Sleep: Jennifer Piercy of Insight Timer On Why You Should Make Getting A Good Night’s Sleep A Major Priority In Your Life, And How You Can Make That Happen
Stop seeing sleep as an acquisition, one more ‘to do’ to beat yourself up about, or something to only extract benefits from, and try to honor it like you would a meaningful best friend, or even a lover whom you are in life long intimacy with: the more you nourish that intimacy, the less you will feel at the mercy of generalizations about that relationship.
Getting a good night’s sleep has so many physical, emotional, and mental benefits. Yet with all of the distractions that demand our attention, going to sleep on time and getting enough rest has become extremely elusive to many of us. Why is sleep so important and how can we make it a priority?
In this interview series called “Sleep: Why You Should Make Getting A Good Night’s Sleep A Major Priority In Your Life, And How You Can Make That Happen” we are talking to medical and wellness professionals, sleep specialists, and business leaders who sell sleep accessories to share insights from their knowledge and experience about how to make getting a good night’s sleep a priority in your life.
As part of this interview series, we had the pleasure to interview Jennifer Piercy.
Jennifer Piercy is an integrative sleep and dream educator, yoga nidra guide, writer, recording artist, mentor and intuitive. She has been re-enchanting the multi-dimensional powers of repose for over 15 years, inviting magic from ‘down’ states and different flavors of tired, helping folks widen their rest and sleep horizons, restoring their place in natural rhythms, and honoring exhaustion as a sacred doorway into wisdom and love.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to ‘get to know you’. Can you tell us a bit about your background and your backstory?
My background is in yoga and meditation education, as well as counseling psychology. I grew up feeling a lot of alienation from my body, never feeling like it was ‘good enough’. When I discovered yoga practice in my early 20’s, I was amazed by how it allowed me to feel centered, calm and strong in a way I had never experienced before. It was also so striking how it gifted me with a fresh sense of being deeply grounded in my body — which I desperately needed — yet also very attuned to the truth of myself ‘beyond’ my body — something no other practice, (other than perhaps sleep and dreams) had been able to offer.
Of course, Yoga is far more than just a physical practice. At the time I was also recovering from a very challenging experience of non-ordinary states of consciousness after experimenting with psychedelics. It was very difficult to function in the world of consensus reality and secular materialism while being overwhelmed by psychic visions and what felt like constant spiritual messengers! It left me feeling much anxiety, exhaustion, insomnia, and eventually, sleeping pill addiction, because I just wanted to knock myself out.
Without having knowledge or feeling much connection to my own ancestral cultural spiritual wisdom, yoga philosophy books were the only places that seemed to have words and ideas that addressed that experience in a helpful and integrative way for me.
It became very clear to me that yoga was an incredibly potent holistic practice that held space for all dimensions of my being, and I often experienced energetic and emotional releases while practicing.
As I matured and gradually began guiding others, I became increasingly interested in developing my counseling skills to better serve the folks who would approach me after class, wanting to talk about what was coming up for them mentally and emotionally during their process. So, I began to undergo training in Counseling Psychology.
Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this particular career path?
As I mention above, part of why I offer this work comes from my own experience with exhaustion, burnout, insomnia and sleeping pill addiction in my early 20’s, all of which I was able to heal from.
During this time, it was striking to me that all of the well-meaning mental health and medical professionals I saw were more interested in giving me drugs and labels than simply suggesting “Maybe take a nap!”
Like many people may be able relate to, I did not grow up in a family, school or working culture that had anything useful, interesting or beautiful to say about rest, other than it was ‘lazy’ or something reserved only for times of illness, weekends or vacation. My father was a doctor and my mother a nurse, and I saw first hand the brutal hours and constant work demands required for medical professionals, somewhat ironically devoted to ‘health and wellness’.
