The art of napping

A leading expert on why a short bout of strategically-planned shut-eye just makes life better — and how to make it happen.

Researcher and meditation guide Kelly Howell, known in her field as "The Brain Whisperer," has spent over 30 years studying things like mind expansion technology and brain wave frequencies with neuroscience heavyweights. But Howell's specialty is in meditation and sleep, making her the perfect expert to discuss the long lost art of napping. National creative manager of group fitness Lashaun Dale sat down with the guru to learn why we should all close our eyes for 20 minutes each day and how to make it happen:

LD: What are the main benefits of napping?
KH: Taking an afternoon nap is like pressing the reset button in your brain. In our information overloaded world, we need to power down and reboot consciousness daily. After a nap you’ll experience greater clarity of thought, a more peaceful state of mind, increased resilience, better memory and more creativity.

LD: How long should a nap be?
KH: 20 minutes is plenty of time to thoroughly refresh your brain. The short nap is power-packed because you enter stage 2 of the sleep cycle, or Non Rapid Eye Movement (NREM), which is when sleep spindles appear. Sleep spindles are short synchronized bursts of electrical activity that last about one second and can occur 1,000 times per night during NREM sleep. Research shows that people who have more of these spindles, especially people who have more over a frontal area of the brain called the prefrontal cortex, showed the most refreshment in learning capacity after their nap.

LD: The best time for nap?
KH: Best time for a nap is between 1:00 and 3:00. Ideally 7 or 8 hours after you wake up in the morning. Taking too long of a nap, or napping too late in the day interferes with your nighttime sleep.

LD: How often should you nap?
KH: Every day! Sleep is high quality nutrition for your brain. We need to stop thinking of napping as a luxury and recognize it as a biological necessity.

LD: Powerful. Know of any famous nappers?
KH: JFK, Salvador Dali, Leonardo da Vinci, Winston Churchill and Thomas Edison. Many professional athletes nap to improve motor skills, hand eye coordination and reaction speed.

LD: How about the physical benefits?
Lack of sleep, literally causes us to crave high fat, high sugar body fuel. A University of Chicago study showed that subjects who were restricted to 6 hours of sleep per night for four nights increased insulin in the bloodstream that mimicked a pre-diabetic state. Insufficient sleep de-regulates the body’s ability to produce hormones that regulate hunger and breakdown carbohydrates.

LD: Any advice to help start a napping habit?
KH: If you have trouble quieting down your mind, focus on visual imagery. When the mind stops thinking in words, you drop down to the Alpha and Theta levels of brain waves—just one step away from sleep.

LD: Interesting. Can you explain how brain waves play a role in napping?
KH: Brain waves represent the kind of electrical activity that is going on in your brain. We have many frequencies going on simultaneously, but the dominant frequency tells us what state of mind you are in. Gamma waves are the fastest and signify the highest state of focus possible. In Beta you are wide-awake primed to do work that requires your full attention. The Alpha state is a pleasurable and relaxed state of consciousness essential to stress reduction and high levels of creativity. Theta is known as the twilight state, which you normally only experience upon waking, or drifting off to sleep. In the Delta state, you are sound asleep. Delta waves are the slowest of all five-brainwave frequencies.

LD: And that’s why your Brain Sync Power Nap program works so well?
Exactly. We all have our own unique signature brainwave activity. It has a distinct rhythm and pattern that has developed over time and through habit. Brain Sync programs help listeners develop new patterns. They're downloadable MP3 files that blend meditation techniques with beat frequencies and music to block out external noise, slow down brain activity and wake you up with beta waves so you feel refreshed and alert instead of groggy when your nap is over.

Experience Howell's Brain Sync program this month in Equinox's Power Napyoga classes. The sessions are designed to lull you to sleep. Upon waking you'll be a regular da Vinci.

For more from Kelly Howell, check out her latest book, Brain Power, Improve Your Mind as You Age.