Meditation is often touted as a great way to relax, de-stress, and let go. And it is!
In fact, meditation can be a little too effective at helping you find a state of calm. In some cases, it can even put you to sleep.
If you’re a more experienced meditator, you’ve likely found yourself in this position. So how do you stay Zen and stay awake at the same time?
Read on for tips on how to use meditation to relax, de-stress, and stay alert and present while doing it.
Meditation has been shown to induce a sense of well-being and improve sleep quality.
One 2020 study examined the effects of an 11-minute yoga nidra meditation on a large and diverse sample. The practice resulted in lower stress, increased well-being, and improved sleep quality for 341 meditators with no change for the control group of 430 people. Effects remained stable at 6 weeks.
While there’s ample research to support the benefits of meditation for sleep, there’s less evidence around why you might get sleepy when you’re sitting on your cushion.
Some possible reasons include:
- similarities in brain wave activity between meditation and sleep
- lack of sleep or daytime fatigue
- eating too close to a meditation session
- meditating in bed or in the bedroom
- depletion from illness or stress
Researchers also reported increases in alpha brain waves for all depth levels of meditation in comparison with resting states.
When it came to deeper states, some researchers saw increases in theta waves and decreases in central beta and low gamma waves. In other words, the high-alert, problem-solving brain waves decreased, while relaxation-related brain waves increased.
Essentially, meditation was found to be a state of consciousness distinct from sleep and alertness while having characteristics of both. According to the EEG results, it’s just about in the middle.
When you’re meditating, you’re playing right on the edge between focus and relaxation, wakefulness and sleep. If you practice often enough, it’s likely that you’ll drift a little too far in the sleep direction now and then.
One effect of meditation is that it puts you in touch with what you may not have noticed before. This is an overall benefit that may have some undesirable outcomes at first.
If you’re already tired, stressed, overwhelmed, or sleep-deprived, your body may see your meditation practice as an invitation to get some needed shut-eye.
If you’ve historically been a type A or always-on-the-go person, your body may need some time to adjust to the newness of sitting still.
And if you like to stay up late, your meditation practice may shine a light on the daytime effects of being a night owl.
If you find yourself constantly struggling to stay awake while you meditate, you’re likely getting a message that you need more rest and relaxation (R&R) in your life.
Having a full belly can often induce a feeling of sleepiness. This can be due to:
- the release of hormones
- the nutrient content of the foods eaten
- the fact that your body is focusing energy on digestion
- consuming a large volume of food
Some foods, like cherries, contain melatonin, which regulates the sleep-wake cycle.
Others like avocado, chocolate, grains, and bananas contain magnesium, which can induce muscular relaxation.
After eating, your body may be working overtime to digest your food, especially if you’ve had a large meal. The digestion process can siphon energy away from the brain and create a bit of a fog.
These factors combined can make a post-meal meditation problematic.
For many people, the bed is associated with one (or two) specific activities. Meditating in bed may send a signal to your brain that it’s time for a nap.
This may be the case even if you’re simply in the vicinity of your bed. To remedy this, try to reserve your meditation for another space.
Another reason you may be nodding off during your meditation session is depletion. This could be due to:
- chronic illness
- chronic fatigue syndrome
- adrenal fatigue or Addison’s disease
- chronic stress from life circumstances like racism
When the body has been fighting an illness or is in a chronic state of fight or flight due to stress, your energy levels will likely dwindle over time.
Depletion may also be explained by chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), a disorder involving extreme tiredness that doesn’t go away with rest and isn’t due to an underlying medical condition.
One theory is that prolonged stress may lead to adrenal fatigue, a subclinical level of adrenal insufficiency that could be a precursor to Addison’s disease.
Regardless of the cause, there’s plenty of evidence to indicate that prolonged stress can lead to exhaustion.
If you suspect you may have one of the conditions listed above, it’s important to speak to a healthcare professional to receive appropriate diagnosis and treatment.
Once you figure out what might be causing your drowsiness, you can pinpoint the best solutions to stay awake while you meditate.
Practice away from meals
While it may be convenient to practice meditation on your lunch break, it may be more effective if you hit the cushion before you eat.
That way your stomach will be empty, and you can avoid any drowsiness-inducing meal ingredients until after your session.
If your schedule doesn’t allow meditating away from meal, try to eat a lighter meal before you practice.
Practice away from the bedroom
As mentioned above, simply seeing your bed in your field of vision may trigger associations with sleep.
If you can, find a space outside of the bedroom to meditate. It doesn’t have to be fancy, but you may find that separating your sleep and Zen space makes all the difference.
Create a designated meditation space
By the same logic that you may associate your bed with sleep, you can train your brain to associate a particular space with meditation.
If you have room in your living space, you can designate a little corner or wall space somewhere exclusively for meditation.
