Anyone who has tried to meditate with restless legs will tell you how aggravating it can be. That uncontrollable compulsion to move your legs is incredibly frustrating and difficult to describe. Like lemonade flowing around your body trying to escape, but being unable to find an outlet. Typically, the times when you most want to rest, are the times when the symptoms are worst. For me, restless legs were worst during pregnancy and breastfeeding. I’d be worn out after caring for a small baby and ready to sleep, but the minute I tried, my legs would be desperate to move. I couldn’t even find relief during meditation because it was so distracting. I looked everywhere for advice including other mindfulness teachers and didn’t come across much, so I felt compelled to write this post based on my experience of what has worked for me. Restless legs don’t have to stop you meditating (or sleeping for that matter).
Stretching your legs is generally known to improve the symptoms of restless leg syndrome. I find that gently stretching my legs before I meditate often greatly reduces the chances that I’ll have restless legs during the meditation. This yoga sequence for tired legs has some good inspiration for leg stretches.
Extend curiosity to your experience
Often when we notice restless legs during our meditation we do our best to ignore the symptoms or resist them. We try to place our attention elsewhere (the breath perhaps) but the sensations just become more and more overwhelming until we’re forced to address them. It’s better therefore to allow ourselves to mindfully re-direct our attention and place it gently on the sensations themselves. Allowing ourselves to let go of the resistance and paying attention in the present moment with a curious, open mind. What do the sensations feel like? What emotions are you experiencing? Trying to observe the sensations and emotions rather than getting caught up in them. You may find that the sensations fade once you stop trying to resist them, or they may not. Try not to force it either way.
You may also want to experiment with smiling as you notice these sensations and see what effect that has. Can you extend some gratitude to your body? These sensations demonstrate that your body is alive and useful.
Use tiny movements in time with the breath
If the sensations don’t fade or become more manageable, then I’ll often introduce a very small amount of movement, in time with the breath. Typically, this will be extending my feet and toes as I inhale and flexing my feet and toes with the out breath. Try to use the whole of the in breath to extend your feet and the whole of the out breath to flex your feet, so that there is a constant, fluid movement. Depending on your meditation, you could choose to pay mindful attention to this movement, or return your attention to the breath once you have established a rhythm and the compulsion to move your legs is relieved. I also use this when I have restless legs when I’m trying to fall asleep. Establishing a gentle rhythm in time with the breath, generally helps me to relieve the symptoms and gradually drift off.
Do a mindful movement meditation instead
If the symptoms are really severe, or you’re reluctant to try seated meditation because of previous bad experiences I’d suggest doing a mindful movement meditation instead. This has all the benefits of a seated meditation but you won’t feel restless leg symptoms because you’re standing and in constant movement. With mindful movement we’re practicing placing our attention on the sensations of movement in the body. As well as relieving the immediate symptoms of restless legs, this can also help us to build confidence in our ability to find peace and calm in the body, rather than the frustration we feel with restless legs. This can help us move closer to practicing more stationary meditations as well. This is a great mindful movement sequence from Thich Nhat Hahn.
Make sure you’re taking care of your body
Now that I know more, I find I’m generally able to stay on top of my restless leg symptoms so it’s something I rarely experience these days. Taking good care of my body and general health is a big factor. Here is what has worked for me.
- 30 minutes of moderate exercise daily. I aim for a mix of brisk walking and gentle yoga.
- Staying hydrated. Make sure you drink enough water.
- Check your diet as magnesium deficiency is thought to contribute to restless legs. I try to eat a good diet but found that I needed to add in a supplement as well to really feel the difference.
- Massage or warm baths help to relieve tension in the muscles. Any excuse to go to the Turkish spa!
Restless legs are frustrating, but they don’t have to be a barrier to meditation or sleep. Taking care of your body and adapting your meditation technique can go a long way to reducing the symptoms.