Want to snag more (and better quality) sleep, and always wondered if meditating at night might help? See what happens when one Yoga Journal editor tries 30 days of sleep meditation.
Meditation is non-negotiable when it comes to my everyday routine.
Most of the time, my meditation practice consists of dragging my Sugarmat meditation cushion out from under my living room couch into the small area of floor space I have in my tiny New York City apartment. From there, I pull out my smart phone, launch the Calm app, and listen to the #dailycalm—a 10-minute guided meditation led my Tamara Levitt. While the guided meditation I listen to changes every day, I can always count on learning something new and finding my center in 10 minutes flat. On days I have more time, I go to MNDFL, a meditation studio in Manhattan and Brooklyn, for a longer sit.
I have been using the Calm app for more than a year and have found that holding myself accountable to meditating 10 minutes a day is realistic. Even better, it has had a noticeable impact on my life. I’m, well, calmer. I feel more grounded. I’m less likely to react to things like a pushy New Yorker or late subway train.
See also Can’t Sleep? Try These 6 Restorative Poses Right in Bed
So, while I’m not someone who struggles to fall asleep, I do notice that even after 7 to 8 hours of shut-eye, fatigue hits me throughout the day. I’ll be answering e-mails trying to fight the urge to curl up for a 20-minute power nap. (I work from home most days, so this is especially tempting.) Or, I’ll have to do something for a quick hit of energy—pounding a pint of water, or dancing around my living room—after a long day of work and before I teach yoga in the evening. Could my quality of shut-eye be lacking? And could sleep meditation help?
To answer these questions, I set a goal to try 30 days of guided sleep meditation every night before bed. Disclosure: There were a few nights that I bailed on my bedtime meditations because, well, life. But after at least 25 days of sleep meditation, I have a lot to say about the practice.
Sleep Meditation: What’s Happening in Calm Sleep Stories?
I started my month-long sleep meditation adventure using the Calm app, which has a feature called “Sleep Stories.” Essentially, it’s a library filled with soothing bedtime tales for grown-ups, narrated by the dreamiest of voices (think Matthew McConaughey, Leona Lewis, Stephen Fry, and Calm’s very own, Tamara Levitt).
“We integrate mindfulness elements into sleep stories in a very deliberate way, giving the stories a grounding, calming quality,” says Christian Slomka, Calm’s community manager and a yoga and mediation instructor. “Instead of an elaborate buildup, Sleep Stories are a gradual unwind.”
There are three main elements of Calm’s sleep stories:
1. Find an Anchor
Slomka says the sleep stories are geared to helping listeners focus their attention on an anchor—usually the breath—to quiet the mind and help shift the listener away from overactive thoughts. As the character in the story travels along her journey, she is fully immersed in the present moment. The thinking is that the listener will experience this immersion along with the sleep story’s character.
2. Practice Body Awareness and Relaxation Techniques
Another mindfulness element that sleep stories touch on is body awareness and relaxation. When a story opens, the narrator walks the listener through a brief body scan exercise to help quiet the mind and relax the body. Throughout the story, the character also scans through her sensations, and the hope is that the listener does the same.
3. Sensory Awareness
The way the scenes in each sleep story are described cultivates a sense of sensory awareness. Mindfulness involves perceiving ordinary moments with curiosity, a beginner’s mind, and a sense of wonder, says Slomka. One way to experience this is by coming into contact with nature. The idea is to observe the beauty of nature in all its exquisite detail: the colors of a flower, the movements of a bird, the sounds of a river, the smells of a forest. This attentive observation keeps the listener in present moment awareness.
See also Get Your Sit Together: 7 Best Meditation Cushions to Support Your Practice
Week 1 of Sleep Meditation: Am I doing this “right”?
Imagine the quintessential New York City hustle—then, imagine me in it.
