The other morning a friend told me, “I want to change my relationship to sleep,” explaining that “I have just never felt like sleep is a safe place.” Our conversation reminded me of my decades-long struggle with sleep (or lack thereof) and a resistance to it that was fed by the fear that I would just go so deep I would never wake up. (Apparently Ira Glass feels the same.)
At the time, I had no tools for my bouts of insomnia and exhaustion. So I began immersive experiential research, and am pleased to say that after years of trial and error, practices like breathwork, meditation and Yoga Nidra—as well as the resignation to the fact that I’ll be using earplugs for the rest of my days—have gotten me to a place where my relationship to sleep has finally gone beyond the “it’s complicated” status.
Sleep and rest are often undervalued and yet so essential for myriad mental, physical and emotional reasons. Essentially, when we neglect these two crucial states, we are forging our way in the world as human do-ings rather than human beings. And when this happens, we become exhausted, more likely to get sick and more inclined to mistakes. As mindset coach Jessica Kerwin states: “We need rest in order to be brilliant.”
Read on for thoughts from five holistic experts on why sleep and rest are so important and ways to get more.
Mikyö Black-Wangmo - Qigong Practitioner & Grief Counselor (Subrosa Santo)
Sleep is how our body and mind renew themselves. We live in world that is not only disconnected from the natural cycles that support our sleep, but also blocks our chemistry from the hormones we need for proper rest and rejuvenation. Our bodies are made of the earth, and made to thrive in connection with earth. There are simple things we can do to bring ourselves into balance with the elements. Some examples include: putting our bare feet on the earth, swimming or putting some part of ourselves in a body of water local to us, walking in nature and breathing deeply, and getting sunlight on our skin. These natural ways of being disrupt cycles of stress and bring us back into our parasympathetic nervous system where deep rest is possible.
Qigong is a practice that is particularly effective in bringing balance to the elements in our bodies, re-aligning them with the elements and cycles of the natural world. Through breath, meditative movement and sound, Qigong returns our systems to healthy functioning so we can rest, sleep deeply, and be our most vital selves.
“Pulling Down the Heavens with the Ha Sound” is a simple practice that can be done at night, upon waking, or anytime we are noticing stress in our system throughout the day. It’s not only important to unwind from stress at night to sleep, but to work with our stress levels throughout the day so we don’t have an excess of cortisol in our system at night.
Raise arms up overhead with palms facing the sky as you inhale. At the end of the inhale palms are slightly facing each other with your arms outstretched overhead. Turn palms down towards the earth as you slowly exhale using the sound Haaaaaaa. Let the Ha sound vibrate through your whole body as your arms continue to lower on the exhale till they are outstretched towards the ground at the end of your exhale. Do this five times, or as many as you need until you feel calm, clear and relaxed. Stay present with the sensations of your body, movement and the sound as you practice. Take a few moments after completing the practice to be present with yourself and notice how you feel.
Nimisha Gandhi - Ayurvedic Nutritionist & Instructor (WellSet)
Sleep is a life-sustaining activity to help regulate all processes in the body and brain. Without adequate sleep our health is rapidly compromised. Nutrition also plays a fundamental role in our health. Oftentimes, sleep and nutrition go hand in hand. Poor sleep can lead to poor eating choices and good nutrition habits can lead to good sleep. Consuming too much sugar, caffeine, alcohol, and hard to digest foods later in the day, for example, can impact sleep quality. I tend to want to snack more often when I have not slept sufficiently. Unfortunately, the snacks I crave are high in calories but low in life-giving nutrients. The sugar and simple carbohydrate foods impact my digestion and make me feel “tired and wired” at night, which causes me to sleep later and then toss and turn all night! It can become a vicious cycle, but I am diligent about making better choices so I can get back on track with good sleep. On the days when I don’t get great sleep, I actually skip drinking highly caffeinated drinks so I can fall asleep faster and better that night.
As an integrative nutritionist, the first thing I suggest to my students is setting up a consistent schedule for mealtimes and bedtimes. Start each day with a protein rich breakfast that also includes vegetables will cut down sugar cravings throughout the day and improve insulin sensitivity. Getting sunlight within the first 30 minutes of waking can have a profound impact on sleep readiness at night. Wearing blue-light blocking glasses in the evenings is important to block the stimulating light from screens which can interfere with sleep quality and quantity. I also suggest cutting off all caffeine and high sugar foods about eight hours before bedtime. If you have difficulty falling or staying asleep due to stress, studies have shown that Yoga Nidra can help alleviate anxiety and restlessness.
Jessica Kerwin - Writer, Mindset and Wellness Coach for Creatives (Jessica Kerwin Jacobs)
My clients are writers, visual artists, designers and creators. They can forget that their body is their primary creative tool and that their focus is their most precious asset. Considering the cultural distractions out there, every habit and each practice that supports your clarity, your peace of mind and your focus gives you a huge advantage.
