Let’s Take a Fresh Look at Sleep


Do you often feel lonely in the middle of the night as the world around you slumbers? You’re not alone! The CDC considers the level of sleep disruptions in the US – difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, or waking too early in the morning – to be at epidemic levels. Grouchiness, daytime drowsiness, poor concentration, diminished memory, and increased accidents are all potential risks.  Sleep deficit also contributes to a host of serious conditions, such as heart disease, diabetes, and stroke.

And then there is this, from a 2012 survey by the Better Sleep Council:

45% of Americans fall asleep someplace other than their beds once a week or more

      • 1 in 10 admits to dozing off at work (double this if you include students)
      • 7% nod off in church
      • 7% admit to sleeping in the car (some of those while driving!)
      • 6% on public transportation
      • 4% on the toilet

Causes? Life moving at warp speed in the age of modern technology, with LED displays aglow nonstop, our jobs reaching out and messaging us at all hours, and smart phones that don’t know when to shut up and leave us be. Stress and anxiety top a pretty extensive list of other causes that also includes pain, GERD, sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome, hormones, and conditions such as MS and Asthma. You may already know all this, but here’s something you may not know: The stress hormones produced and the negative self-talk generated around worrying about not sleeping have proven to be more physically detrimental to our bodies than the lost sleep. 

So if we should be concerned about getting good quality sleep, but we should also stop worrying about not sleeping better because that’s worse, what are the options?

Yoga offers practices and techniques that soothe the body, calm the mind and sedate the nervous system.* I’ve provided some ideas and a recipe for creating a nighttime ritual in the accompanying featured sequence.  But the best way to approach this tricky issue  may be to start with the only thing you can truly control about it: Your reaction. It may be time to try sleeping outside the box, so to speak.

Reframing–viewing the problem from a fresh perspective– is a way to bring about a change in the way we think about a situation that consequently changes the way we feel about it. Being able to view a situation in a new light may lead to a more compassionate and peaceful outcome. In this case, perhaps you do need eight hours of sleep–just maybe not eight consecutive hours. 

Anthropologist and Historian Roger Ekirch, who teaches History at Virginia Tech., has written extensively on the concept of Segmented Sleep.  It seems that before the introduction of artificial light, the norm was to sleep for 2-3 hours, rise for a bit, then sleep for another 3 hours or so. The Canterbury Tales and other reference and medical texts casually reference this last bit of slumber as the second sleep.

Contrary to our modern habit of worrying about how we’re going to drag our sleep-deprived bodies out of bed in the morning, our ancestors devoted the break between sleeping times to quiet yet enriching activities like stoking the fire, chatting with neighbors, or reading. Doctors advised couples trying to conceive to have sex in those hours. Scholars used the time for study and writing. Clerics practiced deep meditation and prayer. After an hour or two, everyone went back to bed and slept peacefully till morning.

Doesn’t that sound better than pacing the floor while the Home Shopping Network plays in the background?

So what if your midnight waking hours were transformed into a sacred and special time to pursue your deepest, highest aspirations? There’s no shortage of activities to pursue including meditation, prayer, reading inspirational material, writing in a gratitude journal, gentle or restorative yoga practice, listening to soothing music, or just using the time to count your blessings, stroke your sleeping pet, or gaze at the sky. Keep the lights low and avoid overhead lighting. And at all costs, do not use this time to get work done!

Schedule your evening  to accommodate both your sleeping and waking times by counting back from the time you want to rise. You’d retire nine or ten hours before your intended wakeup time, depending on the length of your sleeping and waking segments. You might start by emulating your current sleep pattern and adjusting a bit via trial and error.

When you’ve tried everything else, you might give this a go and see what happens. And who knows? If stress and anxiety about not sleeping are contributing to your current woes, the comfort of knowing that you’re prepared with soothing activities for the waking hours may have the unintended consequences of relaxing you into sleeping through the night. Reframing at its finest!

If you do experiment with a segmented sleep schedule, please keep me posted. I’d love to hear how it works out!

*We explore a number of strategies in my workshop, Using the Tools of Yoga for Better Sleep which I’ll offer at various locations 2015. Contact me if you’d like to either attend or host one.

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments