As a society of ‘wakists’ we don’t generally give equal value to sleep, rest or other restful states on the consciousness spectrum. We are taught to view waking states of awareness as the centre of our worlds and this can mean that we don’t tend to give value to a practice that doesn’t appear to use our cognitive brains or physical bodies in the productive and active way to which we are accustomed or make time for a practice that doesn’t appear on the surface to have an obvious, productive and tangible end result.
'Sleep is rhythmic, it doesn't dance to the same drum beat as the rhythmic pace often run by culture.' ~ Jennifer Piercy
I once heard the phrase ~ how you approach something influences how it approaches you back ~ and I often wonder if that is why sleep and rest can feel elusive to so many of us. If we don’t value sleep and rest, why would they come easily to us?
But all of this can be undone, we can relearn how to fall asleep and sleep soundly and to value sleep for the natural preventative, anti-inflammatory, healing medicine that it is. And much of learning to sleep well is exploring our beliefs and ideas about sleep. For example many of us have been led to believe that if we nap during the day we won’t sleep as well at night but quite the opposite is often true, in fact naps and rest are the preparations for sleep. Naps are like dress rehearsals for falling asleep and letting go. Napping can help reduce over tiredness, which can also be an inhibitor to good sleep. I used to think I was a good sleeper because I fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow and sometimes this is true but often it was more of a passing out from over tiredness.
"Naps are like dress rehearsals for letting go & falling asleep."
Rest is different from sleep and we need both every day. Resting, napping and sleeping are not luxuries to be earned but essential requirements that we deserve and need and generally in much higher quantities than life and time seem to allow.
Our wild, pre industrial revolution sleep pattern would have been bi-phasel, sleeping in two parts, the first four hours a healing, restorative sleep for our bodies, the second four hours a healing, restful sleep for our minds, a time of dreams, sorting memories and releasing the tensions and negative emotions from the day. We would also have woken softly and lightly between each 90 or so minute cycle to ensure we were safe and then easily drifted into the next, a primal leftover from times when we slept out in the open. And all of this requires much more than an 8-hour period which our modern society has been structured around. Pre industrial revolution and the invention of the kerosene lamp, which gave us light after dark, I'm told we used to have our first 4 hours and then wake in the night for sex, food and socialising (in bed knitting parties with neighbours!) before going back to sleep until the morning. THESE are my people!
Sleep has been caged from the wild rest it was intended to be and now we find ourselves at a point in time where many of us get less than the bare minimum of sleep each night and it’s wreaking havoc with our bodies, minds and emotions.
'Learn to revere sleep for the lush wilderness that it is.'
~ Jennifer Piercy
Personally I’m a Taurus and could quite happily sleep for 25 hours a night and can barely function without by daytime nidra nap but I know this isn’t the case for everyone. My partner for example loves the night and feels he’s missing out if he’s not using the darker hours of the day. When we sleep apart I often text him a goodnight at around 7-8pm and he’ll send me one back at 2am. And of course sometimes it’s not about personal preference, some people have kids or work shifts or nights or commute… the list goes on!
The yogis have long known the importance of sleep, sutra 1.38 in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali says: ‘The mind can become steady when it has the knowledge attained from dreams and sleep as its support.’
Enter… Yoga Nidra! My all time favourite practice, the Yoga of sleep. Yoga Nidra derives from the understanding that sleep is not unconsciousness but rather a different kind of consciousness, a liberated, diffuse and expanded one. A state that takes us into the realm of timelessness and deep time rather than measurable time, a state that is healing, cooling and soothing and provides a natural anti-depressant and anti-anxiety remedy. A state that is mysterious and alluring, taking us beyond the realms of what we think we know about who we are.
The Piraha tribe of the Amazon take this mystery to whole new levels by only ever taking naps because they believe a full night of sleep is a kind of death and on waking from a full sleep they must be given a new name and identity and leave their previous lives behind. If I was a part of this tribe I’d be waking up new every single day that is for sure.
So how about we start to reclaim the wildness of sleep as it was intended <3
No phones or electrical devices in the bedroom (they have been shown to disrupt sleep patterns)
Turn all devices off at the wall/put phones on airplane mode if they must be in the room
Turn WIFI hub off at night
Blackout curtains and/or eye masks to create complete darkness if you live in a street lit area
Cool bedroom, warm bedding
No screens for 2 hours before bed (they disrupt natural melatonin release)
Melatonin pills can disrupt the release of natural melatonin, take natural herbal alternatives if you must and check your magnesium levels supplementing where needed or upping your intake of dark leafy greens
Epsom salt baths before bed
Legs up the wall before bed (it’s like a bath for the brain)
Sleep like yoga nidra and restorative yoga is a practice of undoing and surrender and as such these practices can be super helpful to incorporate into your regular routine
Pauses and space where you do nothing at all throughout the day to give space for mental and emotionally processing so you’re not doing it all at night
Pay attention to stories you tell yourself about sleep and try to visualise and affirm more positive sleep stories to yourself
Trust that sleep comes in waves and welcome naturally drifting in and out throughout the night (this was a GAME changer for me, I went from insomnia to sleeping ‘through the night’ with a simple change in attitude)
Exercise during the day if you can, particularly if you experience restlessness or restless legs
Avoid caffeine from the afternoon onwards
Avoid eating a heavy meal before bed
Fat can help with sleep, a spoonful of peanut butter before bed can be super helpful (this realllly works for me)
Reducing liquids in the hours leading up to sleep to avoid needing to wake for a wee
Calming herbal tea in the lead up to bedtime
Going to bed 30 minutes before you want to be asleep to avoid being stressed about falling asleep immediately
Sleeping before 10pm, the body is optimised to sleep most deeply in the early hours of the night, again another primal residue from times sleeping out in the open
There’s so much more I could share but I’ll leave it there for now <3 If you have any to add I’d love to hear them!
Photo: (c). @primalembrace 2019