One Simple Exercise Cultivates the Will to Chill

You might have trouble drifting off to sleep. Or you fall asleep just fine but then wake up at an odd time. Either way, if you lie awake while the rest of the world slumbers, it’s a recipe for angst.

While there are many physiological explanations for insomnia — stress, menopause, an interrupted circadian rhythm, depression — and myriad treatment options available — prescription drugs, OTC remedies, herbal supplements — many times, the most important piece of the puzzle is your own mind. Because worrying that you’re not getting enough sleep is only going to make it harder to get more of this vital, restorative stuff.

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In this and my next few posts, I’ll review simple self-care techniques that can help you relax mentally and physically. In each post I recommend a suggestion that may allow you to peacefully slip off to la la land. And to give these practices some street cred, I reached out to my fellow AcaciaTV fitness blogger, Coach Alison, and her husband, Chris, to give them a test drive.

Alison is a running coach and yogi who is open to mind-body practice. She tends to sleep pretty well but has the occasional problem nights, as we all do. Her husband, Chris, is on the other end of the spectrum — he’s wound tight, and he’s plagued with fidgety, interrupted and minimal sleep to prove it. He’s also somewhat skeptical of anything ‘woo’ although he can’t be too skeptical because he did volunteer to try three different soothe-yourself-to-sleep techniques.

The first of three exercises I had them try is constructive rest, a foundational pose of a mindfulness practice known as the Alexander Technique designed to bring the spine into its natural alignment and allow you to support yourself in that alignment with absolutely no muscular effort. It quiets the nervous system and purges the body of tension. While it’s not necessarily recommended as a pre-sleep tactic, I find a helpful part of a wind-down routine that gets you a little woozy and noodly before you pour yourself in to bed.

To do it:

Lie on the floor on your back. Place a short stack of magazines or books under the back of your skull so that the neck is long and the forehead is slightly higher than the chin. (I use some books on yoga that I know and love—hey, may as well let some extra relaxation seep in via osmosis!)

Bend your knees and futz with your feet until you find the place where your knees can be pointing at the ceiling and the muscles in your legs don’t have to work at all to keep them up—it’s like creating a suspension bridge with your legs. It’s totally not cheating to put a yoga block or pillow in between your knees and let them fall in toward each other so you can truly rest.

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As the collarbones melt away from each other and the backs of the shoulders release in to the floor, rest your palms on the floor or on your belly, whichever feels better. Stay, breathe naturally, and sink.

Remain in this relaxed state for 10-15 minutes if you can. At least five minutes. OK? Some is better than none, but if you’re going to do it, set yourself up to really experience the benefit.

At the finish, roll onto your side into a ball. Use your hands to press your up to sitting, then stand up using as little effort as you can. You just spent time quieting the nervous system.  Don’t blow it by popping up and running across the room.

Here’s what my guinea pigs had to say about constructive rest.

ALISON: “I loved this one. It took me about four minutes of tuning into my breathing and the sound of my heartbeat– you know, giving my brain a job to do — to really settle in. That long neck feeling was awesome. Like the opposite of how my head is positioned all day. The 10-15 minutes flew by for me. Afterwards, I did feel really relaxed and ready for bed. Probably took about 3-6 minutes for me to fall asleep.”

CHRIS: “I didn’t like this one at all. It did get easier as each night went on. It is very unusual for me to be on the floor for any reason. I kept thinking, ‘Why am I on the floor again?’ The last few times we did this one, I did get to a quiet mind by the eight-or-nine minute mark. So, not my favorite, but helpful over time.”

Fair enough! If you too find this does not work for you, that’s OK. Next week, Alison and Chris try a little acupressure. In the meantime, you can stream a meditation video to help mellow out. On our newly designed site, all you need to do is filter for meditation themed videos and choose between the dozens of options.