Ofosu and Leah talk with sleep specialist and Director of YogaUSC Sara Ivanhoe about how to have a healthier night’s sleep. She shares the impact sleep has on our bodies, the neuroscience behind how sleep works, and learnings from her own struggle with sleep.
You can watch this episode on YouTube here: https://youtu.be/KIL9OR13j8w
More about Sara:
Sara Ivanhoe is the Director of YogaUSC, the Yoga and Meditation Content Curator for Glo, and the teacher of a class called “Sleep” for the MindfulUSC program. You can learn more about Sara on her website — https://www.saraivanhoe.com/
Well Balanced is co-hosted by Ofosu and Leah, Balance’s Co-Heads of Meditation. Balance is a highly personalized meditation and sleep app that's been named Google's App of the Year and Apple's App of the Day. Completely free for the entire first year, Balance is helping 3.5 million+ people around the world improve their stress, sleep, focus, and mood. Unlock your free year of Balance today by downloading it from the App Store or Play Store:
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Ofosu: Hey, what's up. I'm Ofosu Jones-Quartey.
Leah: And I'm Leah Santa Cruz. We're the meditation coaches on the Balance App.
Ofosu: And this is our weekly show, Well Balanced, where we explore ways to live a healthier, happier life and a reminder we're on YouTube now. So if you wanna watch this episode, please follow the link in our show notes.
Leah: And I'm excited because today we're gonna talk about how to get better sleep with a guest, who's a real expert on the topic. Her name is Sara Ivanhoe and she's a really incredible yogini and the Director of Yoga USC at University of Southern California. [Ofosu:Wow.] Where she teaches a course called Sleep and it just focuses on helping students find ways to sleep better.
I know so many of us could use these tips. So I'm really excited to get to learn from her today. Hi Sara. [Sara:Hi. Great to great to be here. Hi guys.] Yeah, we've been looking forward to it. We have this as a topic that I think so many people are curious about because so many of us struggle with sleep, but I'm curious to hear from you. Why make a class fully about sleep? Nobody signed up thinking that they were just gonna sleep in the class. Did they?
Sara: Well, I was hoping I told everyone in the class I'm like, this is the only class where you won't get in trouble if you start yawning in class and you get an A, if you actually fall asleep in class.
Leah: Cause I, I definitely needed that class in college.I was falling asleep in the library.
Sara: Just a couple of the statistics - between 50, 70 million Americans suffer from sleep disturbance. And most of us really do need seven to nine hours of sleep. Of course we wish we didn't need so many cause we have things we wanna do, but we really do need that much sleep.
And even the smallest disturbance say losing one hour of sleep is the equivalent to being legally intoxicated which is 0.08 alcohol level. So they did all these tests and studies with their reflexes and, and your memory and everything.
Leah: Oh, no. So I shouldn't be driving my scooter is what you're saying,
because I have a toddler that makes me have a lot of night disturbances.
Ofosu: Clearly we should not be operating heavy machinery, Leah. I think it is so important when I was maybe about 5, 10 years ago, I had this mantra sleep is for suckers because I was really, um, I was really on mantra.
Sara: Yeah. Sleep when you're dead. Yeah.
Leah: Right. And you're performing in the nightlife scene. So you know exactly.
Ofosu: And so you really do not only deprioritize sleep, but look at sleep as the enemy. And I know that I did that for a while and I really prided myself on how long I could go without needing a ton of sleep.
But it definitely caught up to me. My body just cannot do that anymore. And now, yeah, I do feel very upside down. If I don't get at least like six hours, then I'm really, really hurting. So Sara, I've come to deeply appreciate the work that you do and making a class out of getting better sleep just sounds amazing.
Sara: Well, I just wanna just first really echo and validate what you were saying. There's a lot of this sort of machismo culture of I’ll sleep when I'm dead. And one of the things we work really hard to do is destigmatize sleep. It's not for lazy people. It's not for whatever. In fact, instead we try to use a mantra -I'll sleep on it. Meaning, oh, such more clarity in the morning when I've had a good night sleep, things like that.
