The Wisdom of Ayurveda: Reclaim a Good Night’s Sleep
How many of us can remember the last time we went to bed early, slept straight through the night undisturbed and woke up feeling refreshed? Shama Palmer shares how Ayurveda can help
by Shama Palmer
A good night’s sleep eludes so many of us. We might find it difficult to fall asleep, wake intermittently throughout the night, or awake in the early hours and lie there for some hours before dropping off again. A disturbed night’s sleep affects our relationships, and our energy to enjoy and make the most of life’s opportunities. We can find ourselves exhausted, or at least mentally and physically impaired. And often, longing desperately for a good night’s sleep, we become stressed about not being able to get to sleep, which only serves to compound the problem.
Prolonged insomnia can have adverse effects on our state of health over the long-term. Noticeable effects will be on our mood, possibly leading to depressed states, on our cognitive ability, on the condition of our skin, and even in our weight management. Other serious effects of prolonged insomnia may be less noticeable.
Causes of insomnia are many. We may experience insomnia acutely during a period of particularly severe stress, or after a traumatic time for a number of weeks or a few months. However, if insomnia is ongoing over the long-term and chronic, it can be a sign that there is a more severe underlying health issue and it is always advisable to see a GP in this case.
Ayurveda has its own perspective on the root causes and remedies for insomnia. And with an Ayurvedic understanding at your fingertips, a good night sleep may not be so far from reach as you might think. An Ayurveda practitioner would work with you, in the case of chronic insomnia, to determine the influence of both psychology and physiology on sleep, plus current and previous lifestyle patterns.
Let us look first at the physiological perspective. From an Ayurvedic perspective, insomnia can have its roots in either the Vata or Pitta doshas. Kapha dosha has qualities which support sleep, the qualities we feel when we become drowsy: those heavy, dull, static feelings. The doshas of Pitta and Vata have quite the contrary qualities: light, subtle, and in the case of Vata dosha, mobile. These qualities induce a sensitivity to the environment, sustain a mental alertness and even bring too much activity to the mind. And so, we start to find it difficult to fall asleep as in the case of insomnia induced by an elevated Pitta, or to stay asleep in the case of Vata elevation.
We can lie awake in the early hours with that ‘wired-tired’ feeling. Ayurveda recognises that the Pitta time of night is from around 10pm to 2am and the Vata time of night is from around 2am to 6am (though these times will change according to the times of sunrise and sunset). In a Pitta-type insomnia, we tend to have problems actually falling asleep, whilst in the case of an elevated Vata dosha, insomnia will cause us to wake up intermittently or in the middle of the night and perhaps not be able to return to sleep until dawn.
The causes of these dosha elevations can be multifarious, but generally relate to lifestyle and diet. They can be due to short-term or long-term imbalances in lifestyle and nutrition, and will be resolved accordingly. We might have been through a particularly stressful or traumatic time, or have had a period over-work, or we may have over-exerted ourselves in other ways, for example with long travel or through excessive physical activity. Eating and drinking stimulants through the day (coffee, alcohol) or been exposed frequently to irregular patterns of waking, rising and eating such as in long-haul travel or changing work shifts can also adversely affect the doshas. Last month I wrote about the possible effects of this transitional time of year as we move from Summer (Pitta) to Autumn (Vata). Transitions are generally considered to be aggravating to Vata dosha, but even more so when we are transitioning into a Vata time of year.
The good news is that whatever the root cause, and whether you have a Pitta or Vata-type insomnia, the prescriptions in Ayurveda are pretty much the same and should have ready results. However, please bear in mind that if lifestyle and nutrition imbalances over a long period of time resulted in an elevated Vata dosha (usually) or Pitta dosha the effects are likely to have moved more deeply into the body tissues and it is likely then to take longer to redress the imbalance. In this case, seek the guidance of an experienced Ayurveda practitioner. For example, if you had to take frequent long-haul travel as part of your work to varying time and climatic zones and have had insomnia as a consequence, you may need more long term support.
Ayurveda prescriptions that restore balance in the body will also help to restore balance to the mind. And this brings us to the psychological perspective on insomnia. There are three recognised attributes or subtle states which dominate our mind’s function. Collectively they are known as the mahagunas. Maha means ‘great’, and guna is an attribute. In Sanskrit they are sattva, rajas and tamas. Sattva is inadequately translated by any one word in the English language and is a combination of purity, equilibrium, light, balance, harmony, clarity.
