As the new year begins, perhaps developing a regular meditation practice is part of your new year’s ‘resolutions’. Why not – meditation is sold as a life-transforming practice; and it is. Perhaps you have heard that meditation and sleep go well together?
For me, I love meditation. It’s that special time when you can just ‘drop in’ to the zone and experience true bliss and how things really are. I love the practice for changing my life, for giving me that special time during the day when I can connect to the timeless present and for making me a healthier, stronger person. Now, I’m fortunate to be able to share that with my colleagues, holding regular sessions at work called ‘Mindfulness Mondays’. But there’s one thing that I don’t do – I don’t meditate immediately before bed.
Does meditation help sleep?
There’s a common perception about meditation that you can do it wherever and whenever you like. The ‘wherever’ part generally holds true, although it does have its practical challenges. However, when it comes to the ‘whenever’ part, I’ve realised this does not always hold true. For me, when it comes to meditating, it’s not ‘sleep’ that I’m looking for.
To this extent, whenever I practice meditation right before bed, I do not generally experience deep sleep. In fact, I have experienced disturbed sleep on a regular basis. On most occasions, I would not wake up feeling refreshed. In fact, I would wake up tired and irritable. I was even experiencing nightmares, night terrors, even sleep-walking when practising mindfulness meditation right before bed. I wondered why this could be the case, if meditation was meant to be so good for sleep. So I stopped meditating right before bed, and the “symptoms” ceased.
To understand why this could be the case, let’s look at the nature of meditation. At its heart lies concentration. That could be an object of attention, for example the breath, it could be a guided meditation or it could be based on a mantra. Whatever way, the mind needs to settle on some point initially. Once the mind is settled, then the realisations of meditation can begin. To this extent, at the heart of meditation is mindfulness.
When practising meditation, the aim is to stay alert and focused. The posture should support this by sitting in an upright position, with a neutral spine. At the same time, the shoulders, the jaw and the eyes should feel relaxed.
Meditation as ‘Wakefulness’
By remaining calm and alert, we are actually entering a state of wakefulness, as Jon-Kabat Zinn described it. That’s right – the goal is to remain ‘awake’. That is why, when I teach mindfulness meditation, I suggest to students, if it feels comfortable, to keep their eyes open whilst meditating. By doing so, we avoid the tendency to drift off to a dream-like or sleepy state. It’s different to the method of most meditation practices, but it is highly effective, once you get the hang of it.
Whilst the mind may wander during meditation (which is what the mind does), by concentrating, you are actually engaging with the frontal lobes part of the brain. This part of the brain is responsible for cognition, language, and spatial awareness. It’s the part of the brain that we use to make decisions. In other words, thinking.
So, if the aim of meditation is to remain alert and awake, is it really a suitable practice before bed time, when we are naturally winding down for the evening? For me, it’s not. When I look at the various stages of the sleep cycle, I can explain why.
Stage 1 of Sleep (NREM):
In stage 1 of Non-Rapid Eye Movement (NREM) sleep, eye movements become slower, muscle tone relaxes and the brain wave activity slows down. Overall, the body begins to become drowsy. Stage 1 is important, as it allows people to enter into Stage 2.
Stage 2 of Sleep (NREM):
In Stage 2, 40-60% of total sleep time takes place. The body continues to relax and becomes more and more drowsy. Brain wave activity continues to fall and eye movements cease. The heart rate slows down and the body temperature decreases. It is here that memory consolidation and ‘synaptic pruning‘ occurs. At this point, the body is getting ready for deep sleep.
Stage 3 of Sleep (NREM):
In Stage 3, known as deep NREM sleep, delta waves within the brain occur, which are considered to be ‘slow waves’. It is here the most restorative and refreshing stages of sleep occur. It is also a time of accelerated muscle repair. Human growth hormone is released and is generally rejuvenating. This lasts about 10-15% of sleep time.
Rapid Eye Movement (REM):
Most commonly known as the ‘dreaming state’, this is where eye movements are rapid and brain waves are more active than in Stages’ 2 and 3. It can begin during any stage of the sleep cycle, but typically 90 minutes following sleep onset. Following REM, the process begins afresh with Stage 1, 2 and intermixed, before returning to REM again.
On average, the first sleep cycle takes about 90 minutes, followed by average cycles of 100 to 120 minutes. Typically, a person will go through 4 to 5 cycles a night.
Does meditation help sleep?
So, where does this leave meditation and sleep? If the act of meditation is to create a wakeful state – where the mind, aided by a strong and upright posture, is awake and alert, then I ask: is this the optimal position for beginning Stage 1 of the sleep cycle? If Stage 1 is important in order for the body to enter the deeper stages of sleep in Stages’ 2 and 3, then an act that makes you less drowsy right before bed is in my opinion, not the most appropriate time to be practising meditation. We want to be preparing the mind for sleep, not awaken it. What this could mean is that you experience less sleep cycles and therefore less quality of sleep.
Meditation and Sleep – Studies
That’s not to say that meditation cannot improve your sleep. In fact, recent studies have shown this to be the case. The very act of meditation can induce a relaxation response in the body. Indeed, in mindfulness meditation, the core part is developing concentration through ‘samatha‘, meaning ‘calm abiding’. Similar studies have been shown with transcendental meditation too. Therefore, developing a meditation practice may help with improving sleep and preparing the body to be more relaxed, but the timing of when you practice could be important for the quality of your actual sleep as well.
Meditation and Sleep – My Own Experience
I must say that my experiences with meditation and sleep are unique and may differ from that of other readers. What I have tried to do is hypothesise why I wasn’t sleeping well after meditation, looking at the science of sleep and the act of meditation. When I look at it this way, it makes perfect sense why my sleep was being affected after meditating.
To this extent, my meditation practice now generally consists of two blocks, 1st thing in the morning and again late afternoon. For some, perhaps meditation before bed works. I obviously don’t know what type of meditation you are practising (there are many), and if it works for you, that’s great. Experiment until you find the sweet spot. Just like with everything in the world of wellness, don’t get caught up in the mantra that you must meditate before sleep, just because some ‘wellness guru‘ told you so. Everyone is different.
What’s your experience of meditation and sleep?