It was obvious to me, in leading Yoga classes week after week, how so many folks were exhausted and needed dedicated permission, encouragement, and space to rest. So, when I found myself in the role of guiding Restorative Yoga (which involves long held supported yoga poses where you rest for many minutes at a time) and Yoga Nidra (meditation that supports rest, sleep and dreaming), it became clear to me that I needed to become an apprentice to an entirely different kind of pace, and essentially learn a new language, as well as be able to embody the words — the language of slowing down.
Eventually, as I studied more deeply in these approaches, I became much more interested in sleep specifically. People were always falling asleep in my classes, which I saw as a huge gift and opportunity.
In 2012, I discovered Dr. Rubin Naiman, a pioneer in integrative sleep and dream medicine, and began studying all of his work. In 2016, I travelled to take a course with him for health professionals. He is truly gifted and wonderful at questioning typical myopic attitudes towards sleep and dreaming. His influence plays a big role in the way I work, especially the 10 day sleep course I offer on the popular meditation app, Insight Timer, which is meant to be a digestible, immediately impactful learning experience in small ‘bites’ with 10 lessons that are 15 minutes or less.
Can you share with our readers a bit about why you are an authority in the sleep and wellness fields? In your opinion, what is your unique contribution to the world of wellness?
Being a yoga educator for over 16 years, I spent literally thousands of hours helping people to intentionally slow the heck down. It’s one thing to tell folks to do this — it’s another thing entirely to actually be able to hold space for that direct experience.
The kind of yoga I led was not at all sweaty movement — it was lie down, do nothing and sometimes sleep yoga. Having years of intimacy and skill with supporting folks in feeling enough trust and safety to enter profound physical, mental, and spiritual repose, in a culture that did not value it — is one aspect that makes me uniquely qualified to contribute in this area.
Another reason is that I am gifted in literally facilitating sleep itself. My voice, and the words I choose, literally guide people into sleep, which is why my free sleep meditation tracks on Insight Timer have more than 21 million plays at this point.
I learned to see sleep in a very holistic way from Dr. Naiman, and a key distinction in the uniqueness of this approach is the emphasis on sleep as a spiritual practice. He also illuminates how sleep is part of consciousness, rather than just an unconscious knock out. Believing that sleep is inherently unconscious is something that makes people very judgy of experiences like waking up at night, for example. It also contributes massively to the rise of sleeping pill use, which, as I learned first hand from my own experience with them, has so many adverse effects.
I also sense partly why I have any ‘authority’ here is because I honor the mystery of sleep, like the ocean deep — I know what I don’t know. And, I truly believe in helping folks return to their own authority. As much as I believe in, and truly honor the role of science and medicine, sleep has been overly medicalized to the point that people often lack a sense of self-trust and self-efficacy in addressing their sleep challenges and/or nourishing their sleep relationship.
That’s where I often find my contribution unfolding the most, is in helping folks return to a sense of self-trust.
I also live and embody what I teach.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
“Healing Night — The Science and Spirit of Sleeping, Dreaming and Awakening” by Dr. Rubin Naiman. It resonates because it goes so far beyond the mechanical often reductionist bio-medical point of view.
Also “The Wild Edge of Sorrow — Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief” by Francis Weller. It’s just an exquisitely beautiful book about a very challenging and under-honored topic. Most people think grief is only sanctioned when someone dies. But Weller illuminates five gates of grief, many of which are happening all the time, and quite disenfranchised in our culture.
This also impacted my thinking about sleep because in order to properly grieve, we need to feel safe enough to slow down and feel. Also, sleep is a kind of mini-death practice, and it’s important that humans feel safe enough to grieve and be-friend deaths of all kinds in order to ‘go deep’ in sleep, both literally and metaphorically.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
I am kind of a queen of quotes so narrowing it down to one is hard. Since this is a conversation about sleep, let’s keep it sleep focused.
“We are oblivious to a profound and pervasive bias in our perception, that waking is our sole, primary form of consciousness. Consequently, we tend to view sleep and dreams as secondary, subservient states of being. Wake-centrism is a kind of flat earth consciousness that discourages us from approaching the edges of our awareness. It is not a blind spot but a loss of peripheral vision. Wake centrism is not a way of seeing, but a way of NOT seeing the bigger picture — the world behind the world.” — Dr. Rubin Naiman
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. Let’s start with the basics. How much sleep should an adult get? Is there a difference between people who are young, middle-aged, or elderly?
