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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.