through different stages of sleep, our body and brain recover not just for tomorrow, but for the long term. Lack of proper rest can cause moodiness, foggy concentration, and irritability. If we ignore our exhaustion, health complications may arise.
But quality downtime can be hard to come by. It’s easy to stay stimulated by scrolling on digital screens, binge-watching TV, or worrying about tomorrow’s schedule. When I tried to relax during this stressful time, my mind still raced and obligations loomed. I knew I needed more sleep, but I realized I didn’t actually know how to get it.
Leaning on Rest Traditions
For answers, I decided to revisit yoga teachings. I skimmed the spiritual booklets that my parents got from educational temples in India called maths (pronounced like “mutts”). They guided me to look to my own infancy to recall our basic human needs: nurture, nourishment, shelter, and sleep.
I was reminded of the abhyanga oil baths my grandmother gave me as a baby in India. She securely laid me on her outstretched legs, massaged warm sesame oil into my skin and hair, and sang me into deep sleep. It was a common South Asian tradition. I recalled my mother’s evening ritual when we were young: helping us wash in warm water, covering us in comforting blankets, and singing her own yoga nidra lullaby to guide us toward rest.
The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali suggests that one way to find steadiness in life is to concentrate on the peacefulness of sleep, or nidra in Sanskrit. Sri Swami Satchidananda translates Sutra I.38 as “[Stability can be attained] by concentrating on the experience of dreaming or deep sleep.”
What Inhibits Good Sleep?
Sleep isn’t something we “fall” into. Our thoughts don’t switch off like a device. We need time and steps to wind down.
It was a tradition in the East, before the advent of electricity, to light oil lamps at dusk to welcome the evening and create gentle light to prepare for night. Even with modern technology, many South Asian families like my own still light evening oil lamps as night begins to fall. Whenever I see the gentle glow, it signals the blessing of winding down.
Consider giving yourself a smoother runway toward a good night’s sleep by creating rest-promoting rituals:
∙ Finish exercising and eating at least a couple of hours before you sleep. (Eating a big meal too close to bedtime can lead to heartburn and indigestion.)
∙ Choose a reasonable, consistent bedtime. Give yourself at least 30 minutes before this time to wash up, brush your teeth, and get into your pajamas. Add time to help others prepare for bed if that’s part of your role.
∙ Choose an “aim” time for turning off the lights once you get into bed. Switch off digital screens at least 30 minutes before you want to fall asleep.
∙ Leave your phone to charge across the room, away from your bed, so you won’t be disturbed by notifications or be tempted to check messages. Adjust the volume of your alarms.
“Stability can be attained] by concentrating on the experience of dreaming or deep sleep.”
Higher States of Sleep
In yoga, sleep is not considered a blank state; rather, it is part of a process toward samadhi, or pure meditation. This is likely why yoga nidra practices today include progressive body relaxation to prepare your body to claim its rest.
There are various ways to bring the body and mind into a gradual state of rest that are as effective (and essential) for adults as they are for children. Consider the experiences that brought you sound sleep in childhood or the ways you would help a child to sleep: listening to a calm voice telling a story, being wrapped in the comfort of a soft bed, being rocked gently back and forth, watching the moon look down from a dark blue night sky. Give yourself similar experiences.
Yoga nidra is one of my favorite practices. It guides the relaxation of different parts of the body in a steady sequence. During my most stressful times, this practice helps slow down each part of my body, one at a time, letting my mind float between sleep and wakefulness.
Practice Yoga Nidra as Progressive Body Relaxation
Yoga nidra can be practiced as a mind-body break, but it is especially useful as a lead-in to sleep. Here’s how to do it:
Lie down comfortably on your back—in your bed or on a mat. Extend your legs and arms. Place a cushion under your knees or head for support if you like. Close your eyes. Breathe in and out fully. Silently and slowly say the words to yourself, “I relax my head, eyes, nose, ears, and mouth.” Next, say to yourself, “I relax my neck, chest, belly, back, and hips.” Continue silently narrating your relaxation: “I relax my shoulders, arms, wrists, hands, and fingers.” And finally, “I relax my buttocks, legs, ankles, feet, and toes.” Focus on the feeling of relaxation through your body, repeating the sequence as many times as desired.
We can receive yoga in many ways: from books, from teachers, from the Earth’s seasons, from the wisdom of our own childhood. The teachings of yoga helped me make the bed of my mind a new way: I unlearned rest as a reward and relearned rest as essential.
RINA DESHPANDE, EdM, MST, E-RYT 500, is a teacher, writer, and yoga and mindfulness researcher.
Outside MEMBER EXCLUSIVE
Learn more about yoga’s rich philosophy with Rina’s course “The Culture & Practice of the Yama.” This on-demand course, a $300 value, is included with your Outside+ membership. Sign up at yogajournal.com/outsideplus. ■