When my better angels are in charge of my schedule — instead of the insatiable gremlin that won’t get off Instagram — I end the day by starting my bedtime routine: lighting candles; eating early, (three-ish hours before going to sleep, in a knockoff version of intermittent fasting, it makes for better digestion and for me, fewer nightmares); molting daytime clothes and obligations (no screens, so no social media, no texting, no email), and then floating around for 20 minutes of Vedic meditation; some at-home hypnotherapy; a little journaling; reading a book that asks nothing of me; and listing five “happinesses,” just some small things that I want to keep close.
The privilege of pursuing “wellness” asserts itself most clearly in these choreographed twirls through body, mind and soul, in having the time and support to get holistically loose every night.
For a while, I woke up at 4:30 a.m., because I suddenly had so much to do before my day started: the “morning routine” has been, itself, a habit of the wellness trend. But where the morning routine is more about doing — the matcha ritual, the jade rollers and serums, the lists of intentions — the evening or bedtime routine is about the pleasure of refusal, of solitude and of melting into “being.”
Start a bedtime routine early — no, earlier
Bedtime routines for babies and toddlers can involve many pre-bed hours in support of a slow, sleepy descent. Dr. Chris Winter, a neurologist specializing in sleep, the president of Charlottesville Neurology and Sleep Medicine and the author of a book on the subject, said of a bedtime routine, “I always think it’s interesting that we kind of drop it as we get older,” and instead make a hard stop at 11 p.m., still covered in a day’s worth of psychoemotional goo.
Kelly Love, the Mississippi-based co-founder of Branch Basics, which sells nontoxic cleaning products, begins her evening routine around 4 p.m. when she wants to “give my eyes a break from screens” and, phoneless, takes her daughter out to play.
Gretchen Rubin, the author of several books about making our lives better including “The Happiness Project,” describes herself now as a “sleep zealot,” but said that previously she struggled to prioritize rest before bed. She said that for a lot of people, deciding between staying up and going to bed presents “real tension.” She recommends setting an alarm for bedtime; even if you snooze it, “there’s an awareness that there is some line.”
(To) sleep, walk
After dinner, Ms. Love goes for a walk, which can include some “barefoot time” and “getting some grounding in.” “Earthing,” is the practice of skin-on-dirt, sand, grass, rock. This is not so practical in a Midwest winter or a New York apartment.
Sara Panton, a co-founder of an essential-oil company Vitruvi, lives near the beach in Vancouver, British Columbia, where she walks her dog, Charlie, every night. Later, around 9:30 p.m., she practices Qigong, Reiki or Pilates, or simply puts her legs up against a wall, a position that can allow for stress relief. Movement, “whether through stretching or through energy work,” creates “a sense of ritual for helping the body reset to a different time of day.” Ms. Panton sometimes chooses not to eat for 12 to 14 hours, which she said had been “beneficial in being able to wind down in the evening.”
Kristin Dahl, a holistic nutritionist and herbalist in Los Angeles, goes for a walk, to “practice some deep breathing,” and does Yoga Nidra as part of her bedtime routine, which is “essentially a guided body meditation and body scan.”
Ms. Love stretches and does deep breathing for 15 – 20 minutes.
Engage the five senses
A warm drink can help — if it’s sugar-, caffeine- and alcohol-free. Ms. Love — who prepares organic foods without excitotoxins (substances that trigger the neurotransmitters) and preservatives for dinner, around 6 p.m. — drinks mushroom lattes, which are “warm and cozy and help me wind down.” Before bed, Ms. Panton drinks something warm in winter and iced in summer, “with antioxidants,” and likes turmeric chai tea. Ms. Dahl drinks lemon balm tea.
As part of her multistep skin care routine before bed, Ms. Panton does facial cupping, for better circulation, and ends with the facial-massage technique gua sha, pushing a hard, curved tool around the contours of her face for lymphatic drainage.
Latham Thomas, who is a Brooklyn-based doula and the founder of Mama Glow, a maternity lifestyle label, uses diffusers for essential oils; Ms. Panton prepares her bedroom for sleep with her company’s essential oils, a blend of lavender, eucalyptus and frankincense, which she created during a trip to Joshua Tree National Park.
The signature sound of the bedtime routine might be a selection from the Calm meditation app’s “Sleep Stories,” or the white noise of an air purifier, which Ms. Love has in her bedroom, or something more ethereal. Ms. Thomas recommends humming for people who feel they can’t meditate. “It’s like an instant drop-in,” she said, and also “allows you to extend your breath even longer than regular meditation breath.”
Turn off the light
The blue light emitted by digital screens could be the most essential part of our tech-poisoned daytime lives to address in a bedtime routine. Dr. Winter said, “The blue-green light is interacting with your pineal gland to block melatonin,” which is why “a cellphone in your face at night is preventing you from making melatonin to help you sleep.”
Ms. Love uses blue-blocking glasses, like those familiar from the 1980s (and then, inevitably, the mid- to late 2000s), and sets her MacBook and iPhone to switch to Night Shift mode in the evening; before bed, she puts her phone in Airplane mode, and unplugs the Wi-Fi to limit exposure to electric and magnetic fields.
Closing out her bedtime routine, Ms. Love draws curtains with blackout lining. “The whole idea is you don’t want to be able to see your hands,” she said — if you can, it’s not dark enough for ideal sleep.
Do it again (and again)
Within the realm of reality (as Ms. Thomas said, “I’m not great at not staying up late. If there’s something on Netflix that I’m into, I’m bingeing”), Dr. Winter said that “the most important part of a routine is that it’s routine.”
Just like self-care and wellness more generally, daily rituals and routines are engines of soft power, individuation and identity, safety and meaning-making for people. Ultimately, they offer control.
Dr. Winter said routine is about “trying to create a pattern of behaviors, that when you’re doing them, your brain kind of picks up on that and knows what to do next.” When the rest of life feels as if you’re spinning in outer space, a fairy-light string of rituals can be what keeps you tethered to the ground.