Meditation is nonnegotiable when it comes to my everyday routine. Most of the time, it means dragging my meditation cushion out from under my living room couch and onto the tiny bit of floor space I have in my New York City apartment. From there, I pull out my smartphone, launch the Calm app, and listen to the Daily Calm—a 10-minute guided meditation that changes every day.
I’ve been using this app for more than a year and have found that holding myself accountable for meditating 10 minutes a day is what’s realistic, and it has had a noticeable impact on my life. I can always count on learning something new and finding my center in 10 minutes flat. I feel more grounded, and I’m less likely to react to annoyances such as a pushy New Yorker or a late subway train.
See also A Beginner's Guide to Meditation
My energy level was a different story. I don’t often struggle to fall asleep, but even after a restful seven to eight hours of shuteye, fatigue would creep up on me throughout the day. I’d find myself fighting the urge to curl up for a 20-minute nap. Sometimes I’d go 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 teaching an evening yoga class. I started to wonder: Was my quality of slumber lacking? And could guided sleep meditation help?
Generally speaking, this type of meditation means listening to an audio recording before bed that’s intended to help you notice the sensations of your body so you can relax and release worrying thoughts. By learning to shift your focus before bed, you reduce the impact of nagging thoughts and tension and improve your ability to fall—and stay—asleep.
I started my month-long sleep meditation adventure with my trusty Calm app. Its “Sleep Stories” library is filled with actual bedtime tales for grownups, narrated by soothing voices (think Matthew McConaughey, for real), designed to help you drift off.
Am I doing this right?
I wake up at 5 a.m. on the regular, teach yoga, work out, plow through a full workday, and often teach yoga again at night. When I began this challenge, I decided to make a conscious effort not only to try to go to bed earlier 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 frustrating. Maybe it was because I’m impatient and didn’t notice a difference right away. Or maybe it was because this 30-day challenge felt like just another task on my long to-do list. I would fall asleep within the first five minutes of each 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. In hindsight, Calm’s Sleep Stories mimic the kinds of bedtime stories we experience as kids, which means the point was to lull me into a deep, restful sleep—not keep me awake on the edge of my seat.
Building Intention and Awareness
After the first week, incorporating sleep meditation into my nightly routine became second nature. I’d climb into bed, silence electronic notifications, and turn on my Sleep Story. From the moment each story began, my mind started to move with it. But my skepticism persisted. Was this new practice really improving my quality of sleep—or would I have passed out just as easily without it?
It wasn’t until I went a day without the sleep meditation that I realized how much it was actually affecting me. On night 12, I skipped my Sleep Story—and I woke up every hour, on the hour. Whether it was the simple act of setting an intention to sleep soundly, or something about the meditations that was seriously improving my sleep, I realized that if I wanted to rest deeply, I would have to make an effort to do so—instead of just letting my head hit the pillow.
See also Daily Meditation Made Easy
On night 16, my respect for sleep meditation hit an all-time high. A few minutes into my Sleep Story, I noticed my attention effortlessly shifted from ruminating thoughts to the narrative. It was almost as if the Sleep Story gave me the permission I needed to let go of the day and get to sleep. At this point I started looking forward to my sleep meditations—which any seasoned meditator will tell you is a good indication that your new habit will likely stick.
Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder
The final week of my challenge was punctuated by travel, holiday crazies, and pretty much zero normalcy when it came to my sleep habits. Admission: I went a few nights without my Sleep Stories this week.
The result? After a typical seven hours of snoozing, I woke up feeling tired and sluggish again—not well rested like I had been feeling the weeks prior. 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 affected by what happens right before I go to bed. So for those nights when I do need a little help meditating and winding down, I know Matthew McConaughey is just a click away.
These tricks help lull listeners to sweet slumber.
1. Finding an Anchor
Christian Slomka, Calm's community manager and a yoga and meditation instructor, says sleep meditations help listeners focus their attention on an anchor—usually the breath—to quiet the mind and help lingering thoughts dissolve. As the characters in the Sleep Stories travel along on their journeys, fully immersed in the present moment, the idea is that the listener will be, too.
2. Body Awareness
When a story opens, the narrator walks the practitioner through a brief body-scan exercise to help quiet the mind and relax the body. Throughout the story, the character scans through her sensations so the listener can do the same.
3. Minding the Senses
Mindfulness involves perceiving ordinary moments with curiosity and a sense of wonder, Slomka says. One way to experience this is by paying attention to exquisite details: the color of a flower, the flutter of a bird’s wings, the gurgle of a brook, the smell of fresh-cut grass. These details in the story make the meditation more vivid for the listener.