This summer, I’ve had the pleasure of spending my Saturdays at a delightful artist-led community space/physic garden called Phytology in Bethnal Green, East London. It’s an oasis of calm that is desperately needed in an area with many social and ecological inequalities. One of my previous areas of study and work was around the issue of environmental justice, so this aspect really resonates with me. (Environmental justice has to do with redressing inequalities - often with a racial component - in burden of environmental pollution and in access to environmental amenities.)
A variety of activities occur at Phytology, from workshops on herbalism, to artist residencies, to community bat monitoring training, but the one I recently experienced was a yoga class by Rosemarie of Lemonade Yoga Life. I love her choice of the name, which relates to making the most of what life throws at you, and is also a nod to Beyonce’s powerful album. Last weekend I finally attended one of Rosemarie’s monthly classes she holds at Phytology, which drew people of different ages, genders, and levels of experience with yoga. It was my first time doing a yoga session outside, and it was such a liberating, expansive experience to look up at the sky, hear the rustle of leaves, and at times have my feet planted directly on the ground.
I wanted to share my experience here to encourage you to play with some outdoor movement in the remaining weeks of summer. Although it has become decidedly more autumnal here in the southeast of England, I guarantee there will be a few more weeks of pleasant weather. In fact, prior to this summer, September has usually been more pleasant and dry than the other summer months. And remember, your movement doesn’t have to be yoga postures - it can be whatever you’re drawn to - just take it outside, and don’t do anything that causes pain or tension!
The session took place in Phytology's small outdoor amphitheater. We started with some gentle holds and simple breathing techniques. However, if you just sit outside in a green space and observe your breathing, you will most likely feel calmer even without doing any particular breathing technique. Then we did some seated twists, which are great for digestion, and which Rosemarie suggested everyone do daily.
This was followed by some ‘yin’ postures, where you stay in the posture for about two minutes, but of course don’t force yourself into something that feels wrong. Throughout the session, Rosemarie offered various alternatives that people could choose from; we all have unique bodies, so having options was really helpful. We then flowed into some more dynamic movement, which was still quite gentle.
So get out there while you can, and do whatever you feel like! Here's my husband hula hooping at another community garden in cooler weather :). No movement is restricted to a particular gender!
While my marriage was not on the rocks, I had often been sleeping in a different room because I couldn’t easily fall asleep with the sound of my husband’s breathing. And he wasn’t even snoring! Ear plugs aggravate me, so while they block sound, they defeat the purpose.
This sesame seed tale began last year, when I was reading Body Thrive, a book about daily habits from Ayurveda. I came across a tip about dipping cotton balls in sesame (seed) oil and sticking in your ears as a way to deal with sensitivity to sound at night. I didn’t get around to trying this, however, until I encountered a woman earlier this year who had had the same problem and found that this worked for her. So I finally tried it, and marveled at what real sleep felt like! Now I could consistently sleep in the same room as my husband, all because of the wonders of this tiny seed.
Gathering evidence of sesame's soporific effect
I mentioned my breakthrough to my sister (apparently all the women in my family have sleep issues). She tried it, and sure enough, she had the same feeling of awe at what real sleep feels like. Neither of us expected this result for her - she had tried all kinds of guided meditations and supplements and nothing consistently worked, but this did. My sister didn't need to do the cotton ball thing because her issue was not sensitivity to sound - she just rubbed some in her ears, ear lobes, and neck initially. Then, because it worked and felt so nourishing, she added the soles of her feet to this regimen. I, too, have started applying the oil beyond my ears.
Hearing about the impacts on her daughters, my mom proceeded to try it. She had been resorting to sleeping pills when things were really bad and had tried some other natural remedies, but they had stopped working. The oil worked so well that she packed some on a trip overseas. Typical of my mother, she promptly began distributing sesame oil samples to her numerous friends also suffering from sleep issues.
Of course, it’s not just for women – sleep problems afflict virtually every demographic group, with people suffering from either inadequate or poor quality sleep. Yet within my own network of friends and family, it does seem that women are more likely to experience difficulty in falling asleep. Beyond the obvious effects on cognitive function and energy, chronic sleep problems can set us up for a variety of more serious health problems down the road, like metabolic disorders (1) and autoimmune diseases (2).
What's so special about sesame oil?
