Awareness and Sleep Meditations: The Art of Beautiful Sleep
Sleep. We all know it’s important for our overall health and yet so many of us have a hard time prioritizing it. For many of us, it’s become especially fraught during these times of uncertainty.
Case studies have shown a rise in sleep deprivation among millennials. The complaints of exhaustion, burnout, and busyness are at an all-time high and deserve further investigations as to why.
Life happens and life gets in the way. We might have an insane work deadline, a really amazing date or a new addition to our family. But what is the reason when these life factors aren’t in the way? Is there an explanation for those of us who just procrastinate our sleep?
Can it be because we truly believe that we don’t need very much? Is FOMO a factor? Do we believe the saying “We can sleep when we’re dead”? Is it because we feel like we need the extra hours to complete a project? Because we are more creative at night? Or is it something bigger?
habitual sleeplessness; inability to sleep
According to the Nation Sleep Association, insomnia is described as “difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep”—even when a person has the chance to do so. These sorts of sleep disturbances are deeply dissatisfying and people who are challenged by them often report experiencing one or more of the following symptoms as a result: fatigue, low energy, difficulty concentrating, mood disturbances, and decreased performance in their work or at school.
Sleep deprivation has a very real impact. Sleep and mental health are inextricably linked. As sleep deprivation continues to be on the rise, it’s important to consider the effect it has on us emotionally and physically. Sleep deprivation also affects our psychological state and mental health. And there is comorbidity with those who struggle with mental health issues— meaning they are more likely to have insomnia or other sleep disturbances.
An insomniac society—do we all have it?
According to research, one in four Americans develop insomnia each year. The majority of us will have a phase or season in our life where we will either have trouble getting regular quality sleep or the quality of our sleep is not optimal for us in our pursuit of living our best lives.
Luckily, there are many ways to treat insomnia and sleep disturbances and many ways to improve our quality of sleep. One of these ways, which research points us towards, is mindfulness meditation as well as sleep meditation.
Mindfulness meditation can help people reduce stress and fall asleep sooner and with more ease, and sleep meditation can prepare our bodies for deeper rest.
HOW MUCH SLEEP DO WE REALLY, ACTUALLY NEED?
More than you might be thinking. AND getting! Sleep scientists suggest we need about 7-9 hours each night.
SLEEP + CYCLES
Sleep is actually quite complex and a lot of things are happening during this time. More than just our bodies needing rest, sleep is organized so that our bodies can sustain themselves.
It might be helpful to understand a bit about our sleep cycles. The first sleep cycle takes about 90 minutes. After that, our sleep cycles average between 100 and 120 minutes. Typically, an individual will go through four to five sleep cycles a night. An ideal number is six cycles, making a 10 pm bedtime and 7 am rise an ideal sleeping schedule.
Things that might give an explanation to what pulls us away from our beauty rest and a desire to create a sleep schedule includes the pursuit of perfectionism, our addiction to technology, an increase in stress and anxiety, poor nutrition, and other lifestyle habits. All of these things can be major factors in sleep disturbances.
Sleep disturbance is one of those things that we are all very likely to experience in our lifetime. And while this may be the case, and the normalization of it might make us all feel better about it—the effects have a major impact on our physical, mental, intellectual, and emotional health long term when not addressed.
And all of these things, when we bring our attention to them, can be improved as well!
MINDFULNESS + SLEEP
Mindfulness is the simple practice of being aware of our experiences as they are happening—moment-to-moment. Practicing mindfulness allows for present moment awareness and gifts us more awareness of how our minds work and to see things as they really are.
According to a new survey from the National Sleep Foundation, people who prioritize sleep ultimately get more sleep. In the same way that if we bring attention to our food in the kitchen, we might make healthier food choices—the same goes for our sleep. What we bring attention to tends to improve.
DEVELOPING MINDFULNESS AROUND SLEEP
Mindfulness is luckily not just a sitting meditation practice—is it something we can incorporate into our day-to-day activities. Which means we can have mindfulness around our sleep and sleep behaviors. For an added practice, it might be helpful to incorporate a deep listening/inquiry to investigate your unique sleep habits and patterns.
Consider the following for at least a week:
- How many hours of sleep did I get last night/today?
- Is it hard to fall/stay asleep/wake up?
- Imagine the moments right before bed.
