Taoism on how to Improve Sleep

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 rejuvenative.  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.


“I wish my mind would shut off so I could sleep.”

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.”

improve sleepAs 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 to play because the Taoists studied how to fall asleep in order to create highly restful and restorative sleep and have more meaningful dreams.

“I wish my mind would just skip the late-night thought session and just go to bed already!”

Start with the feet.  Relax tension from both feet and move up to the calves.  Take your time.  Each body part should take 5 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:Here is how it works.  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.

improve sleepFeet – 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.

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 which indicate that we are thinking, down to the slower Alpha, Theta and hopefully Delta brainwaves where we are sleeping so well we 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!

Two Bonus Suggestions:

improve sleepPut 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.[hr]

improve sleepIf 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

Additionally if you want to deepen your sleep or if you have difficulty sleeping, check out the Good Evening Qi Gong portion of the Instructional Series.

Scott Prath

Scott has been practicing and teaching tai chi and qigong since 2000. He is a lead instructor for the Austin Chen Tai Chi Association. His interest in the internal martial arts began after traveling in India and Nepal, and he has since traveled to China to train. Scott has published over 100 articles on tai chi with a focus on research showing the benefits of practicing.

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