How to Improve Your Sleep Using the Power of Meditation

“Tighten your right hand into a fist and release it. Imagine the tension melting away.”

These were the instructions young Michael Phelps followed before going to bed.

Phelps didn’t become the revered Olympian that he is, without due struggles. Growing up, he first started swimming to cool off steam which was otherwise driving his mom and teachers crazy. Swimming was his way to cope up with stress — it helped him avoid the emotional turmoil going on inside.

His coach Bowman, however, realized that these emotions needed to be tamed and processed to make Michael the strongest mental swimmer in the pool. While everyone prepares physically well for the Olympics, it’s the mental attitude where races are won or lost.

That’s when Bowman got him a book on relaxation exercises which contained instructions similar to what I wrote above. While “tensing your arm and visualizing the tension melt away” may seem weird at first, they do work.

Meditation techniques like visualization can also have the same effect even if one doesn’t follow the physical act of tensing and relaxing.

Over time, these principles not only helped Michael to get the rest he needed but also gain the edge in the pool.

There’s a lot we can learn from this story when it comes to improving our sleep.

Body Doesn’t Need Sleep

While we’re talking about sleep and obsessing over it, it’s worth understanding first that the body doesn’t need sleep. If that sounds ridiculous, bear with me for a moment.

What the body really needs is relaxation. For most people, this relaxation comes from sleep. Which is totally fine.

During sleep, we drown in subconsciousness. We aren’t aware of anything in this world — there’s no awareness of the body, emotions, unpaid bills, and so on. In the subconscious realm, our awareness is effectively dulled.

Owing to this unawareness, we often can’t remember our dreams or forget them before having our first cup of coffee.

Still, there’s a group of people in this world who dispense with sleep altogether — yogis and other advanced meditators. If not that, they usually need only a few hours of sleep per night. How do they manage such seemingly herculean feats of willpower?

Through relaxation. Yogis get the highest form of relaxation possible without sleeping. They go into superconsciousness instead of unconsciousness.

The prime difference between the two is that of awareness.

In superconsciousness, you’re highly alert, energized, focused, and yet relaxed. Yogis who experience deep states of consciousness like samadhi are filled with cosmic energy which removes all disease and fatigue from the physical body.

During sleep, internal organs like the heart and the circulatory system are still working. On the other hand, in superconsciousness, all such systems are suspended. There’s no need for the heart to pump oxygen or the lungs to breathe since no energy is being used.

When even the internal organs halt, the yogis experience true relaxation which renders sleep useless. They are sustained by cosmic energy.

Maintaining Balance Between Activity and Calmness

While that was the case of advanced yogis, I can hear you thinking, “But we’re not at that level.” Don’t worry, neither am I. But there are ways to train yourself and emulate the state.

How? By embracing all our duties in life with dynamic calmness.

Most of us perpetually live in the fight-or-flight response. Even a small change in circumstances triggers a stress response that wears the mind and body. As a result, the body needs more sleep to repair this damage.

If we’re calm, we can minimize the damage and therefore reduce our sleep quote. Calmness is often misinterpreted as doing nothing. It’s a common notion that a person cannot really be calm when he’s working, running, or talking to people. But true calmness is dynamic.

It isn’t something you lose as soon as you get off your cushion or yoga mat. It stays under the surface with you throughout your day.

So what we need to do is to keep our bodies and minds relaxed, no matter what we’re doing. Even if you’re running or physically exhausted, you may not be stressed — that’s the level of detachment that makes mental rest possible.

The hallmark of any saint is his calmness beneath everything he does. Even if they’re running, you’ll never see them stressed like most people.

As you practice the art of dynamic calmness, going to sleep will be much easier. You wouldn’t need TV, alcohol, or food to dull your awareness to the point of sleep. You can naturally fall asleep when the time comes.

I had a habit of reading something before bed without which, sleep seemed impossible. Now, I can relax consciously and sleep tight in a few minutes.

Research suggests that various types of meditation can help improve insomnia, and may even improve sleep quality for those without existing sleep problems. When practiced regularly, meditation is comparable to the effects of medication.

A study in JAMA Internal Medicine also found that meditation cured insomnia, fatigue, and depression compared to people who only practiced good sleep habits. This means that even though the sleep tips we read on the Internet are accurate, meditation can be more effective.

As per the same research, meditation triggers the “relaxation response” (a term coined in the 1970s), which is a deep psychological shift in the body, that’s opposite of the stress response. Since most sleeping problems are tied to stress, meditation is the best remedy.

What’s Keeping You Up At Night?

It’s common knowledge that most adults function with 7–9 hours of sleep each night. Yet, a recent Gallup poll suggests that more than 40% of Americans sleep fewer than hours. 6% experience insomnia on a near-nightly basis; 30% of people report difficulty falling and staying asleep at least a few times per month.

We live in a sleep-deprived world where people often brag about how little sleep they can function on, let alone taking steps to correct it.

It’s not that we don’t want to sleep — we can’t. Because our lifestyles don’t allow us proper rest. This can be stress, binge-watching, overeating, and a myriad of other reasons.

Assuming you took care of the physical factors, there’s another problem that surfaces. As soon as you rest your head on the pillow, your mind starts running like a headless chicken.

The harder you try to fall asleep, the harder it seems. This situation can only be fixed if you do the hard work of taming your mind through meditation.

Types of Meditation That Work Best For Sleep

As we’ve already established, meditation has a calming effect on the body, which is one of the best things you can do for improving sleep. Stress, the major culprit of sleep deprivation, is directly reduced by even a little meditation.

To use meditation as a means to improve sleep, first and foremost, it’s imperative to have a regular meditation practice. You can start with as little as 10 minutes of meditation twice a day. Regular meditation will train your mind to be calm at your will and give you the ability to relax as you sail through life.

If you specifically want to relax right before sleep, there are some more things you can do, in addition to your regular practice:

Guided meditation and visualization

When the mind is racing at night, it may be hard to meditate. Guided meditations and visualizations thus make it easier to focus and relax at the same time. Typically, guided meditation would involve imagining yourself in calming environments using favorable audios and sounds to induce sleep.

Simple, deep breathing

If nothing else can be done, simple deep breathing is the best way to activate the relaxation response. A good practice is what’s called “even-count breathing” where one inhales, holds, and exhales the breath for the same count. Repeat it 6–12 times and you’ll find yourself much more relaxed.

Body scan

Since stress often manifests as stiffness in different parts of our body, releasing tension also releases latent stress and anxiety. Starting from your toes all the way to the top of your head, tense and relax each body part.

When you relax, imagine the tension melting away. Then lay in the corpse pose, and visualize a bright light entering from your feet and filling your whole body, healing it of any worries, and anxieties once and for all.

Final Thoughts

There are many other ways to improve sleep and you should follow those ground rules. But after a certain point, the challenges are not external, they’re internal.

Most people can’t sleep because their minds and bodies are not letting them. This is where meditation comes into the picture. By inducing a relaxation response, it helps to calm the body and mind to ensure you sleep tight.

So if you’re having trouble with sleep, establish a regular meditation practice and try meditation before bed also. Over the course of a few days or weeks, it will definitely help you sleep better and faster.

Struggling to meditate? Get your free 7 Day email course — Meditation 101: How to Start Meditating

Written on August 30, 2021