Yeah. So, um, one of the main things that, um, I have the students do throughout the course is essentially to track their sleep and then for them to be able to see what sorts of things affect them along the way, sleep is really complex and we are complex beings.
If somebody says I have trouble with sleep, it's sort of like saying I have chest pain. Well, you could have heartburn. You could have a cracked rib. You could be having a heart attack. There's many reasons why somebody might have trouble sleeping. Uh, Leah might be living in a place where they are getting eaten alive by mosquitoes.
And that will interrupt your sleep. Um, as for those of you who are watching, you can see that I'm wearing these glasses right now, which, uh, a habit I now always do while I'm in front of a computer, uh, because I really found that the blue light from the digital devices was starting to really affect my circadian rhythm.
So if you're looking at a device late at night, it beams a certain type of light into your eye and hits a part of your brain called the super cosmetic nucleus. And the super cosmetic nucleus is what is responsible for the production of melatonin. So melatonin sort of resets your circadian rhythm. So if I'm getting this light at night, I'm basically telling my brain and I'm releasing hormones it thinks it's like sunlight to, to get going. So a lot of the main reasons why so many of our students, you know, who are connected to their phones and they're scrolling TikTok and they're playing video games and things like that. But even those of us who are just doing a workday in front of the computer have so much more exposure to this blue light than we, as humans, are used to that, it is knocking our clocks off.
So one of the first things I say to anyone who's having trouble with, uh, with sleep is I say either get some of these nerdy glasses that I'm wearing or get a blue light filter on your computer or dark like a night shift mode or dark mode. And then if that doesn't help you, then you might have a very different problem. Like mosquitoes.
Leah: I’m curious if there's any surprising ones or maybe obvious ones that your students have found that affect their sleep that we could learn from.
Sara: Well, here's a really funny one. Most people who have trouble sleeping have done, like, you know, a search at some point, how do I sleep better? You know, there's all these lists of dos and do's and things like that. So most people have heard the basics, but there's all these little funny things people haven't thought of. So staying asleep can be very related to body temperature. So many of us have been told, oh, make the room colder and you'll have a better night's sleep. Do either of you sleep under those big fluffy duvets? [Both:Yeah.] Like a big, uh, like a big down. Cause they're delicious, right? They're so yummy. Well, uh, do you ever wake up hot at night and you throw the duvet off of you? The room is then freezing cold. You fall back to sleep, but then like an hour later, you wake up so cold cause you're not with it. And then you put it back on you. And then an hour, a couple hours later, you're hot and you're cold and you're hot and you're cold and you're hot and you're cold.
And you think there's something wrong with you? I'm just hot and cold at night. There's nothing wrong with you. Those big comforters actually work. And within a couple hours, you build up that much heat underneath and evolutionarily speaking we are bred to, if we feel that heat on our skin to wake us up and like save the tribe from a fire, right?
I mean, it's like an evolutionary response. So if you experience that much heat, your body will wake you up. So for instance, I just tell them a really boring, totally UN cozy and delicious, very thin blanket will help keep your body temperature consistent throughout the night. And that's actually been hugely effective for them.
Ofosu: Okay. So people ask us, um, questions about our own meditation journeys, and sometimes they're surprised to hear our answers. So I wanted to ask you about your sleep journey. Do you, Sara, ever struggle to sleep? And if so, what helps you?
Sara: Uh, well, I was born with a sleep disorder. [Ofosu:Wow.] Uh, so that's how I come to this practice.
I started meditating when I was 9 and, uh, I'm 51. And, uh, started doing yoga at 14 to try to help me.
Leah: This is what yoga meditation can do for you. You actually look like you're in your thirties. So to say it worked!
Sara: Thank you. It helps for most of my life. I had a huge, huge, huge struggle sleeping.
