Headspace's Eve Lewis Prieto on the science of sleep and why needing '8 hours is a bit of a myth'

Erin Donnelly
·11-min read
Headspace director of meditation Eve Lewis Prieto shares her secrets to mindfulness. (Photo: Headspace; designed by Quinn Lemmers)
Headspace director of meditation Eve Lewis Prieto shares her secrets to mindfulness. (Photo: Headspace; designed by Quinn Lemmers)

The Unwind is Yahoo Life’s well-being series in which experts, influencers and celebrities share their approaches to wellness and mental health, from self-care rituals to setting healthy boundaries to the mantras that keep them afloat.

Eve Lewis Prieto has a knack for putting people to sleepand she doesn't mind being told so. As director of meditation for the mindfulness app Headspace, Prieto's crisp and calming tone has lulled users to dreamland — or at least to a more zen state of mind — as the voice of its guided meditations. Now, the meditation guru is narrating seven animated episodes for Headspace's Guide to Sleep, a new docuseries debuting on Netflix this week. 

Sleep is a subject that's taken on new significance during the pandemic, Prieto tells Yahoo Life, noting that Headspace's sleep content is among its most popular offerings. 

"We've all been struggling in varying degrees with what's happening," she says. "In the day we might be busy, occupied working, juggling homeschooling, trying to get some boundaries within our work and our home environment. Then we get to bed and the mind is still very much active. We're still very much in a 'doing' mode. And so really the intention of the series is to help introduce a lot of the science behind sleep — I think we all have our own versions of what makes up a restful night's sleep — but also to provide some tools and tips for introducing awareness to our sleeping patterns and putting a bit of a gap between our day and how we wind down for the evening."

Here, she sounds off on sleep, why meditation isn't about trying to "push thoughts away" and what it's like to bring people "a bit of calm into their day."

How does one become a meditation and mindfulness expert?

My journey into meditation and mindfulness started about 10 years ago. I was living in London, working in advertising. I was experiencing a lot of stress and anxiety in my life, and things hadn't been going particularly well. My father had been ill for a number of years, I was in a lot of debt... life was just pretty difficult but I didn't really identify that I was feeling stressed and anxious. I just thought that's how you felt when things were a bit rubbish. And it was having a significant impact on my sleep and my day-to-day relationships, and a friend of mine sent me an article about Headspace. And she said, "You should try this."

I was pretty dismissive at first, honestly. I really associated meditation with being a very religious practice, very spiritual, and I kind of shut it down. I continued to feel worse and worse and she nudged me again and I tried what was the first version of Headspace at the time, our first app. I'll never forget my first session. And it's not that my stress and anxiety immediately went away, but I was able to see that I didn't necessarily need to feel how I was feeling all the time, and I could really start to take a different perspective to some of the things that were happening in my life. And really importantly, I actually started to get to know myself a little bit better. 

And then a series of relatively auspicious coincidences happened. I continued my meditation practice. I decided that my work in advertising was actually making me pretty unhappy, and I was actually going to go and train as a Pilates teacher. I'd always been really interested in exercise and movement, and it felt like the right path for me. I'd signed up to a training program... and I just happened to be having a chat with a very good friend of mine and [told her that] I'd love to work with someone like Headspace and it turns out she used to work very closely one of our founders. I got in touch with them and my journey at Headspace started and I never did my Pilates training. And over the years at Headspace, I've been really fortunate to work with [co-founder] Andy Puddicombe... and it really sparked my interest in not only learning more about my own practice but in wanting to understand and be able to teach people the benefits of this as well... I trained as a teacher under Andy's guidance a couple of years ago, and I now work to help introduce other meditation teachers to our members as well. So it's been quite a journey over the last 10 years. 

And now you're working with Netflix on the Headspace Guide to Sleep series. Why is sleep such a hot topic right now?

Sleep is universal; we all need to eat and we all need to sleep. Our mission at Headspace is to help improve the health and happiness of the world, and if you're not getting good sleep, and restful sleep and restorative sleep, it can have pretty significant consequences to your well-being. We also understand that people will have different ways to experience mindfulness, and one of those ways is to help bring about a greater awareness to our sleeping patterns. 

I think particularly this past year, as people have experienced heightened amounts of anxiety and stress due to the pandemic, it's had a detrimental effect on a lot of people's sleep — myself included. I used to have really bad sleeping patterns before I started meditation and mindfulness. Thankfully over the years, that's really improved, but this past year, some of those niggles with my sleep have come back in because of what's been happening. That sense of unrest and uncertainty in the mind has been pretty prevalent. 

