My search for non-Pharma sleep tips brought me to back to my former hometown, New York City.
Anyway! While I was NY-re-C-ing, I popped into the kind of yoga studio that could give me insomnia by sheer virtue of its sheer cool-factor under different circumstances.
Black-clad students with fabulous hair were gathered on matte black mattes in a room cordoned off from the street. Window graffiti announced the class schedule.
But looks can be deceiving. And that's especially true when we're talking sleep.
And so, there I was on Elizabeth Street where yoga life-stylist Sadie Nardini was teaching a Vinyasa class, fresh off a trip to Italy and a late-night dinner with friends.
Her eyes were rimmed with black liner. Her hair was rock-star red. Her stereo was blasting NWA at 11 in the morning. Everything about her telegraphed a sense of vibrant good humor, easy good health and most weirdly, given the context: good-humored fun. Zest. Energy! As if she'd never had a sleepless night in her life!
"Raise your hand if you have trouble falling asleep at night," Nardini asked her class.
The response rate was 100 percent.
The triathlon-ready looking girl in the back rows said she was anxious. The mellow-looking guy announced he was dealing with major challenges. Others got so revved up from the buzz-bing-zoom of the day that they lay awake at night...
Including their teacher, once upon a time. And this is what had brought me here.
The idea of a sleep-challenged yogina may sound like a contradiction in terms. But that's what drew Sadie Nardini to her chosen field. Panic attacks, ADD and bad sleep were the cards she'd been dealt. So she decided to reshuffle the deck.
"I was a huge stress ball...a Formula One race car crashing into everything," Nardini said, after a class that had me noting the shiny spots between the rain drops along with every fiber of my legs.
"I know what I know," she thought, "And it's not getting me anywhere. So what don't I know?"
What she didn't know, she learned, was the secret of people she knew who managed to sleep well and get a ton of things accomplished.
At which point, she saw a woman at her gym that made her decide to Just Say No to her nerves, and ask she, too, could get such a fit body. Flash forward fifteen years. Nardini has become the kind of person that people turn to for help sleeping and getting fit from a person who believes in a healthy dose of pasta with her padmasana. Here are her sleep tips:
1) Say Yes to Your Thoughts.
Not sleeping? The bad news is this fact is... a fact.
"If you fight it, it will fight you back," Nardini says.
The good news is that this bad news can be good news.
If we can shift our response to not sleeping from, "No!!! Not again!" to "Okay, what now?" our brain can consider other, more positive (if less logical-seeming) options.
(For those of you who have asked about the men-and-sleep thing, Nardini says this step alone has turned her fiance from a 3-hour a night snoozer to a happy 8-hr-a night sleeper.)
2) Become a Witness
Yes, Virginia: this step sounds kind of woo-woo.
But if we non-sleepers take the "I" out of "I can't sleep," our brain - the McMansion of "I," will move out of this circular non-driveway.
By looking at our situation as opposed to being an insomniac, we can (mixed metaphor ahead) get out of the passenger's seat and slide into the driver's seat of our car - which is our brain. Mind. Will. All that good stuff.
We will feel more Mario Andretti at the ol' Indy 400 and less Mimi from La Boheme when we do this.
And more "Zen-ish vrrrm!" = mo' chance o' zzzs.
3) Balance Your Brain
So there we are...outside ourselves, but still in bed. We're trying to act calmer, more accepting. But we're still awake. We're observing. But our pulse and breath-rate are clinging to the track fast.
How do we kick these"buts" butt?
As you may know from an earlier post from this series, the yogic hum known as "Brahmari breath" can release endorphins that promote relaxation.
As part of her step three of sleep, Sadie Nardini offers two more breathing practices that can switch your body's default mechanism from fight-or-flight to relaxed and ready to zzz:
• Double Down Breath: Inhale for a count of three. Hold for a count of three. Exhale for a count of six. The longer exhale will calm you, Nardini says.
• Press one nostril closed with your finger. Inhale, hold and exhale through your open nostril, using the 3-3-6 pattern above. Switch. Repeat for two minutes.
4) Balance Your Body
During her insomniac phase, Nardini found herself with restless leg syndrome - the muscular Maraschino cherry on top of her already heaping anxiety-insomnia sundae.
The following exercises cured it.
1. Cat-Cow pose: Get on all fours (in bed or on the floor). Arch your back gently, then curl it gently, to massage your adrenals and up your endorphins.
2. Wrist circles, ankle circles and arm circles release tension in these areas.
3. Do a few "Rag Dolls" gentle forward bends - while seated in bed, or standing.
4. Bed-based legs-up wall. Put a pillow under your butt and your legs against the wall to invert, relax, chillax.
5. Child's pose.
5) Sandstorm Meditation
This was a new idea to me...and I love it.
The idea is to picture ourselves driving a car through a sandstorm. The grains of sand are our thoughts. The storm is their pace and everwhere-ness. The realization that that our thoughts are outside us, flying by and we can move through them cleanly is the difference between driving your life and being overly driven.
And now? Color me jetlagged...but it's time for a nap. Which leads me to the last point in the Yoga of Sleep. There's no need to wait for a sleepless night to try out these tips.
"We practice anxiety" all the time, Nardini says. Why not practice a little pre-emptive peace?
Why not give our positive-project bound, sleep-driving selves a chance?