This is a fairly regular occurrence for me: It’s 4am and I’m woken up by something. Maybe it’s a weird dream, maybe I need a glass of water, or I have to pee. And then I’m toast. No matter what I try, I just can’t fall back asleep for about two hours, until I hear the birds chirping and see the early light. Does that ever happen to you?
In Ayurveda, waking up at this time would quickly be diagnosed as a Vata imbalance—because Vata rules that time slot between 2am-6am. And even if your dominant dosha is not Vata, you could be suffering from one too. For a dosha refresher, go here.
A quick recap on the Vata thing: All doshas represent elements, and Vata is air. It’s quick moving and it’s easily aggravated by just about anything: season change, travel, too much wine at dinner, stress, and most other things that are part of modern life. This is why it’s so common that we experience its negative effects. Other telltale signs: Dry skin, anxiety, indigestion, and a sensitivity to cold.
Luckily, for those of us who are frequent Vata sufferers, the onset of warmer weather usually helps balance this out. Of course, for you Pittas out there, that can bring on a whole different kind of imbalance: excess heat in the body, a hard time falling asleep, impatience and irritability.
Anyways, back to the sleep thing. When it happens now, I don’t try to fight it. I know like clockwork that around 6am, suddenly the warm veil of sleep will come back over me. Until then I’ll do everything: meditate, read, come up with ideas for blog posts. I’ve been particularly susceptible lately, because I’ve been both traveling a lot and socializing a lot. Booze and travel will get me every time.
What do you do when you wake up like this in the night? And of course, if you know your dosha… Let’s hear it. I’m a Vata-Kapha, whereas Siobhan is a Pitta-Vata (but with a very strong Vata). So you can imagine this wake-up thing’s a problem for us!
If this isn’t a problem for you, by golly, tell us your tricks for staying balanced.
This past Saturday I was reminded once more why I believe that an energetic reality that we can’t touch or see does in fact exist. Now I know some of you are rolling your eyes like: “Duh, Alexandra, tell me something I don’t know.” While others are one click away from a less flaky site, thinking: “Are you flipping kidding me right now? I read this blog for beauty advice, not some The-Secret-style shi*%#.”
I know. But for some reason, this site has become a place where we share all kinds of weird stuff about ourselves, and for me (OK, and maybe her, too), this kind of alternative healing work has become an important part of managing our sometimes stressful lives, and also checking in with our higher selves.
What is energy work? So hard to say, really. I’ve seen and felt it during reiki—anyone tried reiki?—but also during regular old massages, with acupuncture needles, and through no touch at all.
I’ve felt it more times than I can remember, and it has provided me with great relief at times—a kind of high feeling of lightness—while at others plunging me into a deep grief I didn’t even know was there.
But back to this weekend. I was having a party for the multiple people I know born in March, including yours truly. There was loud music and a solid amount of debauchery underway when my friend Mini grabbed me by the arm and said: “My friend Siobhan”—no joke, and I’ve never met another until Saturday—”wants to sage you.” That means she wants to use the smoke from sage to clear my energy. Me—happy, a little drunk, and always up for some unpredictable semi-spiritual encounter—lept into the living room for my birthday cleansing.
I sat down with a woman who looked like a supermodel and had a beautiful energy to match. Wordlessly she began puff-puffing the sage smoke around my body with graceful and adept hand motions. “Your elbows are really happy,” she said finally, and then moving down she kind of paused uncomfortably, “but your hips…” She trailed off. Not so much. “Yeah,” I said. “I know.”
So here’s the thing: Before I lose you entirely, nearly every energy worker slash healer slash whatever you call these people who are more attuned to such things, has told me this. My hips, it seems, hold some kind of blocked energy. In the earlier part of my yoga practice, and before I had any kind of awareness of my body, pigeon pose (a pose so many seem to find totally relaxing) could instantly send me into tears. Even as a kid, as my sister would throw herself into the splits, my hips were locked. They’ve gotten a whole lot better—at least in terms of flexibility—but not enough to stop evoking this reaction.
Now, it’s not like this was the craziest energy experience I’ve had, it’s just on my brain. Recently, on vacation, I also got a massage and the second the woman touched me an intense burst of energy rushed through my body. Oh my, I thought, major energy worker in the house. When she turned me over, I asked her: “You do energy work right?” It was really funny, her eyes bulged and she looked at me like she’d been caught with her hand in the cookie jar. In broken English-Spanish, she replied almost in her defense: “Un poquito, solemente, un poquito! I just start.”
Why are we talking about energy work? Because stress and health (and beauty, of course) are all deeply intertwined. Whether you believe that we hold tension in the body—is that even up for debate?—or in things far more out there, like trauma from birth or past lives, energy work may be something worth exploring.