Um, so I have essentially used these practices, experimented with these practices to help. I would go once a week, a full night with no sleep for most of my life, a whole night, sometimes two, three nights in a row. I'd say every couple of months I was trying to sleep and, uh, I've gone up to four nights in a row with no sleep at all.
It was really horrible. So it's been a real struggle, but the great news is this. We really do have methods and techniques that help.
So this, this class, this method, all what I'm teaching is essentially my lemonade. It's been my life’s struggle. And this is my life's passion because I know that if we just had people sleeping a little bit better, the world would be a kinder place.
One of the main things I wanted to share, uh, with you guys is just many people, you know, just assume that all practices of yoga breathwork and meditation are relaxing. So they think, oh, I'm gonna do yoga meditation and breathwork for sleep. Because we've been doing the practice so long, we know that actually many of these practices were created to be done at the moment that the sun was rising. They're actually meant to be done at the beginning of the day. And many of them are quite energizing. So, uh, some breathing techniques like a breath of fire would wake you up and energize you for the day.
Um, but an Ujjayi breath actually is quite close to a mimic of a snoring breath and can actually send the signal to the brain almost like a Pavlovian response. The brain goes, oh, I know that sound. That's a sound I make when I'm sleeping. An Ujjayi breath can really help to relax the body into a sleep.
Leah: Yeah. For those that might not be familiar with Ujjayi breathing, they call it ocean breath sometimes. And we use it in yoga. I didn't realize that, but it makes sense now because you know, in yoga, you're, you're preparing for Savasana, which is that, that sleep-like state, um, and the Ujjayi breathing helps take you there. What else can you say about how meditation helps us sleep like the practice itself? Like how we can use meditation for sleep?
Sara: Yeah. What's amazing about meditation is that it teaches us to be aware that we're tripping out, it reminds us that we can pause and then teaches us the skill of being able to focus and quiet our minds on command. And that's really the main thing for people who are having trouble sleeping.
It's usually anxiety related. It's usually stress related and that practice of meditation just builds up the skill of being able to catch yourself for sleep. Our mind is working almost like a record skipping, whereas instead of, as you relax down, into what you're hoping to sleep often what happens is you start to relax and you get to a level of relaxation and your mind can almost bounce back up to the top and you're like tripping out again.
Ofosu: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I'm familiar with that, right?
Sara: I can't get through to sleep. So if it's doing that record skipping type of thing. I know I'm old, I'm talking about records still, but, um, you know. But what meditation can do is it can help bring awareness to the fact that you are spinning in that cycle.
And then you can pause.
Ofosu: Mm-hmm. Okay, so one thing that Leah and I know in respect to the Balance community is that people are coming to us for both meditation and sleep. So I'm certain that our audience, um, a sizable portion of our audience is definitely very interested in this topic. And I'm curious, uh, how do you think our listeners out there who don't have the good fortune of having guidance from someone like you in a classroom, how could they, or how should they begin to explore improving their own sleep?
Sara: Well, they're already doing it if they're practicing with you. They're already doing it. Um, in many ways, I think it's the most important,because just a regular meditation practice just provides a sense of self-awareness.
Um, many people have been taught to practice in the morning to set their day effectively. And that really works for many people. Um, my most important practice time is at night, um, because I need to clear my mind. I can't just go from a stressful day to thinking I can sleep . Um, for me, I need to clear the day away.
Otherwise I won't be gifted with sleep. Pretty much anything that allows you to find your awareness that connects you with your breath, that reminds you to release tension in your body is gonna help at least get you into the mindset of that. And all the other stuff is, you know, those, those are all tips and tricks and techniques that people can continue to learn along the way.
Leah: Thank you. That's nice to hear like we're already on the journey and sometimes we can think that should happen right away. You know, I started meditating, why hasn't my sleep improved right away? But this is a, but it is a process and you may in my experience, people sometimes do have immediate results, but, you know, in meditation we're learning to become masterful at certain skills.
Like you said about becoming aware when we're having thoughts and yeah being able to know what to do with that and get ourselves into that relaxation response so that we can slip into a deeper sleep.