Sleep health is deeper than people simply not sleeping enough, though it definitely includes that. Technically, children and teens do need more sleep as their brains are developing, though teens especially don’t always receive this thanks to archaic school scheduling that works against their natural tendency to want to sleep in and stay up later.
On one hand, this is a personal thing and like my teacher says, is a bit like asking how many calories one should eat, which depends on several factors. But just as calories in food don’t reveal the whole picture about nutritional quality, how many hours we sleep isn’t the whole picture to what we might call ‘sleep nutrition.’
Quantity alone does not encompass the variety of sleep nourishment we need, related to quality and depth — time spent in different stages, which all have distinct benefits, or even time spent with relatives of sleep like relaxation, rest, and simply being — the sweetness of ‘doing nothing’.
I also think that how many hours of sleep we need can vary with the seasons, stages in life, as well as illness, injury, emotional trauma, and grief. Also, if we are going through a particularly intense learning process, work project, or performance training, we might need more sleep and dreaming than usual.
Is the amount of hours the main criteria, or the time that you go to bed? For example, if there was a hypothetical choice between getting to bed at 10PM and getting up at 4AM, for a total of 6 hours, or going to bed at 2AM and getting up at 10AM for a total of 8 hours, is one a better choice for your health? Can you explain?
Both timing and duration are impactful, but quality is generally more vital than quantity.
In general, the deepest sleep happens in the earlier part of the night, especially the hours before midnight — so unless your chronotype is one that makes it such that you literally can’t go to bed earlier — going to bed by or before 10pm is one excellent way to ensure that you receive the deepest sleep possible. Chronobiology is going to be such an exciting growth area in science, as we learn more about how natural rhythms and timing are impacting everything we do.
Sometimes people just like to think they are night owls, but really with some mindset and lifestyle shifts, like for example reduced exposure to artificial light at night, they can actually find themselves easily drawn to go to bed much earlier.
Alternative forms of medicine also look at energy meridians and qualities of energy that are viewed as being ruled by certain times of day. For example, in Ayurveda, the time before 10pm is imbued with a more cooling, quieting, and heavy energy that is an ideally auspicious wave to ride into deep sleep. If we stay up later, we catch a second wind which is more fiery and active and makes it much harder to descend deeply when we eventually do go to bed.
Ultimately I think it’s important that folks actually test this out in their own experience and notice what sleeping at different times actually feels like for them, and allow that to be their guide.
As an expert, this might be obvious to you, but I think it would be instructive to articulate this for our readers. Let’s imagine a hypothetical 35 year old adult who was not getting enough sleep. After working diligently at it for 6 months he or she began to sleep well and got the requisite hours of sleep. How will this person’s life improve? Can you help articulate some of the benefits this person will see after starting to get enough sleep? Can you explain?
Sleep is essentially our inner healer — it’s cooling, anti-inflammatory medicine, across all layers of our being — physically, mentally, emotionally, energetically, spiritually.
It nourishes literally ALL physiological and psychological functions — hormones, circulation, cardiovascular and brain function, metabolism, memory, consolidation of learning experiences, everything.
It helps with emotional processing, it’s antidepressant, anti-anxiety. Dreaming, whether we remember our dreams or not, is like a form of endogenous psychotherapy, and a natural entheogen that helps us stretch our perception and expand our vision, as well as liberate us from the confines of feeling bound to a body.
So when we are truly quenching our sleep needs, we will feel more physically, emotionally, and mentally stable, balanced, and able to focus. This also empowers increased verbal fluency, originality, flexibility, creativity, and ability to think outside ‘the box’.
It also boosts powers of patience and calm, and promotes less rigidity, in all ways.
