Do you have trouble sleeping? When did it begin? The exact answer isn’t important. What is important is that you remember a time when your sleep was at best, heavenly or at least, not an issue. Most people hearken back to their childhood when sleep was powerful and rejuvenating. Or their early 20s when sleep could be turned on whenever you were not having fun. Out at the club until 4? Just sleep until noon. Need to study? Pull an all-nighter. Now, while using tai chi for sleep improvements won’t get you back to those sleep glory days, it has been used for centuries to improve sleep and even cure insomnia.
The positive effects of tai chi on sleep are the result of slow movements that reduce stress in the muscles, elongate the breath, and move thinking from thoughts in the head to concentrating within the body. It has the effect of calming the nervous system by initiating a parasympathetic (rest) response.
This is really good news because around half of adults report having disturbed sleep3 and worse yet. a study on chronic conditions and sicknesses like cancer reveals that over half of the subjects experience sleep loss or insomnia due to pain, sickness, or anxiety.1 Let’s quickly talk about how tai chi actually improves your sleep and the jump into ways you can quickly benefit from using tai chi for sleep improvements.
Can Tai Chi Improve Your Sleep?
The official answer is yes and has been sighted in medical studies on the benefits of tai chi. To answer this question more specifically, we first need to share how dramatically tai chi affects sleep. There are two questions I get from new students who are really diligent about practice. Most come from Western backgrounds so they have no experience with undertaking an activity that can affect their sleep. Here’s what I hear:
After tai chi I am so energize I can’t sleep.
When a person has been relying on caffeine to prop themselves up or are not aware how much a high level of stress is exhausting them, they can be shocked to experience the energy that the body can produce on its own.
After class, I yawn and can barely drive home. I just want to get into bed.
On the other hand, students often arrive at our evening class still buzzing with all the energy from working that day. Without tai chi, this often gets carried right into the bedroom. However, when they take the time to return their breath to their belly rather than breathing shallowly in the lungs, they relax. When they stretch back rather than being bent over a keyboard they relax. When they are released from the frantic thoughts of their brain, they relax.
Hopefully you can see that the relationship between tai chi and sleep is strong, even when it is not intentional. So what happens when we actually use tai chi for sleep? We never say this again:
“I wish my mind would shut off so I could sleep.”
Here’s a quick way to get started with some movements from the form and then we will deep dive into knowledge from Taoism that will get you sleeping like a baby.
Using the Movements of Tai Chi for Sleep
I am going to assume that if you found this essay you are having difficulty sleeping or are already a tai chi practitioner and are interested in how doing tai chi can help with sleep. It takes a while to learn the form but you can benefit from adding some movement to your day right away. Check out this video and if you benefit from doing the movements, I suggest you look for a local class. If you are already practicing, then take note of the movements from your style that are designed to be calming.
Tai Chi Sleeping Position – The Relaxation Progression
From Taoism we benefit greatly from their strict studying of how to effectively use different portions of the day optimally to accomplish mental, physical, and intellectual goals. For Taoists, different parts of the day provide us with different amounts of energy to carry out different types of tasks. Each day is broken into 2-hour segments and associated with an animal and element. Each 2-hour segment is further broken into 6 20-minute “Ho.”
As an example, 5-7 am, rabbit, is an extremely sacred segment of time because it is the transition from the Delta brainwaves of deep sleep back to full consciousness. It is the best time to fully leverage our concentration, originality, and creative thought and is reserved for deep thinking and meditation.
So if certain time periods are advantageous for certain activities, it would be beneficial to enter that time period quickly in an optimal state of mind right? This is where the Relaxation Progression or “Sleeping Yoga” comes in because the Taoists studied how to fall asleep quickly in order to create highly restful and restorative sleep and have more meaningful dreams.
This tai chi sleeping position has you laying flat on your back with a pillow under your knees if it is more comfortable.
Start with the feet. Relax tension from both feet and move up to the calves. Take your time. Each body part should take five seconds or more and you don’t move on until it feels heavy. Let each of these body parts relax and release heavily down into the bed.
Get into bed and lay on your back with your palms face down right below your belly button. Your right palm is against the body and the left palm is on the back of the right hand. Some people find it extremely comfortable to put a thinner pillow below the knees. You are going to bring you attention to every body part starting with your toes and ending with your head.
Feet – calves- knees – upper legs – hips – lower back – entire spine – abdomen – chest and ribs – upper back – neck – face – head. Then scan the entire body.
Here is the trick: You are not just thinking about your body part. You imagine that you are releasing tension from each body part and feel it heavily sink into the bed and ultimately into the ground.
Tai chi teaches relaxation at such a deep level that it makes complete sense that would be able to benefit from it outside of the classroom.
Next, come to your breath.
Try breathing so deeply and so softly that you wouldn’t disturb a cobweb floating in front of you.
Your mind will race or wander. That is kind of the whole point. When you bring attention to something it can get worse. You are in working to slow these Beta brainwaves down, and turn them into the slower Alpha waves. Theta i s next and then hopefully a transition into Delta brainwaves where you are sleeping so well you can enter into dreaming. Good luck if you actually make it to your head! I can’t tell you how many times I was working up through my body sections and didn’t make it past the hips before it was lights out!
However, if you still having difficulty falling asleep, try deep breathing techniques.
Using Tai Chi for Sleep Bonus Suggestions:
Put a bowl of water at head-level near your bed
The dense, calming presence of water matches the clear density of slumber that we are after. Truthfully, “sleep yoga” requires this step but I have found the Relaxation Progression to be really powerful without it and an extra step just complicates things for some of us if we are already lying down.
Give gratitude for the rest you received
This last part of the Taoist’s sleeping suggestion occurs upon waking up. We voice gratitude for the rest we got. Even if it is not that great! Here’s why: The brain does not deal well with contradictions. If you state that you are rested, the mind will look for all sorts of indications as to why this is true. Conversely, if you announce at work that you “are a zombie” because you slept poorly (you think), the mind will also work to prove this true.
If you want to learn more about Taoism, check out this great audio book by Ken Cohen. Taoism: Essential Teachings on the Way and its Power