I wake up at 5 a.m. on the regular, teach yoga in the morning, work out, plow through a full work day, and sometimes even teach yoga again at night. So, you’d better believe that when my head hits the pillow at night, I’m out like a light. When I began this challenge, I decided to make a conscious effort to not only try to go to bed early, but to actually start winding down before leaping under the covers (a.k.a. not scrolling through Instagram or watching Netflix before bed). Sounds dreamy, right?
The first week of my sleep meditation was extremely frustrating. Maybe it was because I’m impatient and didn’t notice a difference after a few days. Or maybe it’s because this sleep meditation challenge just felt like another task on my long to-do list at first. Also, I would fall asleep within the first 5 minutes of each 25-minute sleep story, which, looking back, was a good sign. But during the first few days, I was annoyed at my inability to stay awake and listen to more of the story.
But around day 5, I discovered that Calm’s sleep stories were designed to mimic the kind of bedtime stories most of us experienced when we were kids, which means the whole point of them was to lull me into a deep, restful sleep—not keep me awake, on the edge of my seat.
At the end of my first week of sleep meditation, I stopped judging myself for whether or not I was doing it “correctly” and focused instead on how grateful I was to be able to fall asleep.
See also This Simple Meditation Will Help You Get in Touch with Your True Self
Week 2 of Sleep Meditation: Building Intention and Awareness Around Sleep
After the first week, incorporating sleep meditation into my nightly routine became second nature. I would climb into bed, ignore any lingering texts, switch my phone to sleep mode, and turn on my sleep story. From the moment each sleep story began, my mind started to move with the story. However, my skepticism continued. Was this new practice really helping my quality of sleep—or would I have gone to sleep just as easily without the guided meditation?
It wasn’t until I went a day without the sleep story that I realized how much of an impact it was having on me. On night No. 12, I skipped my sleep story—and I woke up every hour, on the hour.
Whether it was the intention behind setting myself up for sleep, or something about these sleep meditations that was improving my sleep quality, I realized that if I wanted to sleep well, I would have to make an effort to do so—not just let my head hit the pillow.
See also The 9-Minute Meditation You Need to Create More Space in Life
Week 3 of Sleep Meditation: Appreciation
On Day 16, my appreciation for sleep meditation hit an all-time high. A few minutes in to my sleep story, I noticed my attention effortlessly shifted from what had happened that day and what I had to do the next day to the story. It was almost like the person leading the sleep story gave me the permission I needed to let go of the day and let my mind and body go to sleep—instantly. I started looking forward to my sleep meditations—a sign any seasoned meditator will tell you is one that means your new meditation habit will likely stick.
See also 7 Simple Ways to Call in More Joy—and Feel Less Stressed
Week 4 of Sleep Meditation: Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder
The final week of my 30-day sleep meditation challenge was filled with travel, holiday crazies, and pretty much zero normalcy when it came to my sleep. Which is why I went a few days without sleep stories each night.
The result? After a typical 7 hours of snoozing, I woke up feeling tired and sluggish—not well-rested, like I had been after falling asleep to my sleep meditation. Which is when it hit me: Just like my daily meditation practice keeps me energized and focused during the day, the quality of my sleep is determined by what happens right before I go to sleep.
My biggest realization at the end of this month-long challenge is that whether you have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, how you set yourself up for sleep is critical.
Thanks to sleep meditation, I’ve seen a dramatic shift in my sleeping habits. Even when I don’t listen to a sleep story to help me drift off, I am way more conscious of the way I set myself up to go to sleep. And for those nights when I do feel like I could use a little help, I know a sweet bedtime tale read by Matthew McConaughey is just a click away.
See also This One Simple Practice Will Change How You Feel About Yourself
About the Author
Bridget “Bee” Creel is the editorial producer for Yoga Journal. She works as a yoga teacher in NYC and is the co-founder of the wellness community, Mood Room.
6 Breath Practices for a Stressful Day at Work
Try these pranayama techniques at your desk to feel centered and calm when your job gets hectic.