We will also literally feel less fat, since deep sleep helps metabolize fat, and there will generally be less draw to reach for high fat and sugary snacks when tired.
Receiving enough sleep and dreaming can also offer us wisdom and insight — we might have challenges, whether personally or professionally that we simply can’t intellectualize our way out of — consciously handing them over to the deeper intelligence of sleep often brings solutions and insights that just don’t come from waking consciousness alone.
Many things provide benefits but they aren’t necessarily a priority. Should we make getting a good night’s sleep a major priority in our life? Can you explain what you mean?
This is a bit like asking: ‘should’ the sun go down at night? Or, should there be rain?
Sleep is already a priority to universal cycles across nature — whether humans choose to ‘make it so’ or not.
If the individual benefits aren’t enough of a priority for us, perhaps it’s time to start thinking bigger than just us — do it for the planet you call home. When humans and communities honor sleep, it has far reaching collective effects beyond only personal benefits.
For example, our cultural tendency towards ‘always-on’ energy is very much reflected in our extreme over-use of artificial light at night. Unnecessary, excessive light pollution at night can be so harmful — not only because it obscures the majesty of the night sky and alters our delicate bio-rhythms, but also entire ecosystems around us that rely on the rhythm of night.
Also, each human body is like a planet unto itself. When our bodies and minds are running too hot and too fast, it literally creates inflammation — physically, mentally, energetically, emotionally, spiritually. This mirrors the climate/energy/economic crisis — the idea that more is better, ‘awake’ is better, faster is better, and performance and productivity are all that matters.
The more humans slow down, rest and sleep, the more anti-inflammatory and renewable energy medicine for the earth that holds us all. The more healing that can take place both personally and collectively.
In the words of one of my teachers, Uma Dinsmore Tuli: “Horizontal humans cause less trouble!”
It’s less about badgering ourselves with ‘shoulds’ and more about honoring natural cycles, humbling ourselves to the wholeness of our nature which includes polarity. Day and night, sun and moon, ascent and descent, etc. We nourish our power through embodying and honoring these polarities, just like a magnet. When we don’t fully inhabit both sides — the full bodied stop AND the full bodied go — we squash our own natural magnetism.
Having said all of this, it’s not something we need to become obsessed with, or try to perfect or make into a performance or vanity/purity project, like there can be a tendency to do with things like nutrition and exercise.
Also, beyond extracting ‘benefits’ in service of waking life, sleep on its own is simply a worthwhile, pleasurable experience!
The truth is that most of us know that it’s important to get better sleep. But while we know it intellectually, it’s often difficult to put it into practice and make it a part of our daily habits. In your opinion what are the 3 main blockages that prevent us from taking the information that we all know, and integrating it into our lives? How should we remove those obstacles?
- Waking-centricity — addiction to waking consciousness is a massive blockage. As Dr. Naiman points out: “When waking is seen as the main event, it’s no wonder so many of us have trouble sleeping. Sleep loss, then, is not simply a medical problem; it is also a critical spiritual challenge. As wakists, we presume that who we are is limited to our waking-world identity. Essential parts of who we are, however, are obscured by the glare of waking life. And these become more visible at night — in the deep waters of sleep and dreams.” A dominant waking-centric culture and attitude keeps us tethered to that state, and makes it very hard ‘come down’ and descend. There are myriad ways to work with removing this block, but an important first step is to allow ourselves to apply the brakes more, back off and rest during the flow of our day, as well as open up to different ways of looking at and relating with sleep that might invite us to value and prioritize it freshly, and be more in love with sleep than staying up! Sometimes it’s also a safety thing — surrendering our waking sense of self can be really challenging for some folks, especially if they have or are experiencing trauma of some kind.
