Balancing Strategy and Spirit

Elizabeth was a late-forties, married, working mother of two teenagers who called me for help with insomnia. Her sleep began eroding during her second pregnancy, improved somewhat over the following years and then, with the start of perimenopause, deteriorated into persistent insomnia.

“I really think I’m doing all the right things,” she asserted. “You know, I exercise, get morning light and religiously follow a checklist of sleep hygiene practices. I take a hot bath and dim the lights in the evening and never watch TV in bed. I’ve even tried melatonin and valerian and other natural supplements.” There was a subtle note of desperation in her voice. “But I still wake up in the middle of the night and can’t get back to sleep without taking a sleeping pill.” She grew tearful, “What else can I do?”

Recently, I’ve notice that more and more of the folks who come to me with insomnia are like Elizabeth — already well-informed about and carefully implementing effective sleep strategies. But many are still not getting better. I believe that sleep-supportive strategies are necessary, but absolutely insufficient to truly heal sleeplessness.

Our approach to sleep has become overly clinical, that is, emphasizing strategy while losing sight of the deeper spirit of sleep. Improving our sleep certainly requires changes in behavior, thoughts and feelings, but it also requires sensitivity to the spirit of sleep. Nowhere is this balance between strategy and spirit more evident than in the philosophy and practice of yoga.

A Sleep Supportive Posture

I was first introduced to yoga in my late teens and have since studied a number of approaches involving both meditative and physical practices. As important as asanas or physical postures are in yoga, I’ve come to believe they are secondary to spiritual posture – the positioning of our hearts.

From a yogic perspective, sleep is not seen as unconsciousness or the mere absence of waking. It is understood in terms of the presence of another kind of consciousness — a serene inner peace. In letting go of active waking, this more peaceful, underlying layer of who we really are is revealed. Sleep is seen as a gracious reconnection with our deeper, true Self.

In contrast to scientific views, yogic perspectives suggest that we can actually cultivate awareness during sleep, even if we are not awake in any ordinary sense. Various Hindu and Buddhist teachings suggest that cultivating awareness during sleep is both feasible and desirable. Yoga Nidra, for example, provides an experience of “waking sleep” through the practice of maintaining awareness into deepening states of rest and repose. Sri Aurobindo and his disciples actively encouraged their students to “learn how to become more and more conscious in sleep itself.” Similarly, Tibetan Buddhist sleep and dream yogas, which include elaborate and challenging meditative practices for cultivating awareness during sleep and dreams, encourage their students to literally witness the serene emptiness of sleep. “Sleep,” said the Dalai lama, “is the best meditation.”

Gradually cultivating greater awareness of the personal experience of sleep gives us a palpable, felt sense of what it really is. We begin to understand that waking and sleep occur on a continuum. A yogic perspective acknowledges the presence of “pure consciousness,” a common denominator or unitary thread that wevaes through and integrates waking with sleep and dreams. In fact, the word yoga itself is suggestive of such unity.

A yoga of sleep encouarges a fundamental shift in consciousness — maybe even stretching our consciousness beyond points we once thought were possible. I believe the greatest contribution of a yoga of sleep is the recognition that sleep practices can be a viable part of one’s personal growth and spiritual path.

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If you are interested in further exploration of related concepts and practices, please see my latest audio book, The Yoga of Sleep: Sacred and Scientific Practices to Heal Sleeplessness (Sounds True, September 2010).

How Many Hours Do I Really Need?

This may be the most common question I’m asked during my public presentations. Frequently, I detect a subtle anxiety behind the question. A concern about not getting the numbers right.

Defining health in terms of numbers is common today. We try to reduce complex things like blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar to simplistic numbers. Its not that these numbers are unimportant. Its just that they are too often taken out of context.

And so it is with sleep. Asking how many hours of sleep one should obtain each night is much like asking how many calories one should consume by day. The answer to this, of course, will vary greatly depending on an individual’s needs, health and other circumstances. As importantly, it will also depend on the quality of those calories.

The numbers question reflects an underlying misconception about what sleep really is. Like food, sleep is a source of nourishment. And just as nourishing food provides a myriad of nutrients such as vitamins, minerals, carbs and fats, healthy sleep also includes a nourishing array of rich and complex experiences.

The concern with numbers is frequently evident in the middle of a sleepless night. Despite knowing that it can exacerbate insomnia, many of us feel compelled to check the time when we can’t sleep. Why? It allows us to run the numbers. We do the math to determine how many hours of sleep we might still get if we could manage to drift off soon.

Good sleep like good nutrition does call for a minimum daily requirement. But there’s no need to be compulsive about that number. Instead, practice being mindful of the quality of your sleep, of its many nuances, its delicacy, depth and, of course, its dreams.