Have you ever tried it? Felt it? Had an interesting energetic experience? Would you?
Forgive me if I’m veering slightly into self-help territory. It’s not what I’m going for, but I wanted to share a mini-epiphany I had in the hopes of perhaps holding onto it. (Aren’t epiphanies such slippery little suckers? The second you touch them is as quick as they get away!)
It was around day three of my vacation, and all was well. Better than well, actually: Sunny and 89 degrees, with daily yoga, beautiful organic food, cocktails, sunsets, and jokes and love with my husband. Really, exactly what you want a vacation to feel like. And yet. Below the surface that little anxious voice was still rearing her ugly head here and there, trying to sabotage my chill.
What the hell could I be anxious about, I wondered, as I did another chaturanga. So I’d run down the list. My work was done. Everyone knew I was gone. There were automatic messages set on all my email accounts. But I still caught myself drifting into nervous fantasies about who I was dissapointing, who was waiting on me, some expectation I had not fulfilled.
I doubt I’m unique here, but a lot of my discomfort as a human being stems from this kind of stuff. Call me a Pisces, or call me a woman, but I have spent the better part of my life fretting over how other people may or may not be feeling about something that I may or may not have done. As I’ve grown up I’ve come to realize that most of these worries aren’t really that helpful to the people I’m worried about, and any time we overestimate the role we’re playing in other people’s lives, we are living a bit of a (self-involved) delusion. Which takes me to the petit epiphany.
Lying on the mat one day, I had a thought that went something like this: “Damnit, Self, everyone wants you to be happy right now, so just relax already.” I’m not saying that folks don’t ever have bad intentions, or that I don’t make anyone mad (I do), but in that moment I knew with certainty that the people in my life—if they were thinking of me at all—were most likely happy for me!
I think in general we probably underestimate how often this is true. Sure, friends, family, coworkers, can drive us up a wall. But I’d wager that most times out of 10, the things that piss us off the most about those we love comes from a place of just wanting them to be happy. Am I right? From our besties to our parents, we hate seeing people in any patterns that cause them suffering, and we hate to see people suffer at all.
Anyways, this thought gave me tremendous comfort on my trip. Any time I caught myself falling prey to anxious thoughts, I’d repeat it in a whisper: everyonewantsyoutobehappy, everyonewantsyoutobehappy, everyonewantsyoutobehappy. And doggonnit, it worked.
Do you have any mantras that you go back to that help you relax? Do share!
[Ed's Note Don't worry, friends! Alexandra wrote this before she left. She is not blogging while honeymooning! Psssssh.]
As you read this post, I am hundreds of miles from home, sitting on a beach, doing a downward dog, or enjoying a fruity cocktail. In other words, I’m on vacation. Actually, I’m technically on my honeymoon; it just took us over a year to feel like we could leave. Which got me thinking…
I can’t remember the last time I took a real vacation. Not to visit my parents or go see friends for a weekend, but a proper checkout from the world. When I was little, it seems like folks took these trips all the time. But these days? Not so much.
Of course, like many people, one reason I’m not always flying the coop to some faraway islands is finances. Money’s been tight these past few years (I know I’m not alone there), and until recently I didn’t have the security of a steady income. And yet, still. I could have gone camping just up the coast, or found a cute little bed and breakfast for a long weekend and turned my phone off. In fact, my husband and I had a honeymoon fund instead of gifts, so the money for this trip has been there.
I think the real truth is, I always felt too guilty to take vacations. Either I didn’t have full time work and felt like I didn’t “deserve” one, or I worked around the clock and lived in fear of angry bosses. Anyone else feel like this?
We talk about stress a lot, but this is a bit of a weak spot for both of us. Siobhan even made “taking a real vacation” one of her New Year’s resolutions. (And I plan to hold her to it.) So what about you? When’s the last time you threw a bikini in a bag, took a road trip, or camped out somewhere with no cell reception? I’ll let you know if it’s as good as I remember.
Oh, and here are some handy natural-breauty tricks to take with you when you go.
When my insomnia hit the other night, I did everything wrong.
I’d managed to work myself up about something before bed, but because I have the stamina of a toddler when I’m upset, I tired myself out quickly and crashed hard around 11:30pm. Then, at 4:30am, my brain went on like a light. There I was, in that strange time when “tonight” becomes “tomorrow” and the last thing in the world you should be doing is witnessing it. (Unless of course you’re doing something really fun—which I wasn’t. I was lying there with looping thoughts, the lights on, a search window open on my laptop, and Twitter fired up on my phone…)
We have written plenty about sleep hygiene here. We polled you once to find out how much you sleep (a lot!); we asked you guys to share your bedtime rituals with us (they were great!); we’ve explored how sleep can help your looks (duh); and we’ve covered ayurvedic principles about sleep before, as well.
