Will the Chimera Sleep Tonight? (Reflection)

sleeping chimeraI have never really been a great sleeper. As a child, my brain was forever active and life was extremely busy. We were always moving and, to top it all, I had an extremely active imagination. My mother would often remark how I would often fall asleep through utter exhaustion and that this was demonstrated by the many awkward lying down poses I would end up in after finally surrendering. Over time I devised different methods that helped calm my thoughts and also gave them something to do as I wound down. Meditation helps, exercise helps and audio books continue to help me get in a decent sleep. All of these things align well with being a martial arts teacher and student.

However, just as lip service is paid to many different areas of our practice – such as relevant warm-ups, regular mobility and stability exercises, soft skills in general, post-fight training, tactical escape training and sensible eating – I am guilty of just not paying enough attention to my sleep hygiene. A youth spent too much time consuming caffeine – by the way caffeine addiction is the often unspoken flaw of martial arts teachers of all levels – and naturally inclined to be a night owl, made me an insomniac for a good deal of my life. Sleep was a nuisance to me, but it was always evident how much it was required.

As I grew up the television frequently played government-backed public information films were constantly rerun on the dangers of drivers’ fatigue. During my adult life, the tachographs were introduced to ensure the long distance drivers involved in my parents’ company were not on the road for too long. Rest was important. People were expected to sleep. The problem is showbusiness, in its many forms, has always played down the importance of sleep. I grew up around this culture with its multitude of subcultures. A familiar sight in my life was artistes burning the proverbial candle at both ends as they turned 24 hour shifts of performing, pulling down, packing up, travelling and building up again. Circus, still photography, theatre, pantomime, commercials, feature films, television they were all the same.

As I became a father and various other responsibilities added to my workload, having trouble getting to sleep became less and less of a problem. Although periodically bouts of insomnia did and still do plague me, for the most part my bedtime rituals serve me well and I am often pretty tired once my head hits the pillow. However, what emerged as a far greater problem for me and a good number of other martial artists I talked with over the years is general sleep hygiene. We all need around eight hours of sleep. Some countries – and a few famous British leaders – have adopted traditions based around their lifestyles where these hours are split. I am not saying it doesn’t – and didn’t – work for them, but the science on sleep patterns generally comes down on health being improved by having a good solid block of time where you can get in up to six sleep cycles. This is where so much of internal repair work can be done. It’s no coincidence that most bodybuilders get in long, uninterrupted sleeps despite what Arnold Schwarzenegger says about “sleeping faster”. On a basic level it makes sense that we exert ourselves through training forcing our bodies to adapt to the stress by building new neural pathways and rebuilding stronger muscles, ligaments, tendons and bones. Good quality training is at the centre of what every self-respecting martial artists seeks and, if they are a teacher, should hope to provide. We know that these adaptations cannot be made without any fuel and that the correct nutrition needs to be absorbed into the body in order for this progress to be made. Nutrition is a hotly debated topic, but the consensus of scientific sports opinion throws their weight behind eating balanced diets. However, in order to get optimum results from either of these two factors, we need good quality sleep. That means as much deep sleep, the third stage of a single sleep cycle. Here is where most of us fall down.

However, as pointed out by such teachers as Dave Grossman, bad sleep hygiene has a serious short-term impact on people in combative situations. Military and law enforcement personnel have suffered from advances in technology that lengthened their days, resulting in a deterioration of operational performance not to mention problems outside of work. We cannot outlast our sleep debt. Whatever sleep we lose will have to be paid back and during the interim we face an increasingly worse state of being awake that can only be addressed with caffeine. Caffeine is a short-term fix and, in many cases, the equivalent to strapping up a dislocated limb before a proper operation can be carried out. Being a stimulant, caffeine can become addictive especially as the regular sleep dodger relies on it to operate during their waking hours. Tolerances quickly build up and the cycle of addiction intensifies.

Unlike training and eating, sleep is passive by nature. It is inactive by definition. Individuals pursuing active and proactive lifestyles often find it difficult to settle down. Lest we forget Bruce Lee – the embodiment of martial arts iconography for many – was given a nickname that translated to “Never Sits Still”. Putting aside all the spurious theories about the cause of his death by misadventure, most rational historians and witnesses to his life will agree that his over-demanding lifestyle was a strong factor. When we look at people who “sleep a lot” we don’t envisage fit or healthy people. This is usually because they, like many of us, don’t actually sleep very well. Just as we can over-train or train badly and overeat or eat badly, we can and often do sleep badly. Falling asleep in front of flickering screen of images is not a healthy way to get to sleep. Sleeping in a well-lit room is not advisable either. Any sleep that is prone to be disturbed is not a good sleep.

My problem with sleep is scheduling it in properly. To many busy martial artists and other active people with ambitions, sleeping has become an inconvenience (just ask Arnie!) And just like all other things that have to be done, we really don’t want to spend a second more than what is required. If you have got the stage in your life where you are willing yourself to urinate faster then it’s time to take a big breath and rethink your time management!

For all the critical thinking and scepticism I direct towards the self-help community, I have always admired Stephen Covey’s four quadrant method in his seminal “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”. Perhaps there are better ways, but the concept that you can borrow time from certain distractions and time-wasting to benefit your quality time seems like a sound plan to me. For those who are unfamiliar with this matrix, the quadrants in order of priority are 1. Urgent and Important, 2. Not Urgent but Important, 3. Urgent but Not Important and 4. Not Urgent and Not Important. The objective is to steal time from quadrants 3 and 4 to make more time for quadrant 2. Quadrant 1’s immediacy means that you are forced to make time for this one otherwise, your problems increase at a rapid pace and you will not be able to move forward in productive way. However, quadrant 2 is the quality time where we put everything we know will improve our lives in a big way and will reduce the time we are forced to spend dealing the problems presented in quadrant 1. Quadrant 3 tends to be a host of distractions that take up our time, usually based on not saying “no” enough to people. Quadrant 4 is really time wasting through bad discipline.

Managing one’s time and day is part of setting and maintaining healthy boundaries in life. One thing I have learnt about time is that you don’t take ownership of “your time” it will be quickly gobbled up by other people. Forgive my siege-like mentality, but this is what happens. I have seen way too many individuals work hard all their lives so that they will have this time, but as soon as they have removed one thing that was taking up their day something else magically takes its place. It’s as if the individual’s life is a constant battle with a time-eating hydra. Be assertive about your quality time and assign its importance to your life.

I argue that if sleep is a quadrant 1 activity and extended “lazy” sleep is quadrant 4 then scheduled and good quality sleep is quadrant 2. Getting in that solid, uninterrupted eight hours is the equivalent to a completing a full unabridged workout or eating a highly nutritious and balanced meal.

We need to plan ahead and defend our space enough when it comes to going to bed. Our rooms need to be darkened. Outside noise volumes need to be low. Putting ear plugs in might seem like a viable alternative, but it somewhat contradicts my teaching on awareness. Please consult the below Insider article regarding more detailed advice on ways to maximise deep sleeping time. However, a big factor for me is sticking to a decent bedtime. According to the research carried out by Lawrence Kane and Kris Wilder in their new book discussed on my podcast (see below), early birds are generally more productive than night owls. Earlier bedtimes and earlier rises make sense provided the sleep is uninterrupted and peaceful. We need to make sleep part of our training.

This post was inspired by this Insider article.

Picture credit: Monicaskrz – Thoughts from an AP Art Student “Sleeping Chimera”

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