- Our relationship to cycles of work/play/rest: The digital revolution and remote work has made staring at a screen something you can do at all hours and from any room in your home. The excessive amount of time that many people often spend in front of screens narrows vision and imagination, impacts eyesight, posture, breathing, circulation, natural melatonin production, everything. We need to back off from this and take more frequent breaks. If you really pay attention, you will notice your body and mind calling out for this. So, one way to remove this obstacle is by developing a deeper sensitivity to those messengers of ‘enough’ and ‘tired’, so you can listen to and, more importantly, actually honor them during your daily rhythms. There are many ways to rest that don’t actually have to involve sleep.
- Assuming that this is just an individual problem, rather than also a systemic one — we need more social and community supports to help us prioritize rest and sleep. The systems that govern our lives need to take it more seriously, educational and health institutions, workplaces, media, community and town planning, politicians, etc.
It can be so easy to feel as if we are individually failing and should be able to do all of this on our own, and to gloss over the massive role that these larger systems play in our lives.
One way to remove this obstacle might be to have more ‘public displays of rest’, totally re-envision public rest spaces and ‘rest rooms’, new cultural ‘stop signs’, and more!
Do you think getting “good sleep” is more difficult today than it was in the past?
On one hand — not necessarily. Compared to many of our ancestors, we are living in a golden age of sleep. Historically, it was not at all uncommon for entire families to sleep in one room, and there might not even be a bed, let alone a comfortable one!
On another hand, yes — we receive more over-stimulation now in one day than a caveperson would likely have their entire lifetime. Just excessive light at night alone is very toxic to sleep, nevermind post-traumatic stress from watching the news or consuming social media, or the pressure to be always working, especially from home. With more folks working from home, there often isn’t a clear delineation between your ‘work zone’ and your rest and recharge environment at home.
Also, in general, many of us can be very disconnected from nature, whether that’s due to not having much choice about where we live and the surrounding environments, work or other lifestyle factors that keeps us indoors, or just a tendency to spend more time looking at screens than the sky…it’s common to miss essential signals that nourish circadian function, like observing sunrise or sunset, getting enough natural sunlight and especially natural darkness at night.
Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. Can you please share “5 things you need to know to get the sleep you need and wake up refreshed and energized”? If you can, kindly share a story or example for each.
- Don’t assume you should wake up immediately refreshed and energized — the sun doesn’t rise instantly with the flip of a switch or an alarm — awakening is a delicate, liminal process that should be approached with gentleness and patience. Once you have given yourself time to emerge from the waters of sleep, get outside in natural light without sunglasses as soon as possible for 20 minutes or more before noon — this plays a massive role in re-setting your healthy circadian rhythm, as well as energizing you for the day.
- Practice resting more — daily, weekly, seasonally, yearly. As I touched on earlier, rest is an important relative and teacher of sleep, especially while working, consuming information or engaged in a learning process. It helps us digest and integrate energies before we try to get into bed at night — energies from all consumption — not just food and fluids but also air, information, light, experiences, feelings, etc. Rest also invites us to shift our relationship to time, and to enter moments of timelessness. Rarely do we look at time as having a quality of spaciousness to it. Go, go, go allows us to avoid, which can create a backlog of ‘stuff’ that then shows up when we later finally lie down with ourselves, hoping to sleep. Notice and honor your peaks/pits of energy through the day — ask yourself what kind of rest would bring the most balance, and feel most effortless — so you don’t waste time trying to be productive when you would be better off, backing off. When you are thirsty, you wouldn’t reach for a bowl of peanuts to quench. Yet often that is what we are encouraged to do as ‘consumers’ who feel tired — keep going, keep scrolling, or take or do something that in the short term will give you a dose of junk energy, and in the long term make you feel more tired. Rest also helps us re-coup energy better when we have times of diminished sleep. It also opens our imagination and nourishes ‘dream consciousness’, a less narrow, more open way of sensing, thinking and feeling which can be extremely helpful when we need creative insight or solutions, whether personally or professionally.
- Befriend the dark — we are darkness deprived, as a species. We have the greatest natural sleep medicine built into our biology, but we often refuse to allow it. As light fades, the body begins to transition to “nighttime physiology”. The time spent in this restful state, even if we are not actually sleeping, is restorative. But, in the modern world, we are bathed by lights that wake us up and delay this transition for hours. If you can practice becoming at home with yourself in dimmed light or darkness, you will find sleep unfolds with ease.