But isn’t it funny (dumb) that no matter how much you know about the Right Thing To Do for your wellbeing, it’s often exactly when you need that advice the most that it escapes you?
With that in mind, here’s a primer, filled with things you already know, on the best and worst things to do when you can’t sleep. Obviously this advice is highly subjective. Where appropriate, we’ve mentioned some actual science to back us up. And, as always, we want your tips in the comments.
1. Tweeting, emailing, checking your stocks, approving comments on your blog etc. Research shows that light-emitting devices can suppress the production of the sleep-promoting hormone melatonin—which means when you wake up to check your cell, or simply have it on blinking at you from the bedside table, you’re sending signals to your brain that it isn’t time to chill out. Turn them off, use airplane mode, or put them on the other side of the room. When you wake up, try your best not to check them.
2. Watching scary TV shows. I can’t watch scary things at night anymore without getting nightmares and waking up a lot. Granted I’m on the sensitive side (cough), but there is good research that shows how disruptive this can be. It can spike stress hormones in the body and put you in an excited state (not the good kind) that doesn’t bode well for rest. Some people can watch anything before bed and fall asleep, but if you wake up in the middle of the night and decide to flip on the tube, maybe don’t try to catch up on a season’s worth of Boardwalk Empire?
3. Turning on the light. This actually can be a good thing (see below), but in general, if you wake up and have to pee or you stand a chance of falling back asleep fairly quickly, don’t turn on the lights or lift up your black-out blinds. (You all have black-out blinds, right? If not, you should! They’re super cheap at Ikea and make a world of difference.) For the same reasons you want to avoid electronics, you also want to avoid turning on the lights: It tells your brain that it’s time to be awake by suppressing sleep hormones. Pas bon.
4. Drinking booze. We’ve all seen the research about nightcaps actually disrupting sleep, and here’s why: It robs you of REM and the other, deeper stages of sleep—which are the ones that make you feel most rested. A glass or two of wine can make you feel nice and relaxed, and that can be sleep-promoting, but drinking too close to bedtime (not to mention in the middle of the night) should probably be avoided.
5. Just lying there freaking out. If you’re past the point of no return—meaning you can just tell you won’t be falling back asleep any time soon—do something else. You can go ahead and break rule number 3 here. Get up and do something, anything, until you feel sleepy again.
1. A cup of herbal tea or some aromatherapy. Many herbs—chamomile, lavender, valerian root—have been shown in research (and by wise grandmothers) to make you sleepy. Similarly, jasmine has a sedative effect when inhaled, as do Hope Gillerman’s Sleep Remedy and Essence of Vali’s. Just be sure to do your research and/or check with your doctor before you start dosing yourself. Nature makes some very powerful plants
2. Reading something you’ve read before. This works wonders for me. A yogi and a nerdy scholar at heart, I have been rereading The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali for years now. Here’s why it works: When you read things you are already familiar with, it doesn’t stimulate your mind with new information the way an exciting novel or a piece of nonfiction would. In fact, it has the opposite effect of comforting you with information you already possess, and, well, kind of boring you.
3. Meditate. A tough sell at 4am, I know, but it helps quiet the mind and ready you for more sleep. Our tips are here—and the compassion meditation is an especially nice one to do because it puts your focus on people you love. You could also try listening to recordings of meditations by Pema Chodron (or someone else, but man is she good). You can break rule number 1, above, for this one, obviously.
4. Do some yoga. Nothing too vigorous, but some poses have been shown to promote sleepiness. There’s a nice list over here.
5. Wake up your buddy and chat and/or have sex. This requires a forgiving and generous significant other, but if you have one, and you know they won’t mind hearing what’s on your mind and helping you simmer down, this can be very helpful. As for sex, just bear in mind that for some people, sex is sleep inducing (for example, every single man who ever walked the earth*) and for others it’s sleep inhibiting.
6. Pretend it’s already tomorrow. If you’re really stuck, try pretending it’s not 4am but 8am and it’s time to get ready for work or school. Take a shower, brush your teeth, drink some water—but be sure to skip the coffee. It sounds nuts but this has worked for me! At some point, when you’re going through the motions, something in your mind will click and you’ll think: “This is totally insane. I should be asleep right now.” And then maybe, just maybe, you will be.
Your turn! What are your tips: What’s the best—and worst—things one can do when one can’t sleep?
* I kid! Sort of.