So what is it about sesame oil specifically that helps with sleep? Before I get into that, I’ll mention that one day I hadn’t gone through this ritual before I got to bed, but there was a bottle of a very nice rose and lavender infused almond oil on my bedside table, so I used that instead. It didn’t work, as lovely as it was. Sesame oil has a heaviness to it that seems to draw us out of our heads and into our bodies - it is grounding. In Ayurveda, the energy of air and space is called vata, and is it governs most process involving movement - nerve impulses, heartbeat, speech, etc. Creativity, itself associated with the flow of ideas and thoughts, for example, stems from this energy.
Modern lifestyles of overstimulation and multitasking tend to increase vata energy, which counters the experience of heaviness that we would normally experience in the evening as part of our physiological cycles. The tryptophan and magnesium in sesame calm and bring a quality of heaviness, helping to decelerate the stream of thoughts, ideas, or worries that can prevent sleep. In a nutshell, Ayurveda is about balance - if a particular quality or energy is too high, you can bring in its opposite to restore balance, which is what sesame does.
In terms of sleep issues, sesame oil is not a panacea. It’s not like you can be watching tv (or any screen) or reading something stimulating right up until your bedtime, and just apply some oil on and drop off! Nor will it necessarily work if there are more serious emotional or physiological reasons for sleep problems. Bearing in mind these caveats, if you already have a winding down routine and still can’t drift off reasonably quickly on a relatively ordinary evening, it’s worth a try. Just make sure to use untoasted, cured sesame seed oil rather than the toasted kind. Cured oil is oil that has been heated up and then cooled down - it makes it somewhat thinner and more easily absorbed. Whether you use cured or uncured, it's better to warm up the oil before applying - you can decant a small amount into a glass bottle or jar and put this in a mug of freshly boiled water. And be sure to saturate the cotton well, so that you don't end up hearing your own pulse when you stick in your ears!
Lastly, I would be remiss if I didn't mention that sesame oil-based self massage is one of the daily practices recommended in Ayurveda. So it's not just for sleep problems - it's a practice to preserve health and wellbeing that stretches back long before the travails of modern living. You don't have to suffer from a sleep issue to benefit!
1. Depner, C. M., Stothard, E. R., & Wright, K. P. (2014). Metabolic consequences of sleep and circadian disorders. Current Diabetes Reports, 14(7), 507. http://doi.org/10.1007/s11892-014-0507-z
2. Yi-Han Hsiao, Yung-Tai Chen, Ching-Min Tseng, Li-An Wu, Wei-Chen Lin, Vincent Yi-Fong Su, Diahn-Warng Perng, Shi-Chuan Chang, Yuh-Min Chen, Tzeng-Ji Chen, Yu-Chin Lee, Kun-Ta Chou; Sleep Disorders and Increased Risk of Autoimmune Diseases in Individuals without Sleep Apnea, Sleep, Volume 38, Issue 4, 1 April 2015, Pages 581–586, https://doi.org/10.5665/sleep.4574
Ayurveda & Daily Rhythms: What a 5000+ year old health system can teach us about living well today [Free event, Brighton]
This interactive talk is for anyone curious about Ayurveda and how daily habits can promote, or detract from, our wellbeing. In collaboration with Free University Brighton.
Date: Sat April 14th 2018
Time: 11.00 am - 12.30 pm
Venue: The Learning Resource Centre at the City Clean Depot, Upper Hollingdean Road, Brighton BN1 7GA
Did you know that our organs operate according to a clock? That’s right, everything from your liver to your skin has a clock! There’s a whole field of biology called chronobiology that is the study of the effect of day-night cycles on the human organism. Yet thousands of years ago, Ayurveda established the importance of alignment with the cycles of nature for human wellbeing, and how elements of nature uniquely combine in each person to shape their mind-body. Understanding these aspects and living accordingly can help us to thrive now and give ourselves the best chance of writing ourselves out of the story of hereditary and life-style related disease. Come learn more at this interactive event and leave with some actionable wisdom you can apply to your own life.
Shumaisa Khan coaches people in integrating daily habits from Ayurveda, leads workshops on culinary herbalism, nature connection, ecosocial (permaculture) design, and teaches the Edible Campus module at Brighton University.
Click here for more info and to book your place. The event is free, but spaces are limited, so book to guarantee your place.
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