Learning to Love Sleep

- 15 Nov, 2020

I used to be a terrible sleeper.

I’d actually forgotten this until I was telling an old friend about the Sleep Recovery teacher training I’d done and how I was really excited to have a framework to help others get great sleep, when she replied with surprise, ‘wow. You used to be a terrible sleeper.’

It’s true. As someone who spends a lot of time now on self-reflection, I’m somewhat amazed by the extent to which I ignored the needs of my body for most of my 20s – sometimes through choice, sometimes through necessity because of work (I won’t go into whether or not this was also, in reality, a choice). 

Despite being a mild early bird, when I worked in the poker industry, I would regularly be working at events until 4am, then be back in the press room by 10am. As marketing manager of a nightclub, my work was meant to be office-based but in reality I would often be in the club at 2am (fixing cables underneath the DJ booth or arguing with promoters about invoices – it really wasn’t as glamorous as you’d think), at which point it made sense to stay until closing so I could catch up with a close colleague – or so I rationalised, suppressing the fact there were other reasons I was still awake, and would continue to be for at least a couple hours after I got home at 4.30am.

So what changed? 

A lot did. Some of it was circumstantial. I changed jobs; a long-distance relationship with an 8-hour time difference ended. Interestingly, I was still working for a US client and so working in the evenings; but this didn’t affect my sleep nearly as much, because something else had changed, too.

I guess you could call it self-awareness.

At the time that my relationship was ending, I happened to be reading what I now consider to be a life-changing book: Why We Sleep, by eminent neurologist and sleep scientist, Matthew Walker. If scientists have groupies, I’m one of his. This book completely changed my relationship with sleep.

Stressful situations used to have a drastic impact on my sleep – an overthinking brain as soon as I put my head down; wanting to avoid uncomfortable dreams; you know the score – so insomnia was a common consequence. I’m also a rational thinker, though, and as soon as I read that sleep would actually help me to process my stresses and emotions and that dreams especially were our way of emotionally processing our lives (in Walker’s words, ‘time doesn’t heal all wounds; time in REM [dream] sleep heals all wounds’) something in my head changed. It was time to befriend sleep.

I’m lucky that this all happened at a time when my yoga practice was an important part of my life. I always say that the biggest gift that yoga gives us is curiosity – especially in regard to ourselves. Cultivating the ability to listen to our body gives us so many clues as to finding balance. As I’ve said before, we could learn so much about what our bodies need if only we’d stop to actually listen to them. As I started to pay more attention to what helped and hindered my sleep, I chanced upon ‘Yoga Therapy for Insomnia and Sleep Recovery’ by Lisa Sanfillipo – a book that formed the basis of the teacher training I would eventually take with her and which I now teach. Sleep Recovery not only grew my sleep tool box by including techniques that I’d not yet tried, but it gave me the framework that I needed to take those simple yet powerful tools to other people and help them to rediscover the joys of a good night’s sleep, just like I had.

Like so much in life, there is no magic bullet. But when you take the time to get to know your body, your needs, your habits, then you give yourself the chance to tackle your personal obstacles and make real, long-lasting changes. 

So in the spirit of sharing some of my journey to loving sleep, here are some of my personal learnings. These are absolutely not universal – and if you’re one of those people who can have espresso at 9pm and be sound asleep by 10.30pm then I salute you.

  • I’m ridiculously sensitive to caffeine. If I eat dark chocolate after dinner, I’ll be climbing the walls at 2am.
  • Sugar (especially combined with preservatives) affects my sleep. If you follow me on Instagram, you may remember ‘cupcakegate’ involving a single cupcake covered in green icing eaten at 4pm. Disaster.
  • I fall asleep better with socks on but tend to strip them off in my sleep.
  • Reading before bed helps me to wind down, but if the subject matter is agitating, it has the opposite effect. ‘The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich’ is therefore no longer on my bedside table…
  • I’m very sensitive to light. During spring and autumn this means I leave the curtains open and wake up with the light, which is great. In the summer, though, in order not to wake up at 5am, it means I have to use blackout blinds and wake up with a sunrise alarm (which gently lights up my room) instead, which seems utterly perverse.

And in the spirit of sharing actually useful information (beyond the mental image of me in fluffy socks with green icing around my mouth reading about Nazi Germany), here are some practical tips for getting a better night’s sleep. These are adapted from Walker’s book:

  • Have a wind-down routine. Whether that’s a shower, reading, playing some soft music or doing your skincare routine, make it your nightly signal to your body that it’s time to get ready for sleep.
  • Don’t hate me – but put your phone away at least 30 minutes before you want to sleep. Better yet, turn it off and leave it in a different room. This might sound like an evil and unusual punishment, but I promise you, it will help your brain unwind.
  • Keep your bedroom cool – and wear socks if your feet get too cold! Our body temperature needs to drop for us to fall asleep, so this will help the process.
  • Turn the lights down in the evening and keep your bedroom dark. This helps keep your body’s internal clock, the circadian rhythm, in check, and regulates your wake/sleep patterns.
  • Get natural sunlight in the earlier hours of the day – for the same reason. Get outside, even if it’s cloudy. This has a myriad other health benefits too, but sleep is an important one.

The Sleep Recovery course talks about these and other lifestyle factors in more detail, as well as teaching simple, accessible yoga-based stretches and breathing practices to help you manage your own sleep and energy levels. If you suffer from sleep problems, please know that you’re not alone and that there are things that can help. If you’re interested in finding out more, drop me a line or contact me on Instagram or Facebook. 

Photo by Kate Stone Matheson on Unsplash

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