Work is often a huge source of stress in our lives. Whether you’re trying to meet unrealistic deadlines, manage a high workload, or handle a conflict with a boss or co-worker, it can be overwhelming and anxiety-provoking.
When things start to feel out of control at work, one of the simplest things you can do to calm your nervous system and improve your state of mind is to take a few moments to shift your focus to your breath. Better yet, take five for pranayama, or breathwork, right at your desk. Pranayama, which means controlling your breath and its energies, can be a powerful reset for your body and mind.
See also 30 Yoga Sequences to Reduce Stress
Research suggests that a regular pranayama practice can improve brain health and attention, which means you’ll be better able to tackle the tasks and challenges ahead.
Typically, your breath will become more shallow and rapid when you’re feeling stressed. So, it’s best to use the pranayama techniques that slow down your breath in order to quiet your mind, improve concentration, and ease anxiety, stress, or agitation.
See also Yoga for Stress and Burnout
To help you manage the daily grind, here are six breathing practices to try at the office when you’re having a rough day.
These pranayama exercises are not just limited to work-related stress, but also are applicable to other areas where stress might come up in your life. So, practice as little or as often as you like. The time you take to focus on your breath also gives you the space to gain clarity and return to a more neutral state of well-being.
Here’s What Happened When I Tried Mantra Meditation During The Hardest Month of My Life
Hint: It helped. A lot.
If someone would’ve told me back in December that the first month of 2019 would be the hardest of my life, I probably would’ve thought twice before signing up for Yoga Journal’s 30-day meditation challenge. Because let’s be honest: Meditation is the exact opposite of running away from your problems. Instead, it inspires you to sit your butt down right in the middle of those problems and face your resulting emotions head on.
In January, all I wanted to do was run away from my ongoing relationship problems, self smack-talk, and most significantly, the immense sadness from the death of my beloved aunt.
See also YJ Tried It: 30 Days of Guided Sleep Meditation
Yet even though there were many days that stared at my cushion with pure, unadulterated resentment, or put off my practice until the end of the day, I can honestly say that the practice completely transformed how I handled some of the most challenging times I’ve ever faced. It not only gave me the space to confront my feelings, but it also helped me learn how to take care of myself along the way.
Introducing Myself to Mantra Meditation
I’ve been consistently meditating for a little over a year now, practicing everything from guided 10-minute meditations on the Calm app to classes at MNDFL meditation studio in New York City. However, I would say my relationship with meditation didn’t become a real commitment until I got a meditation cushion for my apartment about five months ago. It’s dramatically changed my practice, which used to happen in my bed. (You can imagine how that went on the days I was tired.)
Even though I had heard positive things about mantra meditation—a practice where you silently repeat a mantra, which you either choose for yourself or is given to you during an initiation—I was pretty intimidated by it. However, when I spoke with Alan Finger, meditation teacher and author of Tantra of the Yoga Sutras: Essential Wisdom for Living with Awareness and Grace, he told me that mantra, just like asana or pranayama, is simply a tool used to alter the consciousness. “When practicing with a mantra, it’s important to say the mantra aloud first, so that you can feel the sound vibrations in the body,” he told me.
See also Tempted to Skip Savasana? 10 Top Yoga Teachers Explain Why It’s the Most Important Pose
As a somewhat experienced meditator, mantra meditation was still very new to me. I didn’t really have a plan to choose a mantra, but after practicing alongside Hilary Jackendoff in a guided meditation video, she helped me discover “So Hum,” which means “I am that.” Finger mentioned that different mantras can be used for different feelings, such as sleeplessness, anxiety, depression, and more, but this mantra felt pretty versatile, so I stuck with it.
Jackendoff taught us to meditate with the mantra, using the breath. On every inhalation, I would silently say the word “So.” On every exhalation, I would silently say the word “Hum.” I’m used to meditating with my breath, so this seemed doable.