Was there something you were really surprised to learn about sleep?

I always assumed that you really had to get eight hours of sleep a night. That was absolutely what I firmly believed, and goodness knows where I learned that from, but it's definitely something that I tried to stick to. And I always believed if I wasn't getting eight hours, I was failing at sleep, and therefore I would feel like, if I hadn't got that, I would feel a little groggy and frustrated. And actually eight hours is a bit of a myth; it's really between seven and nine hours, and that's generally going to shift over a lifetime. You might need more sleep at some point in your life, and less at other points in your life. So for me, I was like, wow, OK, I don't need to hold myself to eight hours of sleep. My sweet spot is around seven to seven and a half [hours]. I was quite surprised by that. 

When it comes to meditation, so many people have trouble getting out of their own heads or feel like they're not doing it right. Do you have any advice?

It's extremely normal. What you're really describing is that sort of doubting mind, that sense of am I doing this right? Why am I feeling a certain way? And that's really normal because when we think about doing a practice like meditation, we go into it hoping that we will get a certain result out of it, and that is to be expected. And so I think a lot about how the practice of meditation is really working with your mind, however, it is. Some days it's going to feel really, really busy and there's going to be a lot going on. 

When those times happen — and maybe they happen a lot — it doesn't matter how often you're getting distracted, how often you're losing focus on the breath. It's more about how you noticed that you're getting distracted. And so I think the more resistance we put out — I'm not doing this right, I should be feeling this way — then the harder the practice will become because you're sort of aiming for a certain outcome. So I think, have patience and kindness; I think we're really, really good at beating ourselves up. And so just recognizing that voice, recognizing that inner critic and going, you know what, today my mind is just busy. my body is feeling a bit restless, that's just how I'm feeling and trying to meet it with a sense of kindness and just allowing space for whatever comes up. We're not trying in meditation to push thoughts away, push feelings away. It's actually about giving them space to be there. Often that's when we notice that they shift and change, and in most cases, dissipate.

How do you relax? People often have this perception of wellness experts being blissed out 24/7.

I absolutely do not live a 24/7 blissful existence. Life's difficult, right? Lots of difficult things are gonna happen. Even though I'm a meditation and mindfulness teacher and I work at Headspace, that doesn't mean that I get to avoid all of the challenges that life presents. Definitely not the case... Stress and anxiety were affecting my life in a lot of ways [before] and I do find that if I'm not taking care of my mind and my body, it's very easy to fall back into those habits and those ways of approaching difficult situations. So one of the biggest things I do to help maintain that sense of balance in the mind and body is my meditation practice — which is probably not going to come as a major surprise. 

I meditate in the mornings, before I start my day. I've found it helps to set me up for the day, particularly if I've maybe had a restless night's sleep and my mind might be quite busy. It really helps to bring a sense of balance. But you know, we can't sit in meditation all day [laughs] so I really try and get out at lunchtime just to have a walk. We're spending a lot of time in front of our screens and just breaking that connection and getting out and seeing some sunlight [helps]. 

And honestly, at the end of the day, I love having a bubble bath. I can't do that every day, but that's really my way of just putting down the day. I might listen to a podcast, read my book, maybe watch something, but it's a great way for me to just really slow down. And something in the day that I often do — like this morning, for example, with having a couple of interviews, there's a bit of nervous energy there. When I feel like that I really try and come into my body: feel my feet on the floor, my hand in my lap, and just rest with my breath for, say, five or 10 breaths. It's a really great way to not only calm those feelings down, but to just come into the present moment. We're not going to get it right all the time, but I think if we can bring a bit of awareness into how we're feeling, we're more likely to catch ourselves when we're potentially going to get carried off into those feelings of anxiety or stress or negative rumination. 

Your voice is incredibly soothing. Do you ever get reactions like that from people who listen to your guided meditations?

What's funny is I'll meet people and they'll say, "Oh, I was in bed with you last night" because they're using my exercises to get to sleep. So that's kind of taken a bit of getting used to. I joke with my husband that people take me to bed at night — obviously, you know, digitally [laughs]. So that's interesting and it does take a bit of getting used to, but the reason why I trained and the reason I do this work is if I can just play a small part in either helping people get to sleep or helping bring a bit of mindfulness, a bit of spaciousness, a bit of calm into their day, that makes me really happy. I get to do something that can help others, which is a very gratifying and humbling experience. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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