Whilst Ayurveda prescriptions on the one hand aim to restore dosha balance as a crucial part of our healing, they also wish to restore our psychology to a state of sattva. However, generally our day-to-day state of mind will be dominated by one of the other two gunas. Tamas is the quality of darkness and heaviness, cloudiness: we might know it as that depressive, unmotivated, couch-potato state of mind. Rajas is activity and when we speak of a ‘rajasic’ state of mind, the inference being that there is too much activity and that the mind is over-stimulated. A rajasic state of mind is a player in insomnia, then, and the antidote is a restoration of sattva through specific lifestyle adjustments and practices.
Bringing the following adjustments to your daily routine and lifestyle, and to your diet might go a long way towards helping free you from long, sleepless nights:
- Regularity is important, particularly in your eating, working, waking and sleeping times.
- Try to go to bed by 10:15pm at the latest, and to rise around 6am.
- Eat at regular times throughout the day, and try not to skip meals especially if you have a Pitta or Vata type constitution. It’s always helpful for your sleep to eat more lightly in the evening than at lunch time and to eat early in the evening to allow time for digestion before sleep. Try to leave 4 hours for digestion.
- Aim to keep to regular working hours and avoid over-working, multi-tasking, working until late, and/or pushing yourself to depletion (Vata types) or driving yourself too competitively (Pitta types).
- After 6pm, ideally start to wind down the nervous system and calm the mind. Avoid use of devices (tablets, smart phones, computers). Avoid stressful conversations. If you like to watch TV, watch something that it is uplifting to your mind, rather than anything disturbing or adrenaline-rousing. The same goes for reading materials. Practice a little gentle yogic stretching and relaxation: many of us sleep better after a steady yoga class.
Reset your nervous system
How we begin our day, can have an impact on our state of mind and the state of our nervous system through the day which in turn of course will impact the state of our body and mind at night and consequently our sleep. Ayurveda recommends the following:
- Drink a large glass of warm water on waking. If you are waking in the Vata times of night (in the early hours) and are not able to get back to sleep, drinking a large glass of warm water at this time is said to be a sure way to help pacify Vata dosha.
- Oil your body with warm organic cold pressed sesame oil (Vata) or Sunflower oil (Pitta) on waking. Leave it for 20 minutes before taking a warm shower.
- Practice alternate nostril breathing and some guided meditation whilst the body is absorbing the oil. If you do not know the practice of alternate nostril breathing, it is one of the best things you can do for yourself. There will be many demonstrations of this wonderful practice on YouTube. It works directly to balance your autonomic nervous system and to calm your mind. Practice 4-6 rounds initially.
- Move your body. Practice some rounds of sun salutes on waking to get the circulation going and to move stress out of the body tissues, and practice with an even steady breath (equal inhalations and exhalations).
- Vata and Pitta types should not skip breakfast, and ideally Pitta types want to be eating breakfast within half an hour of waking, and Vata types probably within an hour: or simply, eat once hunger is awakened.
- Avoid stimulants: caffeine, alcohol, sugar.
- Once in bed, it is best not to work or read. Bed is for sleep.
- One hour before bed, drink a glass of hot milk with cinnamon and/or nutmeg.
- Before sleeping, take a warm bath.
- Massage the soles of your feet and temples with warm sesame oil.
- Practice alternate nostril breathing for 5 minutes (without any breath retention).
- Lying back in the bed practice sama vritti, establishing an even regular inhale and exhale: perhaps a three or four count inhale, and a three or four count exhale. Feel the body and mind relaxing and becoming heavy with each exhale.
- Don’t expect sleep. Simply resolve to do these practices which help the body and mind to relax, without expectation of a response in the body and mind otherwise we simply create more tension. Rest whilst in bed, even without sleep with the practices given here, giving the body and mind the time they need to reclaim balance.
- Mantra repetition has a powerful effect on the mind. Inwardly, silently repeat to yourself the peace mantra om namo narayanaya to help calm your mind. This mantra has been chanted for thousands of years to promote peace on individual, societal and global levels and it is said that each time we chant a mantra, we invoke the power accumulated in that mantra through all the thousands of times it has been chanted through the ages. To chant the mantra, silently repeat om namo on the inhalation and narayanaya on the exhalation.
I hope you will give even a few of these recommendations a try, and see if they can help you reclaim the wonderful gift of a good nights’ sleep. Much love to you all.
About the author
Sara Palmer (Shama) is an ayurveda practitioner and registered senior yoga teacher and therapist. If you’d like to learn more about agni, ama, ojas, your constitutional type and self care in ayurveda, Shama is running Ayurveda Living courses online.