Week 1: When Sh!t Hits the Fan, It’s Time to Sit
Disclaimer: I didn’t meditate at all the first two days of January. I also didn’t work out or eat healthy (some of the habits I stick with regularly). I was feeling really down on myself, because January is supposed to be a time to start new habits, eat clean, and get fit—and I felt like I blew it already. It sounds ridiculous, but that is my thought process sometimes. When my good habits don’t happen, I tend to beat myself up.
Then, as I was working at my laptop on the third day of January, I had a thought and told myself: You can sit here, work, and feel miserable—or you can take a 20-minute break, step away from your laptop, and meditate.
See also Get Your Sit Together: 7 Best Meditation Cushions to Support Your Practice
It took everything in me to walk upstairs and grab my cushion, but I was desperate to feel better, so that’s exactly what I did.
Week 2: When “I am that” becomes “I am love”
After my first week of mantra meditation, I felt like a weight had been lifted off of my shoulders. Suddenly, my goals for the new year weren’t tied to perfecting myself through diet and exercise, but instead, doing something every day that made me feel loved—and meditation became that thing. I switched my mantra. Instead of silently repeating So Hum, I started repeating “I am” on every inhalation and “love” on every exhalation. I found myself looking forward to making a cup of tea, plopping down on my cushion, and sitting for 20 to 30 minutes every day.
Having a week of solid practice under my belt really helped me for what was to come. Because my theme for 2019 is self-love, I became hyper aware of my relationships—with myself and with others. My boyfriend and I got into an argument in the beginning of the month and I wasn’t able to let it go. Every time we tried to talk about it, we couldn’t come to a fair conclusion.
See also 5 Poses to Help You Reconnect With Your Partner After a Miscommunication
During the second week of my meditation, the lingering argument kept coming up in my meditation. I would sit on the cushion, silently repeat my mantra, and cry. How could I practice “I am love” if I didn’t feel loved? How could I love him if I kept beating myself up?
So, what did I do? I continued to sit, to cry, and to come back to my breath. Giving myself that space during meditation allowed me to tap into what I was really feeling. It also gave me the space to go to my boyfriend later that week with a calm heart. Instead of arguing, we were able to have a productive conversation. I truly believe that if I didn’t give myself that space, we would still be arguing today about the same thing.
Weeks 3 and 4: Sitting with Sadness
For the past eight months, my beloved aunt had been living with metastatic breast cancer—the terminal kind. On January 21, she passed away.
A few days before her death, I my mom called me to let me know it was time to come home. I took a bus from New York City to Maryland on the morning of January 21 and repeated my mantra for about 25 minutes. An hour into my journey, my brother texted me to tell me that my aunt had passed away.
See also Spiritual Leader Ram Dass on Zen and the Art of Dying
In the days following my aunt’s death, I felt so much hurt I didn’t even realize was possible. Every time I came to my meditation cushion, I would cry, breathe, and simply sit in a feeling of numbness. The cushion gave me space—to feel sad, to mourn, to feel angry, and sometimes, to do nothing. Every time I came back to my mantra—“I am love”—I remembered that my aunt wouldn’t want me to live in grief and sadness. It was inevitable to feel these emotions, sure. But I realized the only way these feelings would pass is if I really felt them.
The difference I noticed thanks to my new mantra meditation practice happened when I wasn’t on my cushion. Every single day after my aunt passed, I would ask myself how I could bring a little more love into my day. Some days that meant resting and watching movies with my mom. Other days that meant working out, going for a long walk, or spending time with friends.
Moving Forward with Mantra
Now that it’s February, I still hold my mantra in my heart. I still ask myself every day, “How can you bring more love into your day?” or “What will make you feel more loved?” I think I will continue to keep my mantra in my practice until something else seems like a better fit. Just as Finger told me, there’s a mantra for everything—and I look forward to discovering more mantras as my life’s journey, and all its ups and downs, unfolds.
See also Why Does Meditation Make You Feel So Rested?
