Are you wondering how you can learn to sleep better, without resorting to medications that may be habit forming and leave you feeling groggy the next day? Progressive relaxation can help you fall asleep naturally, and keep you asleep if done on a regular basis. It can also teach you how to relieve anxiety or even panic.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda, the mind cannot be separated from the body. In order to have calm centred awareness, we need to be able to release the tension from our physical body before we can go into deeper states. Doing a set of yoga poses, or asanas before bed, or before meditation will deepen both of these processes. Pranayama, Qi Gong, and mindful breathing can also release body tension, by linking the conscious mind to rhythmic breath.
The progressive relaxation technique is easy to do and provides us with a powerful tool to release muscular tension, providing a deep calm state, conducive to sleep. Even if you don’t think you have muscular tension you will likely be quite surprised by how much you are holding onto on a daily basis. You may not think that letting it go will help you sleep. It would be surprising, however, if you can get through this technique without yawning as tension dissolves and peace comes into your body.
Because we have been living in a state of sympathetic overdrive where we no longer know how to reliably activate our restorative parasympathetic nervous system, it does take time for any relaxation technique to have a noticeable lasting effect. You will likely feel relaxation while you are doing the exercise but for it to be most effective it will need to be done every night–we don’t just brush our teeth once and expect them to stay white forever!
There are quite a few variations of this technique. I’m teaching you one I learnt in the 1990s, but before we begin, it is important to not cause yourself any pain while doing this. As the technique involves contracting a series of muscle groups, anyone with musculoskeletal pain, or joint inflammation needs to be very mindful of their bodies. If you feel any discomfort, ease off the tension.
For insomnia, progressive relaxation is often performed in bed when planning on going to sleep:
- Lie on your back–a pillow can be tucked under your knees or you can lie on your side if you have back pain.
- Take a few slow deep breaths*, and notice how your body feels as you tighten each area and relax each area as follows:
- Tighten your calf muscles and hold for a silent count of 10, then relax for a silent count of 10. Again tighten and relax your calf muscles for 10 silent counts each;
- Tighten your thighs and hold for 10 counts, then relax for 10 silent counts. Again tighten and relax your thigh muscles for 10 silent counts each;
- Tighten your stomach and lower back muscles by doing a pelvic tilt for a silent count of 10. Again tighten and relax your stomach and low back muscles for 10 silent counts each;
- Tighten your shoulder and arm muscles*. This can be done when you are lying flat on your back this way: Your arms are kept straight and rigid by your sides and your hands are made into fists. Press your fists into the mattress and hold for 10 silent counts and relax for 10 silent counts. Repeat the sequence;
- Push your tongue against the roof of your mouth and hold for a count of 10, relax for 10…and repeat the sequence;
- Squeeze your eyes shut for a count of 10..relax for 10, and repeat;
- Wrinkle your forehead for a silent count of 10…relax for 10, and repeat;
- Raise your hands above your head…take in a deep breath and hold for a silent count of ten. Exhale and lower your hands.
- Now focus on slow, steady, deep breathing. Do not hold your breath, just focus your awareness on your tummy and breathe slowly and deeply in and out. When this feels comfortable and natural, silently repeat the following as you exhale:
- First exhalation: “Warm”***
- Second exhalation: “Calm”
- Third inhalation: “Relaxed”Repeat this sequence (warm, calm, relaxed) for 5-10 minutes.
* In steps 3-9 you are breathing normally when you are doing the contraction/relaxation sequence and each count is about 1 seconds long.
**If you are lying on your side you can cross your arms over your body and give yourself a hug that is held for 10 counts.
***you can say “I am warm”, “I am calm”, “I am relaxed” if you wish. If you are menopausal or on the hot side, you can say “comfortable” or “I am comfortable” instead of “warm”.
Another version is “I’m OK”, “I am calm”, “I am relaxed”. Whatever works for you!
May you have peaceful and restorative dreams.