Try adding a decorative rug, a singing bowl, a trickling water fountain, an inspiring painting, or a statue that reminds you of peace and tranquility to help trigger a sense of calm and set the mood for mindfulness.
Another way to wake up your system is to practice meditation outside.
Not only will you be getting an extra dose of vitamin D from practicing outdoors. Meditating outside can also wake up your senses to the vibrancy and activity of the natural world.
Whether it’s chirping birds, the caress of a breeze, or the warmth of the sun beaming down on you, practicing outdoors can bring a whole new dimension to your meditation.
This means you’ll be doubling up on the relaxation benefits when you pair your meditation with a little bit of vitamin N(ature).
Stand or walk while you meditate
For a foolproof way to stay alert during your meditation, try standing up while you practice.
It’s pretty difficult to fall asleep standing up, and it’s also an opportunity to increase your circulation and give the body a stretch, especially if you tend to sit down while working.
To take it up a notch, you can even practice walking meditation, which involves slow, deliberate movement coordinated with the breath to induce a state of mindful presence.
Make sure you’re getting enough sleep and rest
Getting sleepy while you meditate can just be a part of the journey as you practice the art of wakefulness. If you find you’re consistently challenged to stay awake during your sessions, there may be something deeper going on.
It’s important not to be heroic and struggle through fatigue. That’s not what meditation is about.
Listen to your body and reflect on your sleep habits to see whether you may need to increase the amount of rest you’re getting.
Remember, too, that sleep and rest are not the same thing.
Just because you’re getting the recommended amount of sleep each night doesn’t mean that your daytime lifestyle or circumstances aren’t draining you.
If you can, make time for daytime rest that’s separate from your nighttime sleep, whether it’s taking breaks from work, taking walks around the block, or simply sitting and enjoying a hot beverage without distraction.
Use a bench
Using a meditation bench is a very physical intervention that can help prevent sleepiness.
Because meditation benches are hard and typically made of wood, it’s difficult to get too comfy and start to doze off.
Your core has to work a little harder to stay upright on a meditation bench, so the added effort can also help keep you alert.
Dharmacrafts offers various models of meditation benches as well as other meditation supplies.
Meditate with your eyes open
If you’ve been practicing meditation with your eyes closed, try making the simple switch to open-eye meditation. This can send a signal to your brain that it’s time to be awake.
It may be helpful to choose a specific point to focus on while you meditate with eyes open. It’s usually suggested to have a soft-focus gaze about 2 or 3 feet in front of you.
Meditate when you’re most alert
There’s no right time of day to meditate, and there’s no need to struggle through your sleepiest time of day.
Instead, set yourself up for success by meditating during the part of the day where you’re naturally most alert.
Whether it’s after your morning shower, right before lunch, or in the evening when the day is done, pick a time when your energy levels are high to increase your chances of staying awake while you meditate.
Drinking water has plenty of benefits.
Evidence suggests that dehydration can lead to impairments in cognitive function as well as subjective feelings of tension, depression, anger, fatigue, and confusion.
Staying hydrated before and after your meditation session can help you remain alert, clearheaded, and in better spirits.
If hydrating doesn’t do the job, it can’t hurt to splash some cold water on your face for good measure!
Meditate with audio
Using a guided meditation can help you stay awake as well. The extra auditory input can give you just enough stimulation to stay focused and alert without being distracting or overwhelming.
There are plenty of guided meditation options to choose from on YouTube.
Do short, frequent practices
You’re also much less likely to fall asleep during a brief session than if you’re sitting for longer chunks of time.
If you find yourself struggling to stay awake in the middle of meditation practice, there’s no reason to resist. You don’t get a medal for staying awake during every sitting sesh.
If you’re sleepy, it’s very likely that your body is simply telling you that it needs a little extra rest. If you have the time and space, let yourself take a nap.
As you deepen your practice, you’ll likely learn to better manage energy and waking state. At the same time, you can’t force it or rush the process.
If you’re nodding off for now, embrace it. Trust that as you continue to practice, you’ll develop more command of your state of consciousness with time.
Getting sleepy while you meditate is fairly common.
The brain waves active during meditation may be similar to those in early stages of sleep. That means it’s only natural to feel a bit drowsy during your meditation from time to time.
If your sleepiness becomes a major obstacle to your meditation practice, there may be underlying issues like sleep deprivation, chronic fatigue, or illness to address. Talk with your doctor if you suspect this might be the case.
Otherwise, a few simple tweaks to your meditation routine can help you perk up and stay present while you practice.
Crystal Hoshaw is a mother, writer, and longtime yoga practitioner. She has taught in private studios, gyms, and in one-on-one settings in Los Angeles, Thailand, and the San Francisco Bay Area. She shares mindful strategies for self-care through online courses. You can find her on Instagram.