I’ve taken the deep breaths, the warm baths, the Xanax. I’ve tried candles and crystals and sitting cross-legged. But nothing can calm me quite like rocking. Here’s what that looks like: An adult man, mid-30s, finishes work and climbs into bed. It’s early evening still, the shades are drawn, he has yet to cook dinner. The day has been hectic — deadlines, dog to the vet, a leak beneath the sink — but that’s all behind him now, a soft quiet settling in. His head rolls on the pillow, with intention and control, from side to side, each ear touching down like the taps of a metronome. Tap. Tap. Tap. His hips follow suit, and soon his whole body is in one smooth kinesis. He feels his pulse slow and his breaths even out. He’s free, dreaming of other worlds, worlds with many moons, with humming tides. Twenty minutes pass, and something brings him back to Earth — a car alarm, or his partner asking from another room what he’s making for dinner. He climbs out of bed, lighter, less burdened. Spaghetti, he thinks.
To the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, this scene might ring a bell, summoning a term that sounds like something you may see at a remarkably boring jazz show: “sleep-related rhythmic movements,” or SRRMs. Characterized by repetitive and rhythmic motor behaviors, these movements occur mostly during quiet wakefulness or the early stages of sleep. For me, they include head and body rocking and rolling, but other movements are possible as well. And if they go so far as to disturb one’s sleep or daytime function in a profound way, or even cause an injury, a disorder diagnosis is made. SRRMs are typical in infants and children, and become less prevalent with increasing age, usually disappearing spontaneously before adolescence. Rarely are they seen in adults — but somehow here I am, approaching 40, still rocking to the beat.
My earliest memory is as a 3-year-old, when I graduated from crib to training bed. My parents tucked those guardrail bumpers beneath both sides of my mattress — a drowsy toddler in a stalled spaceship. I would rock up on my hands and knees, and then somehow fall awkwardly onto my back and into a sound sleep. My parents never thought of it as worrisome or something that needed fixing. “You were such a cute Martian in there,” my mother said to me once.
As I grew up, I finessed my technique and began to rock solely in a supine position, head rolling side to side. I gained more and more control over it — from compulsion to volition — and I recognized benefits beyond the sleep-inducing. Rocking had a soothing effect. In one study published in the journal Current Biology, it is posited that “the sensory stimulation associated with a swinging motion exerts a synchronizing action in the brain that reinforces endogenous sleep rhythms,” which may explain why rocking induces that relaxed feeling. For me, it’s a shortcut to Chill Town. It makes me less anxious, more present. And beyond all that, it just feels good.
Rocking eventually became its own end, my own personal form of meditation. In high school, I could put a day’s worth of typical teen angst behind me and rock in my water bed to Ani DiFranco or Jewel on repeat, dreaming of a future as a folk singer, of crisscrossing the country in my VW van, the first boy to headline Lilith Fair. In college, I would spend time honing the practice when my roommate was in class or out drinking. I would even turn on his black-light lava lamp to really curate a mood. When he joined a frat, I was overjoyed at the idea of his scarcity — that sweet, sweet rhythmic “me time.” It was something to look forward to, and still is. The gentle to-and-fro lowers my heart rate, my muscles loosen, the clouds part. It puts me in a trancelike state, a place of freedom where the body shifts into autopilot and the spirit can wander to a distant place, safely and without fear.
David Sedaris wrote of his experience rocking in bed as a kid in his 1997 collection “Naked”: “The perpetual movement freed my mind, allowing me to mull things over and construct elaborately detailed fantasies. Toss in a radio, and I was content to rock until 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning, listening to the hit parade and discovering that each and every song was about me.” It was revelatory to read that essay: I wasn’t the only Martian out there.
That said, it isn’t the first thing I bring up with people at a party (not that I go to many of those these days): “Hi, I’m David. That’s such a cool tank top. Rocking is how I meditate. Ooh, are those crab cakes?” My close friends who know about it use words like “quirky” and “so you” on the off chance it comes up. And I suppose it’s true that rocking is not for everyone, especially those who dizzy easily. It takes time to master. But the day is long, and the rhythm is out there.
In some ways, these movements are whispering to you already. I’ve seen you. The way your head sways to that one song, your eyes close and the universe presents itself. The way your body bounces on a rattling train home, to such a perfect beat that you’re sent swiftly into a daydream. You’ve sought solace in a porch swing. A sense of balance in a hammock. Reprieve in a rocking chair. All steppingstones to the good stuff.
Later in his essay, Sedaris wrote: “What, I wondered, was an average person expected to do while stretched out in a darkened room? It felt pointless to lie there motionless and imagine a brighter life.” What better way to re-center than with a little rhythm. What better way to find stillness than to move.