Your Body

May 21, 2008

After several nights of restless sleep, Ballet Austin’s Paul Michael Bloodgood isn’t at his best in company class. “It’s more difficult to focus,” he says. “It takes me longer to find my groove.”


There’s more to sleep than getting rest. Nearly every physiological process can be compromised. Memory, coordination, metabolism, new learning—all crucial to dancers—are handicapped, as Bloodgood discovered when his ability to learn choreography became impaired after a bad night or two.


“One of sleep’s major functions is consolidating short-term memory into long-term memory,” says Dr. Aparajitha Verma, a neurologist with The Methodist Hospital Sleep Disorders Center in Houston. “It’s as if the brain does a little inventory of what it learned during the day and decides what to store and what to throw away.”


Sleeplessness can be remedied. Just as dancers train their bodies to perform technical feats, they need to train their brains to sleep better. “We want the brain to associate our beds with a good night’s rest,” says Verma, who sees sleep right up there with good diet and exercise when it comes to a total health profile. Among the common recommendations: keeping bedtime and wake times consistent; getting out of bed when you can’t sleep; always going to bed sleepy; and limiting caffeine, alcohol, and smoking.


Preparing for sleep with a regular routine is also key. Bloodgood has been making some strides on unwinding. He’s found that slow exercises and a warm shower signal his body to relax. He resists starting something new or getting too active right before bedtime. “It’s taken me time to decipher what works,” he says. “Movies keep my mind busy, while certain types of music help me slow down.”


Dancers have special challenges in making a routine, because they have performance nights and nonperformance nights. Naturally, performing is an adrenaline producing activity. Luckily the brain can hold two separate sleep schedules, one postperformance, and another for everyday routine. Verma urges dancers to develop their own nighttime rituals for their double-duty lives. On performance nights, Bloodgood doesn’t even try to go to bed early. Instead he lets his body and mind unwind on its own rhythm. “For me it means being OK with a much later bedtime,” he says, “but that sure beats tossing and turning.”


It helps to set the stage during the day, notes Michael Krugman, author of The Insomnia Solution (Grand Central Publishing, 2005). “Being more relaxed during waking hours sets the scene for sounder sleep,” he says. “When your life is more peaceful, your sleep is more peaceful.” Krugman’s work, influenced by Tai Chi, meditation, and the teachings of Moshé Feldenkrais, employs movement to get into the snooze mode. “Large movements wake us up,” he says. “Small, slow, and rhythmic movements followed by periods of quiet can have a powerful tranquilizing effect.” An exercise to help achieve sounder sleep can involve coordinating breathing with gentle pressure between the fingertips, pressing the thumb against each in turn. Because the fingertips are rich in nerve endings, this gentle stimulation calms the entire system down to a sleep-ready state.


Verma finds she is able to solve most patients’ sleep problems with simple behavioral changes. She cautions that sleep medications are short-term solutions and don’t really address the problem. “Most people develop a tolerance to them and they can be habit-forming,” she says.


So what do you get if you sleep better? Just about everything: improved brain function, mood, focus, even self-esteem. Bloodgood has completely changed his thinking on sleep. “I used to brag how little sleep I got,” he admits. “Now the better I sleep, the better I dance.”


Nancy Wozny is a Feldenkrais teacher and a Houston-based writer.


Photo by Richard Calmes.