- Imagine the first moments of your day.
- When was your last great sleep?
- What is helping my sleep?
- What things might I include in my bedtime routine?
- What other things in my life do I find relaxing?
RELAXATION + SLEEP
While it may seem obvious, the reason why relaxation plays a huge role in the quality of our sleep is because relaxing activities reduce our stress. Sleep issues are inextricably linked to stress and anxiety as well as our ability to manage our relationship to stress.
One of my favorite, most relaxing ways to prepare for sleep is with the “yogic sleep” meditation practice Yoga Nidra, which I do during the day, and not right before sleep.
Yogic Sleep is the state of consciousness that is between waking and sleeping (think of it as the “going-to-sleep” stage). It is practiced typically laying down and is in the form of a guided meditation that is very similar to a body scan.
Some benefits of Yoga Nidra include a deep restorative quality. It is so restorative that one hour of this practice can feel like four hours of sleep! This practice promotes a balance of the nervous system, which is what gets activated when we carry stress.
Described by Meditation, Yoga Nidra Teacher and Author Tracee Stanley, “Yoga Nidra is the healing salve that the world needs right now. It amplifies the power of deep rest and activates healing on all levels of our being.”
It also increases the production of endorphins, the hormones that elevate our happiness, while also lowering our levels of immunosuppressants, noradrenaline, and cortisol. Yoga Nidra guides practitioners into the “hypnagogic state” which is the liminal space between our alpha and theta waves. This practice therefore also harmonizes our two brain hemispheres, restoring balance in yet another place in our bodies.
Although yoga Nidra is commonly referred to as “yogic sleep,” Stanley offers that the practice offers us even more: “The practice truly refers to a state of consciousness that allows us to awaken to our infinite power, intuition, and creativity.”
BEFORE SLEEP MEDITATION
Another practice I use often is a simple mindfulness and breath practice that I do right before I go to sleep, which takes no more than five minutes:
Start by doing a quick and simple reflection/check-in with yourself, noting what you observe and notice
Scan the body to notice what you feel and where
Consider your restfulness and honor that your body needs rest each night
Begin the breathwork by counting your breathing for five cycles of breath
And if you want even deeper breath, INHALE and count to 5, HOLD for 2 counts, EXHALE for 5 and HOLD for 2. … repeat 5 cycles.
For a guided version of this, click here.
The biggest take away here is the simple realization that we get better sleep just by prioritizing it.
BEST PRACTICES FOR PRIORITIZING SLEEP
- Have a bedtime/night routine to prepare for sleep
- Actually have a bedtime! Start training the mind and body to wind down around the same time each night
- Meditation (there are many ways to access this practice— classes can be found on apps like Insight Timer, Calm, Headspace, and guided practices are available online.
- Notice what aspects of your bedroom/bed support sleep or disturb sleep (think comfortable bedding, blackout curtains)
- Notice how caffeine affects your energy and reduce when/if you can
- Notice how your devices affect you and have a time when you turn off all devices
- Practice Relaxation: do something relaxing before bed (bath, reading, tea)
- Wear an eye mask and use something to block sound (earplugs, noise machine)—especially when sleeping in a new environment
Remember that while it is totally normal for us to experience sleep challenges throughout our life. Hopefully, with this information, we can feel more in power to improve our sleep and to at least be in better communication with ourselves about it so that we might benefit from it more fully.
What we bring attention to, improves.
Author Bio Nkechi Deanna Njaka, MSc. is the founder of the creative agency NDN Integrated Lifestyle Studio as well as the co-founder of Sitting Matters, a mindful + creative lifestyle brand. She is also a meditation teacher and a 2017-2018 YBCA Artist Fellow. Nkechi majored in neuroscience and dance at Scripps College and went on to complete an MSc in Neuroscience at the University of Edinburgh. With a background in neuroscience and dance, she has spent the majority of her life investigating the relationship between the brain and the body and has always felt the significance of their integration. For several years, Nkechi worked as a neuroscientist as well as a professional modern dancer and choreographer. Through this work, she discovered that mindfulness and creativity are crucial for sustaining individual and global wellbeing. When not exploring mindfulness and other wellness practices, Nkechi spends her time discovering ways to participate more fully in the arts and travel. She currently lives in SF. You can find her here: IG: @ndnlifestylist.