- Don’t judge awakenings as ‘bad’: Sleep architecture flows in ongoing and overlapping waves. We could be waking up multiple times a night, and it’s not necessarily a ‘problem’. Do not judge your sleep as ‘bad’ for not being in some kind of perfect OFF mode for 8 hours straight. Remember: You may be surrounded by machines, but you are not a machine. You are a force of nature. A being, ebbing and flowing.
- Stop seeing sleep as an acquisition, one more ‘to do’ to beat yourself up about, or something to only extract benefits from, and try to honor it like you would a meaningful best friend, or even a lover whom you are in life long intimacy with: the more you nourish that intimacy, the less you will feel at the mercy of generalizations about that relationship.
What would you advise someone who wakes up in the middle of the night and can’t fall back to sleep?
First and foremost…watch how you ‘evaluate’ this experience. Do not immediately decide that it’s a problem. In many cases, this shift in attitude is truly the #1 most essential prerequisite needed to feel more peace with it and let go back into sleep.
Just as it’s natural to take some time to fall asleep, it can also be natural to awaken multiple times at night. Once we fall asleep, we cycle through many stages/waves that bring us deeper down and then up to the surface again. Remember: sleep is not necessarily a perpetually unconscious knock out.
When it can become problematic, it’s because we feel ‘stuck’ on the surface, or more importantly, we judge being there as ‘bad’, and that judgy evaluation tends to fix our body in waking time and space even more.
There are also many body centered and cognitive pathways that we discuss in my course, that can take you back to sleep, like the 4–7–8 breath, or lunar breathing where you breathe through just the left nostril. Yoga Nidra practices for sleep can also help.
Or, the cognitive shuffle, a simple way to guide yourself into ‘super-somnolent-thinking’, created by cognitive scientist Dr. Luc Beaudoin which essentially supports a whimsical, dreamy, hypnagogic flow of thought that can bridge you back to sleep.
What are your thoughts about taking a nap during the day? Is that a good idea, or can it affect the ability to sleep well at night?
Naps are magical. No other being in nature is mono-phasic — attempting to get all their sleep requirements met in one long stretch. Please nap if you are drawn to. Honoring tiredness will make you a better sleeper, not to mention a more rested person, which is wonderful.
Building up a mountain of sleep pressure is not the way to sleep better.
Pushing past that can create a backlog of unprocessed energies that can make us very ‘twired’ — a combination of tired and wired that will tend to hold us hostage later on when we try to lay down for sleep at night, making it much harder to descend.
So the nap is a free, natural way of recycling and replenishing vital energies– the opportunity to put on the brakes BEFORE we pull into our metaphorical sleep garage at night — instead of just ‘crashing’.
I find it’s also particularly helpful for those who struggle with sleeping pill addiction — it becomes evidence of their ability to fall asleep ‘in the wild’ again, naturally. It becomes a potent ‘dress rehearsal’ for nocturnal sleep.
Napping becomes easier and much more refined with practice, just like resistance training. Scientists also believe that napping during the day is better than simply adding more time to nocturnal sleep.
I wonder if this might this also be true for rest in general — like, for example, maybe taking some extra afternoons off during the week might feel more integrated for some people than adding more days onto a chunk of vacation time? It’s past due time to get even more creative with infusing restful intelligence into our work commitments.
Instead of thinking we either have to be ON — working full time or OFF — in vacation mode — how can we let them dance together more, embodying actively restful? Restfully active?
I highly recommend Dr. Sara Mednicks research on napping, her wonderful book “Take a Nap! Change your Life’”, or her TED talk ‘Give it up for the Down State’.
Wonderful. We are nearly done. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)
Well, it’s not a human but it is an intelligent and sage being…I would lunch with an endangered old growth tree, and try to listen deeply to their elder-wisdom.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!