Its consequences can include exhaustion and depression. A trip to the doctor could result in a prescription for drugs – yet natural alternatives such as yoga can be a powerful alleviator. Lucia Cockcroft looks at how insomnia can be treated naturally.
We've all had the odd rough night or two, but for a quarter of us, and a third of men and women over the age of 65, a consistent inability to sleep can be a debilitating problem.
Insomnia can take many forms – perhaps the sufferer will take 45 minutes or more to fall asleep; or she or he will wake frequently through the night. Alternatively he or she will wake in the early hours and find it impossible to drop off again.
When we sleep, we withdraw
People have persistent problems sleeping for many reasons: a too-high caffeine intake; anxiety or an inability to switch off; lack of exercise; an unbalanced lifestyle with unmanageable levels of stress.
The odd poor night's sleep is nothing to worry about, but a persistent problem should be treated. Sleep is the body's best tonic. It refreshes and regenerates our systems, both psychologically and physically, and allows us to retreat from everyday life.
A person in a deep sleep loses their sense of touch and hearing. The mind, when asleep, goes somewhere else. There is no pain or worry. Because it involves a complete withdrawal from the world, sleep is the closest state we get to death during life.
Yoga practitioners' confidence in the powers of sleep to heal are reflected in Yoga Nidra – a system literally translated as 'sleep of the yogis'.
Best described as a deep relaxation technique – students fall into a heavy 'conscious sleep' - enthusiasts of Yoga Nidra claim it can replace up to three hours of normal sleep.
While the practitioner remains awake, his mind is sent into a deep level of consciousness and awareness through his meditative stage.
Whether or not you have the same confidence in this rather esoteric theory, yogis' belief that every human being has three bodies – the physical body, the astral, or psychic body, and the causal body (a deep, high, subtle energy) – is closely linked to the role of sleep.
When we're in a deep sleep, yogis say, we retreat into our causal body – and the mind, and its constant ripples of thought (or vrittis), are at rest.
Techniques for sound sleep
There is plenty you can do to prepare for a sound night's sleep, but here are the major pointers.
Establish a regular evening yoga routine, focusing on soft, gentle asanas with plenty of stretching. Savasana, forwards bends and shoulder stand are known to encourage relaxation.
Establish a meditation routine – it doesn't have to be long; ten minutes is fine – to focus and still the mind. Try reciting a mantra (something simple such as “Om” is fine) on each exhalation. Yogis say it helps tap into your innate spiritual energy.
Go easy on heave food. Yogis say that meat stays in the body's system for too long, making it indigestible. Ideally, eat lots of fruit, salads and soup – food that the body can deal with easily. Don't sleep during the day, as it upsets the body's natural rhythms.
Try not to read in bed and reserve your bed for sleeping only.
Don't lie there and stew. Get up and do something. Try not to worry about the following day. If necessary, write a list of your worries, and of the things you have to do the next day.
Try and alleviate your anxieties before bed-time – otherwise you'll take these thoughts with you.
Read an insightful, inspiring book such as Bliss Divine by Swami Sivananda. You will draw on the positive energy of the author and start to come out of your habitual way of thinking.
Make sure your physical surroundings are as conducive to sleep as possible. Open a window – if only slightly – and invest in some black-out blinds, or thick curtains.
Cultivate positive thinking. Grab any chance to meditate. Remember that you have the power to think the thoughts you want to think and that our minds, if not cultivated, can be our worst enemy. When you wake up in the morning, think of three reasons to be thankful to be living another day.