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Reset to sleep: bedtime rituals for the lockdown and after


Relaxation tools and practices that are more effective than binge-watching Netflix before bedtime

I write this piece as India completes one week of complete lockdown. As misery sweeps humankind, nature is using this time to heal. In just a week or so, Delhi shows a clear blue sky on the weather app, perhaps for the first time in years. The virus is a reminder that the earth doesn’t belong to us alone. But solitude brings into focus the gaping holes in our lives that we would usually fill with distractions. So, as the country shuts down for another couple of weeks, we have no choice but to look within.

For me, self-care means not just masks and candles, but healing at a deeper level. Practically speaking, since focus and concentration have been sacrificed at the altar of social media, perhaps these would be a good place to begin. One ancient practice, called trataka, takes a couple of minutes but works tremendously to sharpen the mind. You can practice it at dawn or dusk, though dawn may be ambitious after a midnight date with Netflix.

Setting your focus with trataka

Assuming you practice this in the evening, shut down all artificial lights in the room. Face your back towards any natural source of light and place a lit Diya or candle about an arm’s length away, at eye level. Keep your gaze still and soft, keep looking at the flame till eyes water, close them for two seconds, open again. Do this for a couple of minutes every day. When I practice trataka just before meditation, I find that my focus is sharper and my mind doesn’t wander. Over time, it enhances focus and reduces insomnia.

For most of us, anxiety begins in the evening. Last week, I wrote about pranayama, which is most suited for the morning. Today, I will talk about techniques to relax in the evening. I cannot promise that anxiety, depression, or insomnia will be eliminated with these methods. However, these tools are more relaxing than chain-swiping stories on Instagram.

Tire yourself out

If you want to use all these as a complete ritual, do so right after your evening walk or a quick pace around the balcony. Practise trataka first, followed by brahmari, either sitting straight or lying down in bed. A 2016 study by the Sri Ramachandra Institute in Chennai found that brahmari, or the buzzing bee breath, improves resting cardiovascular parameters more than breath control. Close your ears with your forefingers and shut your eyes. Then, breathe in and exhale making a soft, humming sound with your mouth closed. The idea is to relax your brain with the vibrations of the sound. Do as many rounds as you feel comfortable.

You can also practise breath-work with extended exhalation, which relaxes the vagus nerve, thereby relieving anxiety. So if you’re inhaling with four counts, exhale with six to eight counts of breath. Make the breath so deep that it reaches and expands the belly. Remember, air has no calories. One visualisation technique I like to practice, especially when I feel a lot of negativity, is imagining my breath as a giant fishnet (vegans can think of an apple basket). As you breathe, imagine this fishnet sweeping up any negative blocks and throwing them out with your exhale. This breathing sequence can also be practised in bed, before you sleep.

Wind down before bedtime

Yoga nidra is another beautiful technique for the evening. If you’re too wired to practice anything yourself, then this guided mediation could help you sleep. There are many videos on YouTube, iTunes and Spotify. Find one with a duration that suits you and a voice that doesn’t grate your nerves. Before you begin, you will be asked to repeat a sankalpa or positive affirmation thrice, with full belief. One of my favorites is, “Every day, in every way, I get better and better.”

Someone mentioned to me that they cannot sleep till 3 am because they’re not tired enough. In uncertain times like these, you can bring stability to your life with routine. If there was a particular time when you were in transit, use that part of the day to exercise — be it mopping the floor or climbing up and down the stairs. Lightly exercise in the evening again where you’re supposed to be in transit. Get into bed by 10 pm, read a book, follow a guided meditation, but for heaven’s sake keep your fingers off your phone.