What Millennial Vocab and Ritual Helped Me Realize: or, Go the F*ck to Sleep


When I was younger, I hated going to bed early. Staying up late was what all the grown-ups did. Watching Letterman or obscure Brit-coms on PBS, frolicking on the furniture while buttery popcorn falls from the sky, having swanky cocktails and "adult conversations": I wanted it all. In college and in my 20s, it wasn't so hard to do, staying up late. I wasn't a total night owl, compared to lots of friends and loved ones, but I could stay up late and kick it. I liked watching the hours get bigger and then smaller and feeling like I was into something.

When my yoga practice really settled in and took a hold of my life, though, staying up late became harder to do. As the physical practice of yoga became a larger part of the rhythm of my days, certain things felt less interesting, less useful, and there were other things I wanted to cultivate. Animal protein made me feel sluggish, heavy, and slow; caffeine made me jittery and spacey, and then sleepy and irritable; and staying up late meant sleeping in, which ate up half my day and made it really hard for me to wake up early enough to squeeze in even a little practice. On the other hand, when I made the time to breathe deeply, I felt full of energy, spacious and capable; when I moved my body every day, climbing stairs and hauling groceries was easier to do. All of these observations--coupled with Ayurveda texts and teachings I experienced that offered 10 pm as the optimum bedtime for someone like me--helped inspire me to pass on late night drinks and conversations about writing, relationships or the questions of life, and plan on turning in.

But damn if it isn't hard to do. Even now, coming up fast on middle age, I want to stay up late. I want to watch whatever compelling storytelling has people talking. I want to stay out with my friends and share stories of growth and discovery. I want to go dancing. I want to walk city streets hand-in-hand and look at the gritty urban landscape that is my home. I want to make late-nite memories.

This desire is squarely at odds with my desires to feel healthier, be more productive, to show up more fully and effectively in my life as a health worker, a yoga teacher, a writer and storyteller, a partner and wife, a friend, a family member. They just don't go together. I stay up late to kick it with loved ones, or, what is more likely and certainly more frequent, to watch mediocre TV under the guise of "winding down" after having worked a night shift/class, and the next day I struggle to wake up early enough for my morning practice. If I do wake up early enough, it's because I forced myself to do so, and I spend the rest of the day feeling groggy and wasted, and upset about it. 

All actions are performed by the gunas of prakriti [qualities of matter or manifestation]. Deluded by identification with the ego, a person thinks, “I am the doer.” But the illumined person understands the domain of the gunas and is not attached... Those who are deluded by the operation of the gunas become attached to the results of their action. Those who understand these truths should not unsettle the ignorant. Performing all actions for my sake, completely absorbed in the Self, and without expectations, fight!—but stay free from the fever of the ego.
— Bhagavad Gita, 3:27-30

I've been really trying to get to the bottom of why I keep acting the opposite of how I want to, why, as the apostle Paul said in his letter to the Roman Christians, "what I want to do I do not do, [and] what I hate, I do." I think it comes down to two reason: first is this idea of samskara. This isn't new, right? There's a ditch wide and deep inside me that believes that collapsing on the couch with a lousy and unnecessary snack is what rest means: some part of me has agreed that behavior that I know to be damaging and counter-intuitive is actually rejuvenating. It was created years ago, and I've spend significant more energy investing in it since then. Some part of me is still giving it my truth, and even though I'm able to see that this pattern doesn't serve me, some part of me still believes it to be true, to be useful, or at the very least, easier than changing. 

The other reason I won't go to sleep when I know I should is, ugh, I hate to say it: FOMO. I know I'm not a millennial, and still I'm gonna use that word, without any selfie or Millennial Pink or hack or anything else. I'm still stuck in the 10-year-old mindset who doesn't want to miss whatever's coming next as soon as I tuck into bed and close the door.

I'm holding on too hard. And so lifts up the word aparigraha, one of the yamas from the yoga sutras. I'm trying too hard to hold on to what is not mine, or perhaps rather, I seek to let go of what I no longer want to claim as mine. Whatever the world does after ten pm, that's their business, or your business. My business is resting my body, practicing gratitude for what I've experienced today, and preparing myself to be the best I can tomorrow. It was a little revolutionary to discover that I'm grasping too hard, and that's why I can't release this behavior that produces such negative results in me. But the more I consider it, the more it makes sense: there is no room for me to cultivate rest and expansion and space, if I am not first willing to open my tight, well-intentioned little fist and release contraction and collapse. 

So now that the why is a little clearer, onto the how. Cultivating new habits is not easy for anyone, and using the discipline and effort it takes is a tapas-producing practice. But I'm trying to engineer myself for success. As is my way, I'm reading the articles and the things, and Googling phrases like "sleep hygiene" and "bedtime ritual" and trying to ignore that a fair amount of the results are geared for six year olds. I'm enlisting the help of an accountability buddy (thanks, buddy!). I'm doing a lot of yoga nidra. And I'm practicing compassion. We'll see what happens.

If you're interested, below you'll find a kind of snapshot of my bedtime ritual. I try to give myself an hour for this: right now that's as much as I can spare without feeling like I'm cheating myself out of an evening. Heavily influenced by yoga and ayurveda, this is what I use to try and prepare myself for rest. Steal what you will, I make claim to own or have created any of it. It's just what I'm trying to make work for me. I've written about this elsewhere, and as soon as it's live, I'll share it here.

Jess's Bedtime Ritual

  • screens off at 9 pm (oh! how I wish! But sometimes this happens)
  • a cup of something warm to drink, usually nut milk with a sprinkle of cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg, turmeric, and a splash of maple syrup and vanilla extract (if this is too much or I'm shorter on time, an herbal tea)
  • lavender oil (somewhere, anywhere: pulse points, diffuser, some place where I can smell it in bed)
  • a cool bedroom (I turn the thermostat down to 69, much to the chagrin of my Mister, but I get so hot at night that anything higher means I'm tossing and turning all night)
  • clean face, mouth, hands
  • a little reading (lately this this or this)
  • a moment of gratitude

And if there's enough time...

  • a foot and/or scalp rub with brahmi oil
  • a few gentle asana (child's pose, supta baddha konasana, reclined twist, all supported with lots of pillows. I do it in bed, it's awesome)
  • Bhramari