What I've seen consistently is that the biggest obstacle to getting a great night’s sleep is our mindset. Just as we needed to reframe a relationship to nature and to the planet’s natural resources in addressing climate change, we need to reframe our understanding of sleep. When I start working with a new client I’m always very interested in how they view their own sleep or lack of it. For most people who have grown up in a competitive school and work culture, they relate to their own bodies through domination—forcing a diet, or a workout, or lack of sleep, often aided by cortisol, caffeine and probably some subconscious fear. In order to create a supportive sleep environment for the nervous system, often the first step is relating to the body instead of dominating it—checking in with your own fatigue, feeling it, and understanding that what makes your genius possible is cyclical. We need rest in order to be brilliant. Getting great sleep isn’t just optimal for our health, it’s essential for creating. Once you concede that point, it makes the habit-level shifts that might need to happen much easier.
There are plenty of sleep aids and wellness tools that have been really successful in supporting my clients: magnesium glycinate at bedtime, reduction of blue light during a conscious end-of-day routine that includes a set bedtime, and wearing a sleep tracker (Oura ring doesn’t lie!). Journaling, or what I call cognitive dumping, can be important if you are someone who is so busy during the day that you only have time to fret and worry right before bed. I also work with pre-sleep acupressure with my clients, including a point on the kidney meridian called “Bubbling Spring” in Chinese Medicine. It's located in the little dip on the sole of your foot between the pads of your second and third toe. This is a point to work with when you are feeling hyper-active or, paradoxically, when you are drained and exhausted. Using sesame oil to give yourself a foot massage before bed, and giving extra attention to “Bubbling Spring,” feels heavenly and works wonders.
Niki Saccareccia - Yoga Instructor (WellSet)
Despite their best efforts, scientists still don't know why we need to sleep, even though the consequences of not getting enough of it are readily known. The scientific term for the indicator of sleep, "feeling sleepy" (cute!), learning how to relax, rest and repose are essential skills that help promote overall wellbeing and help us transition into a sleep state.
In 2018, I led an immersive training for college-bound high school students at a local STEM school. The common denominator among these teens was sleep deprivation. In fact, one of these students led her senior defense on the "epidemic" of teen sleep loss. Now, more than ever, the cost of living, politics, an ongoing pandemic and the regular amount of everyday "adulting" has us on collective high alert. When we're always anticipating the next upsetting thing, it becomes increasingly difficult to feel restful or safe enough to rest. Ultimately, this affects how much we sleep and the quality of it.
Sleep and stress states don't coexist well. Knowing how to rest an important skill set crucial to proper sleep health and something I focus on in my classes. Rest is a precursor for sleep and while we all know that “resting” sounds good, few of us know how to actually do it anatomically. In stress states or any moment when our mind is on high alert (driving, working, reading the news, organizing play dates, meetings and meals, etc.) we are in a sympathetic state of arousal. Mindful movement, yoga, breathwork and meditation all work to shift us from sympathetic arousal to our "rest and digest" state of parasympathetic arousal. Once we have training in techniques that switch us from stress to rest, I train people how to sustain that state so their whole system can enjoy the healing benefits of repose.
Sleep hygiene includes any of the behaviors and habits that prepare us for sleeping. In order for the "sleepy" feeling to turn on in us, we need to set the scene. Taking a survey of your sleeping environment and mimicking what naturally happens after sunset can help promote a reasonable bedtime. Dim the screen on devices if you're using them within three hours of bedtime, and use low lighting or candlelight around your home. Lower the volume on anything you're listening to and engage in "quiet" activities like reading, journaling, self-care and pampering to help mentally unwind.
Heidi Smith - Psychosomatic Therapist & Herbalist (Moon and Bloom)
There are no shortages of things to lose sleep about these days, be it personal, interpersonal, environmental, or collective stress and crisis, just to name a few. The data suggests that most of us need more sleep than we are getting to help correct the high levels of burnout we are experiencing. I address sleep disturbances holistically, meaning my clients and I look at how sleep may be negatively impacted from a lot of angles. Whether it be due to past trauma, yin deficiency, issues with control and letting go or life stress, something I find helpful to most folks is creating a bedtime ritual accompanied by a flower essence like Bach White Chestnut (assists in calming repetitive thoughts) or Delta Gardens Angelica (to promote safety and ease). This process works great alongside any consistent sleep hygiene practices you do, especially being mindful of lighting and sound. To facilitate winding down and turning off, I think white noise, binaural beats, or nature sounds, which enhance delta brain waves, can also be really beneficial to us.
As you’re preparing for bed, you can take a flower essence of your choice and let your mind and body know that you’re going to go to sleep now. You might remind your body that it’s safe and okay to rest now. If you have a “list” of things that are keeping you from falling asleep or wake you up, you can write these out on a piece of paper next to your bed. Let yourself know that everything you need to know or remember is right there, and you can come back to it tomorrow. Thank your body for all the hard work it's doing and see if you can allow yourself to ease into sleep.
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