How a Daily Chakra Meditation Unlocked More Time and Space in My Life
One yogi never had enough hours in the day to tend to it all, much less herself. Here’s how this regular Tantric practice inspired a change.
As a yogi, I’ve grasped the concept of abundance—intellectually. But as someone easily whacked out of balance by overbearing personalities or overwhelming workloads, I’ve never been entirely convinced that the universe could accommodate both my needs and virtually anything else at hand. Things get crowded quickly. My chest tightens and hip flexors grip; I ditch plans to practice yoga, stop making nourishing meals, and skip dates to connect with dear friends—or, most importantly, myself.
It may all go back to growing up in a Greek household, which involved what I’ll generously call a spirited communication style. Somehow, stillness and peace were elusive in a two-story home with big bedrooms and a finished basement. And this perceived lack of space spilled into an underlying, unchecked zero-sum mentality that has shaped my perspective ever since.
In early college, roommates and I lamented the supposed dearth of eligible partners in the dating scene. When peers sustained relationships, I’d shake my head and say, “they’re stealing from the sex pot,” as though, like a soup special on a cold day, our campus could just run out of love.
Last year, a yoga teacher and I showed up for a filming project and both felt under the weather. By mid-afternoon, I’d recovered; “I used up all the good vibes when you needed it most!” I joked. She (kindly) reminded me that there is an infinite source of healing for all.
This isn’t exactly what I thought I’d confront as I embarked on YJ’s month-long challenge to practice a chakra meditation every day. Finding calm? Sure. Less stress? Looked forward to that. Spiritual ecstasy? If I’m lucky, great—but not a must. Instead, it was time to take a look at my internal space-time continuum.
See also YJ’s March Meditation Challenge Will Help You Stick to a Steady Practice
Balancing the Chakras
The 31-day challenge began without ceremony on New Year’s Day in Brussels, where my partner and I were visiting family. I sat in the unmade guest bed, welcomed a purring Chartreux voluntarily curled up in my lap, and fired up a 20-minute guided chakra meditation from legendary Tantra teacher Sally Kempton.
New to chakras? Here’s a quick primer: Chakras are whirling forces of subtle energy associated with different aspects of the physical, emotional, and spiritual bodies. There are 7 (of many more) chakras primarily taught in yoga, and this is what they stand for:
- Muladhara (Root): Earth, security, home, finances
- Svadhisthana (Sacral): Water, creativity, sexuality
- Manipura (Solar Plexus): Fire, sense of self
- Anahata (Heart): Air, love
- Visuddha (Throat): Space, communication from the heart’s truth
- Ajna (Third Eye): Light, intuition
- Sahasrara (Crown): Bliss, divine connection
(You can get sucked into learning more about the chakras here.)
They are strung along the sushumna nadi, a central channel of life force that runs from the base of the spine through the crown of the head. The idea is that balancing the chakras—by focusing breath, mantras (sounds), yantras (shapes), imagery, and colors in their respective locations along this totem—allows you to access this sacred streak of energy.
When I asked Sally about what happens when (and if) you open the central channel, she dangled a taste of nonduality. In Tantra, reality is a universe in which everyone is one with the divine. “You can become aware that your body is a formless, vast undulating center full of light and bliss,” she said. “It’s a fairly dramatic experience.”
It all sounds esoteric, so I wouldn’t expect everyone to embrace it. But I’d microdosed on chakra practices for over 15 years, so I was ready to dive in. When I was 20, I found a random chakra book in my East Village sublet and journaled a root chakra affirmation that resonated: “I am safe, I trust in the natural flow of life, I take my natural place in the world content in the knowledge that all I need will come to me in the right time and place.” Years later, within the context of a vigorous flow, Seane Corn presented the chakras as a psychological roadmap for growth.
