Ask 5 people how they are feeling right now, and I bet at least 3 will say they are feeling tired, a bit run down, and generally low energy. It’s become so commonplace to be tired in modern life that we all just assume that’s how it has to be. If we want to be successful, we need to be firing on all cylinders all the time, working harder and for longer. And the first thing that’s sacrificed in that world is the length and quality of our sleep.
Ask any bleary-eyed commuter on an early train to London, and they will probably agree that trying to do anything when you haven’t had enough sleep is torture. And they’re right. In fact, withholding sleep is a very common torture methodology dating back to the medieval times.
We need sleep for our bodies to rest, digest and recover from our hectic daily lives. We process emotions and toxins while we sleep, heal wounds and reset our hormones. But the more I teach yoga and work with people who struggle with pain, anxiety and depression, the more I realise that sleep deprivation is a very real and worrying phenomenon in our society. So today I wanted to look at why we need sleep, and how practicing yoga can help combat the stresses of daily life and improve your sleep.
The Importance Of Sleep
Sleep is one of those things we all know we need, but many of us don’t truly appreciate how much. We tend to think of sleep as the time when our mind and body shut down. But this isn’t true at all – in fact, sleep is a very active process. While your conscious mind dozes away, your brain and body are very busy processing, restoring and strengthening you ready for the next day.
Sleep helps us to solidify and consolidate memories. We take in an extraordinary amount of information every day, and they all form a sort of backlog in your brain, rather than being directly logged and recorded. Sleep is the time your mind can sort through all of these facts and experiences, process them and store them in the right parts of your brain. Overnight, bits and pieces of information are transferred from your short-term memory into the stronger, long term memory part of your brain. Research has shown that after you sleep, you will retain information and perform better in memory-based tasks.
Sleep is also an important physical process. When we sleep, our bodies rest – conserving energy and decreasing blood pressure, heart rate, breathing and body temperature. While our brains are busy restoring mental functioning, our bodies are regulating appetite, weight and blood glucose levels, repairing damaged tissue, stimulating growth in children, reducing stress hormones and inflammation, releasing serotonin (the ‘happy’ hormone) and producing protein to strengthen your cells. If you sleep less than the recommended amount, your body stops being able to do these things as well, and you will start to see an impact on your health. One of the most common signs that you aren’t getting enough sleep is actually feeling ill all the time – since lack of sleep weakens your immune system and makes you more susceptible to viruses and infections.
All the more reason to sleep in!
So How Long Do I Need To Sleep For?
No one has quite managed to work out why humans are programmed to sleep for such long periods of time compared to other animals, but unlike a cat or a bird, we need solid, uninterrupted sleep to function properly and get all those lovely benefits. The amount of sleep you need each day will change over the course of your life, and it will also depend on how much sleep you need as an individual. But there are some general guidelines. For example, the recommended amount of sleep for each age group is:
- Babies between 4-12 months: 12-16 hours a day (including naps)
- Children between 1-2 years: 11-14 hours a day (including naps)
- Children between 3-5 years: 10-13 hours a day (including naps)
- Children between 6-12 years: 9-12 hours a day
- Teenagers between 13-18: 8-10 hours a day
- Adults over 18: 7-8 hours a day
If you are routinely losing sleep (or choosing to sleep less), then that sleep loss does add up, and you will start to feel the effects. Feeling drowsy and even taking unplanned naps is your body’s way of telling you that you need to sleep more. But while napping can provide a temporary boost to alertness, it doesn’t have all the same benefits as night-time sleeping.
How Can Yoga Help You Sleep Better?
So, how do you make sure you’re getting enough sleep? One of the best ways we know is to practice something called Yoga Nidra, or ‘yogic sleep’. This is what we call the state of consciousness between waking and sleeping, and it often feels like the ‘going-to-sleep’ phase. Yoga Nidra is all about practicing a ‘hover’ in that calm and quiet place between sleep and wakefulness, where the body is completely relaxed but the mind is still slightly alert.
During Yoga Nidra, the complete relaxation of the body helps us to become systematically and increasingly aware of our inner world by following a set of spoken instructions. Yoga Nidra is effectively a form of guided meditation, although full meditation requires concentration on a single focus. In Yoga Nidra, we remain in a state of light withdrawal of the senses whilst only the hearing connects to the instructions. The instructions include a wandering excursion through the body in a rotation of consciousness, awareness of the breathing and feelings, and also a set of visualisations.
You can learn more about Yoga Nidra in my blog here.
Yoga can also help you reduce tension and anxiety, and learn how to let your body and mind relax. This can calm the chatter in your brain and make going to sleep and sleeping well a much simpler, easier process. In my own case, Yoga Nidra has helped me to overcome severe insomnia. I sought knowledge about the subject because I was just so tired of never sleeping properly, feeling drained and mentally exhausted through lack of sleep and anxious about wandering through life like a sleep-deprived zombie. Yoga and Yoga Nidra helped me earn how to quiet my mind and float into a restful sleep, and by teaching it I hope to share those techniques with anyone else who wants to sleep better and escape insomnia in a safe and kind environment.
If you would like to know more about mindful sleep, you can download my free e-book with 9 Mindful Strategies to Successful Sleep here.