Sleep seems like such a small thing until you don’t get enough of it.
I ignored Ariana Huffington’s “sleep your way to the top” campaign until I was so sleep-deprived that beyond a shadow of a doubt she was right: we would have much, much better political and economic policies if everyone making them up engaged in nap time.
My sleep patterns tend to be cyclical and seasonal. I go through periods when I need a ton of sleep — 9 or 10 hours sufficing for practical matters, though a few days of every week in a darkened cave more fitting for my cravings in a world without responsibilities. During other periods, I feel I’m sleepwalking through life due to an inability to fall or stay asleep for more than a few hours at a time. Still, with the use of aids ranging from earplugs to melatonin, red wine to ocean sounds, I probably average closer to 7 than not.
Ironically it was in the bucolic Berkshires, at a training for yoga therapists-in-waiting where the affects of sleep deprivation came to the forefront.
56 students plus faculty and teaching assistants began our days together at 6 am. We didn’t officially end until 8:30 pm. There was plenty of time to eat, but not eat and take a nap, or eat and get in a good hike, or eat and do your laundry. (I did try eating quickly, skipping a meal, and getting something small to go, but I suppose I am really even more in love with savoring deliciousness than I am with REM to consider those reasonable options.) At night, I slept in a dormitory with 21 other women, some of whom would decide to set their alarm clocks to 4 am in order to give themselves more time to rummage through bags for the perfect earrings.
The first night, I clocked an hour of sleep, and another few of trying really hard not to disturb the sleeping beauty resting in the bottom bunk. My game improved significantly from there — but by day 8 or 9, I just couldn’t take in any more information, and I couldn’t play nice with any of the aforementioned 77 people who I shared intimate space with practically 24-7. (I did find myself enjoying quiet time in the single stall bathrooms, developing new found compassion for my ten-minute-toilet-sitting-sibling-laden friends.)
I should say here that my whole days weren’t spent in front of powerpoint presentations studying the thoracic diaphragm or how one can begin working with movements of the mind. We practiced about an hour of yoga and 30 minutes of meditation each day, in addition to studying mudras and breathing techniques. We also did a half hour of yoga nidra, a deep form of meditation in which you leave the normal waking state and go into a conscious “yogic sleep” with the use of techniques such as progressive physical relaxation and guided visualization. The key to it working well (and its intention goes beyond relaxation to helping a person heal deep-seated belief patterns) is staying conscious — a Herculean task under conditions of sleep deprivation. We became a snoring lot of parked bodies. When the teacher would gently guide us back, my usual sensation was that of coming out of a Valium-induced sleep, heavy and hard.
It was, fair to say, the opposite of bliss that others staying in this same educational center but on R&R radiated.
Whether it was the lack of sleep; the constant presence of many, many more people in a single space than I am used to; or my increasing sensitivity to both place and presences (or even my increased sensitivity to lifelong sensitivities that I used to be able to stuff down or pretend didn’t exist in younger years), my body and mind began to do what it does in these sorts of situations: distress signals that ranged from dizziness and nausea to thought-fuzziness and a crying spell whose intensity was far greater than the incident which triggered it.
I was losing my shit.
Don’t get me wrong: my years of practicing yoga and meditation and Reiki and writing poetry and essays and doing street theater and exploring the legacy of being a child of Holocaust survivors and living in an intentional community and even a relatively short bout of traditional talk therapy have all dramatically changed me — I think for the better — but not into nicey-nice.
Nope, the most dramatic gift that my reflective and creative and spiritual and postural practices has offered is this: it’s made me absolutely intolerant of feeling like shit (even just a teeny bit so) for more than the proverbial three days of cross-bearing.
My base level of okayness has risen to a new, higher mark, so “just fine” is simply not doable for more than time of true emergency.
This my friends, is a good thing. I used to tolerate a high level of functioning at in my community and academic work, while suffering long bouts of depression I wouldn’t treat, because I assumed this was all life had to offer, there was something inherently wrong with me, I was weak and needed to develop thicker skin and more backbone, and my only other option was turning into what one highly respected psychiatrist predicted I would likely become when I was 17 which I was too rebellious to do.
This doctor, who worked in one of New York’s best hospitals, and had a research gig with its affiliated university. There, he had been the lead on a longitudinal study of psychiatric patients, to study how they fared after hospitalization, rates of recidivism and the like. I met him in his posh Park Avenue home to complete his documentation on my mother, who had been repeatedly hospitalized her whole life. He asked me many questions about the time period between their last interview, and her suicide. The questions soon turned to me and my state of mind. As a parting gift, he advised me that since both of my parents suffered severe mental illness, the chance of my doing so were twice as great than the average person. He was not unkind, and his suggestion was essentially where I have finally arrived at in my 40s: he thought, essentially, I shouldn’t tolerate being “blue” (his word) for “longer than seemed normal for a teenager” (his terminology again, but I suspect we had radically different takes on what constituted “normal”).
The difference was he proposed that I might find what I needed in lithium; I’ve discovered that what I really need is adequate rest, nourishing food, friends who give me the space to explore the shifting me’s, regular creative expression, and remembering — especially when I feel I’m losing my shit — that I am connected to forces much larger and more loving and more meaningful than anything my small self can imagine.
So when signals come, I respond by immediately shifting course and seeking support — ironically, the same thing I advise the beautiful people I coach and teach. What conversations and other actions one needs to pursue depends on the particulars, but in these circumstances, new actions are pretty much guaranteed to produce different results.
All this said, in the end I got a lot out of the training, aside from a renewed sense of love for my bed. I’ve already started to incorporate what I’ve learned in my own practice, and in my teaching. I am super happy that I chose to do just two weeks of this training this year since clearly I need time to digest what I learned, to read through all the wonderful written materials we were given, and figure out how I might want to move forward with it. I don’t know how I might prepare differently when I go back next year for the second half of the training (maybe an unexpected windfall will make a single room more affordable). But I believe that something utterly brilliant will come to me when I sleep on it.