Millions of adults in the UK struggle through sleepless nights tossing and turning to no avail. Lisa Sanfilippo explains how she overcame her sleep issues with the help of yoga.
Sleep – or more specifically the lack of sleep – is a growing epidemic. A 2017 study revealed 16 million adults in the UK go sleepless: a third say they have insomnia, two thirds suffer from disrupted sleep and nearly quarter say they manage no more than five hours a night. According to a recent US government-backed study, it’s even worse for women.
I used to be one of those women. Aged 23 I was crashing around New York City working and playing. It should have been the best of times but crippling insomnia made every day feel more miserable. I’d doze off at my desk at 11am but was wide awake at 1am. I was dosing up on everything legal to try and combat the sleepless nights.
I became world-class connoisseur of under-eye concealer. I tried aromatherapy, homeopathy, counting sheep, going to bed earlier, going to bed later, herbs and diets. My doctor checked me out declaring “there’s nothing physically wrong with you…” and refused to give me sleeping pills.
I was furious, but she was wise.
She pointed me toward counselling for my high anxiety, and acupuncture to help me re-set my nervous system and immune system. But most importantly, she steered me towards yoga with the intention that I would learn how to calm, settle and ground myself enough to get some rest.
And that’s when things changed. I’m still not one of those unicorn people who gets eight uninterrupted hours every night, but learning my sleep type, not treating myself like a machine, and having simple tools to the ready means that I get the sleep I need to feel good each day.
I don’t expect perfect sleep, I listen to what my body needs, I’m not addicted to anything to help me sleep (my original GP who wouldn’t give me sleeping pills would be proud). My sleep recovery costs me nothing and I never need to plug anything in, hit an app or worry about my sleep ever again.
So, what can I teach you about sleep?
Humans don’t switch off, machines do
It seems every part of our lives has been taken over by our devices and I suspect the blue light that shines into our eyes has become a scapegoat. While blue light at night can decrease the production of a hormone called melatonin that helps us to get to sleep and stay asleep, I think the bigger problem is that we’re starting to think we should behave like our devices.
I teach workshops, training sessions at big companies and work with people one to one, and nearly everyone says exactly the same thing: “I can’t switch off.” You are not a machine. We don’t actually go from on to off. While we sleep, we’re far from off: complex, beautiful digestion and rebuilding processes happen. And while we’re awake, conscious and rushing around, we feel on but relaxation doesn’t happen like flicking a switch.
The relaxation response takes time. We enter restful, calm states when we’re less tense, less active and more receptive. How much of your quiet time gets sucked up by Instagram, Netflix, Twitter or queuing for a flat white?
If you close your eyes, breathe deeply, have a lie down with a book, or even take a walk outside (without being on your mobile) during the day, it seems you’re in the minority.
If you rest, and allow your thoughts and feelings to meander, and become reflective, you’ll re-learn something your body does naturally: it’s called the relaxation response.
Digest to rest
To rest, you need to digest. Eating a big meal late at night makes it harder to get to sleep - and can even affect the quality of your night’s rest. It’s the same with all the information that we take in throughout the day. We need time to digest thoughts, process emotions and make sense of our day and our lives. If we don’t have time during the day, thoughts often clang through our minds - from daily concerns to existential crises - just as we quiet down and try to sleep.
Here’s what I do: I structure my day to give 10-20 minutes to refresh and rest either mid morning or in the early afternoon. I grab some space and focus on the sensation of my breath entering and leaving my nose. It could be guerrilla meditation almost anywhere - park bench, ducking into a church pew, museum or gallery. I have a client who drives to work, parks the car in the garage, locks the doors and meditates before a busy day.
On office-based client days I’ll take a simple rest posture, between therapy clients I’ll lie on the floor with my legs up on the sofa or a chair, breathing fully and calmly. And when I’m moving around London all day, a 10-minute meditation or mini-sesh of inhaling for a count of 3 exhaling, for 4 on the tube or in the back of a taxi makes all the difference.
The gender sleep gap
We need to remember what it’s like to rest when we’re tired. It’s a fact women are more affected by insomnia than men. Having a female body means countless sleep saboteurs that have little to do with how virtuous we are about our sleep habits. Changes in hormones affect mood, body temperature, appetite, and levels of tension and pain our bodies: all these can sabotage our sleep. Menstruation, pregnancy, childbirth, child-feeding and raising kids. Then add perimenopause and menopause. Every one of these skews our sleep by affecting our hormones, mental state, core body temperature, and in turn, our sleep.
These entirely natural processes don’t make it any easier for us to feel really rested all month. The sleep gap yawns wider. While we have to accept these variations as natural, books like Maisie Hill’s Period Power and Uma Tuli’s Yoni Shakti show us how to work with our female bodies.
As women, we’re both less likely to get the standard 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep and more likely to feel the pressure of yet another impossible body standard. Give us a body standard, and we’ll often feel we’re doing something wrong if we don’t achieve it. Like the performance-anxiety men can feel around having erectile problems, scrutinising and stressing about sleep is like a sleep-performance anxiety - it amps up our nervous systems, sabotaging a process that happens naturally when we are relaxed.
Before I started doing yoga, I knew that telling myself to relax simply didn’t work. I was too stressed and my thoughts were too anxious. I learnt that doing strong, slow yoga stretches that pulled the tension out of my body, with long, deep breaths, lengthening my exhalation really helped me to settle myself. I could feel the opening-up and settling-down in my body. My mind didn’t stop, but it did focus on the here-and-now, and on my body. Like a parent holds and gently rocks a baby to sleep, the stretches and breathing soothed me physically.
Your brain is hooked up to your body, with an elaborate and finely tuned system for the body to tell the brain to respond to cues about safety. When our bodies are tense, regardless of the source, it’s more likely we’ll have the brain chemistry related to stress, tension and alertness. Our bodies don’t open up when we’re not safe, so by taking the contraction out of your muscles, freeing up your breathing and making space, you’re signalling safety messages from body to brain: “It’s ok to release, relax, sleep.”
Sleep Recovery solution: stretch it out
I created a simple sequence of stretches that can be done on the bed or on the floor, and one stretch moves into the next seamlessly. I teach it to groups, and their bodies lying on the floor can start out looking all bound up and tight, but their bodies seem to melt into the floor by the end and a few people are always asleep.
The Monkey type sleepers often find the hip stretches bring their energy out of their heads, while the Tiger types often find the twisting postures release their fiery tension, and the Bear type sleepers like the downward dog pose that stimulates circulation.
Sleep Recovery is about more than stretching (it’s a holistic 5 step process, since yoga is so much more than stretching) and the sleep recovery types need to make sense.
Lisa Sanfilippo is a London-based psychotherapist and yoga teacher. Her book Sleep Recovery is out now from Bloomsbury’s Green Tree, available in stores and on Amazon.