Ofosu: So, last question, maybe is, is there anything totally unexpected about sleep that you have discovered through a student, maybe, uh, like an insight that you wouldn't have come across on your own, but that you learned from somebody who has, um, been practicing with you, taking your course, et cetera?
Sara: Well, there wasn't something I learned, but what was, what was really what's been incredible is these, these young students are such creative thinkers and they are all this, this new generation is so motivated to change the world to, to really create, to change systems. So there's this one student who 's in the film school and her thing is in special effects.
So she is apparently what I now called the black box in front. They're doing stuff in front of a green screen for these special effects all day. And apparently when you're doing all of that, of course, all of the lights are off so that they can have, you know, digital stuff with the lighting.
Well, apparently the people who work in this way are spending, you know, 12, sometimes 14 hours a day in this black box and of course, none of them can sleep. Um, and she put it all together. She goes, oh, she learned about sunlight exposure cause I told them they all need exposure to natural sunlight to set their circadian rhythm.
She went and told the whole film school. And now the film school in between takes, they bring up what they call the house lights. So it's not perfect. They still don't get to be outside. This is gonna be their job, but at least there's some light during the day. And then they turn the lights back off when they go to work on the thing.
So to me, I was like, that's what actually created a systemic change and the film school, like it was just from this one junior in my sleep class. I was so proud of her for going for it, you know?
Leah: Yeah. That's really awesome. I love to hear how they just need to like, have everybody go outside for a couple minutes and then come back in.
Sara: Exactly, exactly.
You know, work within the context that we can, you know, we can only do what we can. Yeah. But, you know, it's important. Like I, for instance, almost all the professors at the university always have assignments that are always due, like at midnight or something. I don't know if you guys remember back then. But I, I set systemic change.
I said, no, I'm gonna have my assignments due at 8:00 PM. You guys should learn how to balance life and your work should be done at eight and go have some dinner and go be with your friends. And now other people in my Body Health Department, are like you know, that's a good idea. I'm gonna set assignments to be done at eight, So little things, you know, we're trying.
Leah: Yeah. Great job, Sara. Yeah. I’m grateful that we have people like you in the world doing this.
Sara: Yeah, for sure. One well slept person at a time is my, is my hope.
Leah: Well, thanks for being here. We really appreciated it. And, we know you're a busy lady and it's just been, it's been a gift to be able to learn from you.
Ofosu: Yeah, so many things to reflect on. And, um, I think even just being intentional about, um, having a healthier sleep life is a great starting point. And I know that it's, it's been a journey for me. So, um, yeah, this is personally helpful for me to just keep it in mind, and I'm gonna reflect on what I could do.
Is there something that I could do a little bit differently if I can convince my wife to get a less fluffy comforter maybe or maybe I just need to, you know, uh, figure out my, my side of the bed, but yeah, either way. Thanks so much. We really appreciate you. And, uh, yeah. Hope to have you back on. This is obviously a conversation we can keep having.
Sara: Absolutely. Thank you both so much for having me, I mean, thank you for the gift that you're giving to the world. It's not easy to put all this stuff together. It's not easy to stay, you know, focused on, um, on, on such a, you know, such a big output that you guys are doing. And I just, I really appreciate all of that. So thanks for having me.
Ofosu: Alright y'all thanks so much for listening and huge thank you to our guest, Sara Ivanhoe. Again, she's the Director of Yoga USC at the University Southern California, where she teaches a class called, you guessed it, Sleep.
And thank you to her students for teaching all of us a little bit through their own experiences.
Leah: And if you wanna watch this podcast and check out her cool glasses, go check us out on YouTube at Balance. We've got a link in the description and as always, you can listen and follow wherever you get your podcasts. We're everywhere. Literally. Apple Spotify, Amazon music so much more.
Ofosu: Until then, please remember to be kind to yourself and we'll see you later. Have a beautiful week and great sleep.
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