I’ll be honest, I hadn’t really heard of this contention until I found it swirling around the internet. But various parties out there — from Reddit commenters to researchers at Oregon State — have claimed that a prolonged period of meditation can replicate the benefits of a full night’s sleep.
The numbers are all over the place (one exuberant user online seems convinced 20 minutes of meditation equals four hours of deep sleep), but generally speaking, the idea is that you can complement — if not outright replace — your sleeping hours with dedicated meditation time. Below, we unpack the premise and investigate the evidence.
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The Benefits of “Yogic Sleep”
Where did this idea stem from, anyway? It’s related to yogic sleep, which is the state of consciousness somewhere between waking and sleeping. The scientific term for this is “hypnagogic sleep” — you’ve likely entered it many times throughout your life without even thinking about. Think back to dozing in and out on a relaxing train ride, or easing into the languor of a good daydream, or those vivid and whimsical turns your mind takes just before bed.
Yoga Nidra is an ancient exercise dedicated to actively seeking out this state, usually by lying down, setting an intention, performing “mental body scans,” and visualizing various images, situations, or concepts. With patience, and practice, devotees are able to cultivate conscious awareness out of unconscious thoughts.
At its best, Yoga Nidra reduces stress, enhances mental clarity and boosts overall well-being. Some have even credited it with helping them to process trauma or deep-seated emotional distress. So you can sort of trace the rationale: if meditation can bring about such deep relaxation and positive changes, couldn’t it serve as a potential replacement for sleep?
A Reality Check
That said, sleep is a non-negotiable biological need, which triggers a cascade of essential restorative functions. Think: muscle repair, memory consolidation and hormone regulation, to name a few. These functions are wholly unique to the state of sleep, and cannot be replicated by meditation or any other form of rest — no matter how energized you may feel after a session of sleep’s “yogic” counterpart.
Not sleeping enough can open a Pandora’s box of health issues, including cognitive impairment and a weakened immune system. (As someone who just battled Tokyo to New York jet lag for a week, allow me to attest…sleep deprivation sucks.) Add this up over the course of a life, and you’re putting yourself at a dramatically increased risk of chronic conditions like obesity and heart disease.
Ultimately, Yoga Nidra just can’t match the neurological benefits of a full cycle of sleep, and especially that all-important REM (rapid eye movement) stage, which is crucial for memory and learning. Besides, meditation is really hard. Even if one hour of meditation was somehow biochemically equivalent to a full night’s rest, would you be able to complete an hour of meditation a day?
Best of Both Worlds
The best way forward is to imagine yogic sleep as a companion to good sleep hygiene. Find a guided course that works for you, and carve out some time each day. (Most Yoga Nidra courses are actually 15 to 45 minutes, so you won’t need a full hour.) If you add the practice to a robust and regular sleeping schedule, you’ll find your creativity, productivity and energy levels really start humming.