Then I met Tantra and Kriya masters Alan and Sarah Finger, who truly brought the chakras to light and offered concrete techniques to harmonize them. They also answered a good question: How do you actually locate a chakra? For me, bija (seed) mantras were the entry point; if I focused enough, repeating the staccato sounds (such as lam for the root chakra) help me trace a pulse in a specific location (pelvic floor).
Even so, beaming awareness and imagery to ambiguous areas in my body required concentration and good faith. As a result, the neurotic part of my brain didn’t focus on the usual storylines: deadlines, challenges, or omg how much time is left in this meditation?! I was lulled by the mantras’ vibrations, and all the visualizations inspired my imagination—a boon for anyone who spends too much time in Type-A territory.
There was a misstep when I first imagined elements—earth, water, fire, space, light, bliss—associated with each chakra. Before Brussels, I’d traveled to Rome, so my mind conjured scenes from the Colosseum: snarled roots in its underbelly; water rising in the amphitheater… I quickly decided not to instill scenes from such an infamous space.
Instead I coaxed meaningful imagery: Strong roots holding up the mermaid-like mahogany trees I’d seen on Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula; emerald lakes tucked into rarely trekked valleys of the Sierra Nevada that I’d swam in; the pulse of my apartment stove’s burner enacting a flame in my belly; a tiny flame on a stick of palo santo in my heart center. A Magritte sky in my throat, leading to a golden hour light spilling in from my third eye and crown.
Watch also: What, Exactly, Are the Chakras? Alan Finger Explains
How the Chakras Created Space in My Body, Mind… and Life
Right away things shifted. I was still on holiday when my coworkers began trickling back into the office. Although I still checked my email—it may take a year of meditation to bust that habit—I didn’t feel my heart pound as they came in. I felt freedom as I visited museums, enjoyed the art nouveau architecture, and connected with family.
Instead of seeking the usual alone time when I returned to New York, I invited good friends over for dinner and king cake. Once I resumed the grind, that vacation halo lasted longer than usual. Each meditation felt like it was literally emptying me of clutter and fog, leaving me with clarity.
The real test came later in the month, when my schedule packed up. I prepared for an upcoming filming in another state. I assisted a week-long yoga training that lasted from early morning until evening, and then came home to complete the day’s work. Oh, and a friend from California came to stay with me.
Even for someone who doesn’t easily get overwhelmed, a lot was going on. And it would have been my default to shut out my friend, worry my way through the training, or just operate from the adrenaline.
There’s a pop culture adage that we all have the same amount of time in a day as Beyoncé. Maybe her secret is chakra meditations, because as I found space in my practice, my life opened up. I didn’t have to turn anything down, yet I didn’t feel resentful saying yes. All that inward focus cultivated a strong sense of embodiment. I could be present without losing my wits (or myself) in the process.
When the subway literally broke one morning before training, I didn’t agonize that I’d be late. I calmly walked 20 minutes to the nearest bus route, emailed my teacher, and meditated. (I showed up on time anyway.)
See also This is the Reason I Take the Subway 45 Minutes Uptown to Work Out – Even Though There’s a Gym On My Block
During the training, I knocked over a tripod and it came crashing down during a calming restorative practice. I froze with horror; attempting to melt into my mat was futile. Shit happens, and I was grateful for a makeshift chakra meditation in that moment to move past embarrassment.
I felt peace in this chaotic schedule and could summon an abundance of presence, making deep connections with students at the training, laughing with my good friend at midnight, being kinder to my partner, and, most importantly, tending to myself.
It may sound odd that I “allowed” myself these basic needs and simple pleasures, but it’s true: In the past, the weight of a to-do list or a lot of social obligations meant I didn’t have room for myself. I may not have experienced the splendor of the infinite universe (yet!), but this meditation expanded time and space so I could register the divine moments every day.
I started my days with a cup of coffee on the sofa and read instead of clacking away at emails. I prepared an egg and avocado breakfast. I stole moments to enjoy the way the low winter sun lit the pastel buildings in Soho.
See also This is Your Brain on Meditation
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