Columns, Mindfulness, Yoga Culture

The sleep puzzle

By Charlotte Bell

It’s not so simple

Do you have trouble falling asleep? Or staying asleep? If so, you’re not alone. According to data from the Center for Disease Control (CDC), 30-35% of Americans experience at least temporary insomnia. Ten percent of Americans suffer from chronic insomnia, defined as three sleepless nights a week for three months or more.

Sleep deprivation causes a host of problems in our waking hours, including daytime fatigue, poor concentration, memory problems, low energy that leads to lack of motivation, and a tendency to be more accident prone.

Insomnia is not as easy to define as the CDC suggests, however. Most of us have heard the prescription of eight solid hours as the recipe for healthy sleep. But no two individuals’ bodies are exactly the same. Our sleep patterns vary dramatically.

According to a New York Times article by David Randall titled “Rethinking Sleep,” the gold standard of an eight-hour block is a fairly recent prescription, and it isn’t necessarily aligned with what’s natural for most people. “In fact neither our bodies nor our brains are built for the roughly one-third of our lives that we spend in bed,” he writes.

In an early-1990s experiment by National Institute of Mental

Health psychiatrist Thomas A. Wehr, subjects were given a break from traditional work schedules and deprived of artificial light. After a while, most subjects naturally settled into a split sleep schedule rather than a solid eight-hour block.

“Subjects grew to like experiencing nighttime in a new way,” writes Randall. “Once they broke their conception of what form sleep should come in, they looked forward to the time in the middle of the night as a chance for deep thinking of all kinds, whether in the form of self-reflection, getting a jump on the next day or amorous activity. Most of us, however, do not treat middle-of-the-night awakenings as a sign of a normal, functioning brain.“

I can testify to this. Many of my most profound and creative insights appear after I wake up at 2 am. I just need to be sure I channel the energy into something positive.

Tips for better sleep

Despite the wide variety of sleep patterns in individuals, consensus says we do need to get “enough” sleep, whatever that looks like for each of us. For me, it’s five to six hours at night and a nap in the afternoon. To optimize my nighttime sleep, I follow certain practices:

  • Minimal light before bedtime: The blue light radiated by computers and LED bulbs can interrupt the release of the melatonin, the hormone that signals the body that it’s time to sleep.
  • Monitor alcohol and caffeine intake: Caffeine can take five to seven hours to leave your system. Try limiting caffeine intake to before, say, 2pm. While alcohol may make you drowsy, it doesn’t promote high quality sleep. The sleep you get from alcohol is akin to a form of anesthesia. Alcohol suppresses the deeper, more replenishing brain waves, including dream sleep.
  • Minimal evening activity: In general, exercise can promote better sleep. But timing matters. Active exercise in the morning and afternoon can help you sleep. Active exercise—including an active yoga practice—in the evening can suppress sleep. Exercise raises our core temperature. Cooler core temps are conducive to sleep, so evening yoga practice should cool you down rather than heat you up.

A yoga practice for sleep

  1. Breathe easy: Breathing is intimately connected with the state of the nervous system, so certain pranayama practices can help you sleep. Sitali breath is a traditional cooling practice. Sit in a relaxed position. Form your lips in to an “O.” Now curl your tongue and inhale and exhale slowly. Continue for two to five minutes. Practice before bedtime or when you wake up in the middle of the night.
  2. Slow, cooling yoga: Most asanas in yoga practice are inherently heating or cooling. The heating category includes most backbends, standing poses and Surya Namaskar (Sun salutations). The cooling category includes most forward bends, twists and restorative yoga. Your approach can also make a difference. Breathe slowly and deeply, without trying to force your body into extremes. Instead, stay present and allow your body to relax into each pose.
  3. Savasana: Even if you’re practicing restorative yoga, it’s important to give your body/mind a nice, long 15 to 20 minutes is optimal.

Ultimately the sleep puzzle, like everything else in life, is highly individual. My partner can drink espresso at 8pm and fall asleep easily an hour or two later. In the same way, the solid eight-hour sleep block isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.

In any case, worrying about your sleep pattern doesn’t help. Experiment with your sleep schedule. Be open to whatever your body tells you is the right amount and the right sleep schedule for your own wellbeing.

Charlotte Bell has been practicing yoga since 1982. She is the author of several books including, most recently, Hip Healthy Asana, and founder of Mindful Yoga Collective in Salt Lake City.

This article was originally published on September 30, 2019.