Not sure if you had noticed, but sleep – and literally everything to do with it – has been on our minds lately. So much so, we dedicated an entire week to the importance of a good night’s rest. Through it all, we’ve come to realise there are SO many factors that contribute to an optimal period of sleep. Crafting personal and meaningful pre-bed rituals, rising at the same hour each day (yes, this is very, VERY important, regardless of the time you may or may not have rolled into bed with a half-eaten kebab), maintaining a tranquil and comforting sleep environment and essentials that will aid your slumber like nothing else.
In light of the above, our main takeaway has been this: sleeping well is an art form, not as simple as we once thought it to be, and a skill we must master. But I’m starting to think that “master” is not the quite the word I’m looking for. If you’re to take the word of the teacher we are about to introduce you to, slipping into a restful state has much more to do with slowly, slowly letting go.
Enter: Jana Roemer, a Venice, California-based certified yoga instructor, specialising in Yoga Nidra (the practice of Yogic Sleep). Just to rewind for a moment, earlier in the week when we spoke to a sleep psychologist and leading researcher, she prescribed meditation as one tool for achieving better sleep. Consider this the point in the week where science and spirituality meet.
In the course of this interview, Jana offered practical insights into her journey with Yoga Nidra as a form of “sleep rehearsal”, tapping into your inner voice to help you sleep properly, and what we’re doing wrong when it comes to sleep.
Lie back and take a loooong, deep breath – this one’s well worth the read.
What is Yoga Nidra?
Yoga Nidra is the practice of sacred sleep. You lay down on your back and systematically release layer upon layer of yourself until all that is left is your soul merging with the Unified Field of existence.
How has the practice of Yoga Nidra changed your life?
I accidentally stumbled upon Yoga Nidra in Edmonton, Canada, a little over a decade ago. The class was called Soul Flow and I fell asleep during the practice but felt great afterward. I didn’t get serious about my Yoga Nidra practice until I became a mother. Sleep was limited and my whole identity was experiencing a metamorphosis. It was an interesting time because, in some areas of my life I was crystal clear, though in others I was confused and had a hard time identifying exactly where I belonged.
Yoga Nidra became vital to feeling rested and something started to happen during my practice that brought the most beautiful clarity to my life. My mind was changing. In fact, it was healing. First, self-doubt started to lose its strength. Eventually, my pesky inner critic took a vacation. Before that, my inner critic was loud and constantly nattering on. She was relentless. And now, though she interjects with her opinions once in a while, hardly has a voice. In her place, is a much more compassionate inner monologue. It’s so much nicer inside my world.
You work a lot with the body, and in my own experience, the body never lies. Why do we, as human beings, ignore it so much?
That’s a great question. Perhaps because it acts as a vessel of pain and suffering until we are able to dissolve said pain. To dissolve it, we have to face it and allow ourselves to feel – and that can get messy.
In your own personal experience, how important is it to be in tune with your body? What happens when you don’t listen?
For me? It’s EVERYTHING. I broke my back just over a decade ago, so if I’m ignoring my body, the pain is spectacular. My body constantly feeds me information about my health and intuition, while acting as a source of pleasure, which is a key experience as a healthy human.
You talk about listening to your inner voice. How do we access our own inner voices?
The inner voice is usually pretty quiet – until she needs to yell. When she yells, it’s because you haven’t been listening, so extreme measures are used to get your attention (i.e. breaking my back). The wise ones spend time quietly listening. To hear her quiet voice, we have to unplug from everything in the external world and plug into our internal world.
This is exactly why I love movement, meditation, breath practices and Yoga Nidra. Yoga Nidra begins when you withdraw your senses from the external world and wake them up within your internal world. These act as a direct path to your inner voice.
Does being in touch with your body help you get to sleep?
Yes. When we are active or feeling pleasure, we get a different mixture of hormones through the endocrine system. That connection with your body will reduce stress and therefore increase the healing qualities of this hormonal release of glandular secretions. The more healing chemicals your endocrine system releases – and the fewer stress hormones – the better your sleep quality.
How can Yoga Nidra help us to sleep?
Yoga Nidra helps in so many ways. It teaches you how to be aware of the body’s natural signals as you shift from wakefulness to sleep. You may even like to think of it as a sleep rehearsal, to some extent. The practice causes the dominant brainwave patterns to slow down. In a typical sleep cycle, once eyes are closed, the brain will move from a beta brain wave pattern to an alpha brain wave pattern. This is the brainwave state that many meditators are aiming to land in because it allows the mind to become more mailable, this shifting perspective naturally. When a sleeper is dreaming, they shift into a theta dominant brainwave pattern which is where REM sleep happens, and this is typically the state that the Yoga Nidra practitioner will experience visualisations. Once the dream is complete, a healthy sleep pattern will resume a delta dominant brainwave pattern, deep dreamless sleep (while the immune system is rebooted). It’s the most healing and restorative brainwave state we visit in our sleep cycle. In each of these states, the endocrine system is secreting unique hormonal and chemical cocktails that each have their own important purposes.
In a complete Yoga Nidra practice, you will visit each of these states and because you are aware throughout them, oftentimes, the quality of each state is amplified. It’s like training to up the quality of your sleep! Yoga Nidra helps move your nervous system from an incoherent state (where the 10,000 things pulling your attention in different directions and preventing the mind from slowing down) to a coherent state where your whole mind and body is focused on one thing, which creates a beautiful inner harmony.
When the nervous system is in a coherent state, it signals the endocrine system to secrete hormones that help us heal, rather than those not-so-favorable stress hormones.
It’s interesting to note that the more coherent you are as you fall asleep, the better the quality of sleep. Sleep researchers are slowly learning that when it comes to sleep, it’s not just quantity that matters – quality is important, too (quality sleep = reaching all of the sleep phases).
Do you have to be a practicing yogi to try Yoga Nidra?
No. You just have to be a human.
What are the biggest misconceptions around Yoga Nidra?
I think the biggest misconception is purely around what it is. People don’t know.
Because we live in such a ‘doing’ society and not so much a ‘being’ society, people feel they have to DO something to make progress or be productive. What they don’t realise is that you will get more done when you allow yourself to BE. Yoga Nidra is the perfect tool when it comes to helping yourself to be.
Plus, the longer you stick around and observe yourself and your inner world, the more interesting it becomes. There is an entire universe inside each of us, that is just waiting for us to pay attention. It’s fascinating what you will find in there the longer you practice.
What does your personal sleep routine consist of?
Haha! Well, you know that they say: teach what you need to learn.
Dr. Matthew Walker, in his book Why We Sleep, states that roughly 70% of humans are morning people and 30% of humans are night owls. I’m definitely part of that 30% that loves the night. However, society is set up in favor of the morning person and my four-year-old son wakes me up around 645AM most days. So sleep is a challenge for me since becoming a mama.
I love that quiet time after everyone is in bed to take care of myself. What happens in that time varies, and I often stay up a little too late because I am the most productive, creative and content during that time. If I’m on my computer or device, I’ll use blue blocker glasses as to not disrupt my endocrine system too much. Before I jump into bed, I oil my face, brush and floss my teeth and give myself a moment of pause for self-care. When I get into bed, I spend a moment reflecting on what I am grateful for and give myself props for anything I did well that day.
This gives a boost to the healthy hormones that heal us. Then I’ll either do a Yoga Nidra practice or see how long and even I can get my breaths while watching my body start to down-regulate to sleep until I slip under. I’m also a very active and lucid dreamer – so that’s always interesting! In the mornings when I wake up, if my son lets me, I spend a moment writing down my dreams (strictly paper and pen, no device!). I refrain from using a typical alarm clock, in favour of a much more soothing a pleasurable sound.
I always, always make time for Yoga Nidra the next afternoon. So yes, as an adult, I schedule a nap in almost daily. It makes everything better!
What do you think most people are doing wrong when it comes to getting the type of sleep their body needs?
Too many screens in the bedroom (devices before bed, including television and smartphones).
These disrupt the secretions of melatonin which are key for a good night’s sleep. When we scroll, our brains are rewired in an unfavourable way – not to mention all those notifications creating stress in our bodies. Your device should have a bedtime of at least an hour prior to yourself
Jana Roemer runs yoga retreats and teaches private classes. Find out more here.
Words, Gemma Clarke.