“Happiness and unhappiness, nourishment and emaciation, strength and debility, sexual prowess and impotence, knowledge and ignorance, life and death—all are dependent on sleep.” – Ashtanga Hrydayam – verse 53, Sutra Staana
Sleep (nidra) is one of the three pillars of health in Ayurveda along with Brahmacharya (lifestyle), and Ahara (nutrition). Good quality sleep during the optimum time and of optimum duration is essential to maintaining sound health.
What is healthy sleep? According to Ayurveda, healthy sleep is one that occurs during the proper time, for a proper duration, and most importantly that one feels rested, refreshed, clear and with balanced energy upon waking. Sleep has primarily two stages: deep sleep and sleep with dreams. Deep sleep is needed for the body to feel refreshed and nourished. Dreams are also important for the processing of impressions and memory and for the subconscious mind to express itself. Dreams may also give us insight into what is going on, emotionally, and spiritually which is usually under the surface of our conscious mind, but it is in deep sleep that we truly let go. Deep sleep has been likened to the state of samadhi in which the subject and object are merged into one, except for in deep sleep there is a lack of consciousness of this state.
“Warm embrace of the beloved, bliss, contentment and those that are pleasing to the mind would provide sound sleep.” -Verse 67, Asthanga Hridayam
When should you sleep? Ayurveda says that when you sleep is of critical importance. The ideal hours of sleep are between 10pm and 6am, or if waking earlier 9pm-5am or 8pm-4am, in that range. Being asleep by 10pm is important because starting at 10pm, the pitta time begins (10pm-2am). During this pitta time, the body and mind are doing regeneration and processing the mental, sensory and emotional perceptions. Heat increases in the body. If one stays up past 10, one often feels a “2nd wind”, which can be attributed to the burning and transforming energy of pitta.
For night shift workers it is best to sleep as early as possible after the night shift. Day sleep may be taken to compensate for lost night sleep. The recommendation from the classic texts is to sleep for half the time that one has been awake in the morning before taking food. (Asthanga Hridayam, verse 65)
For others not working night shifts, day sleep is not advised except for the very young and very old, pregnant women, and those with high vata or debilitating conditions. In the summer season when the weather is very hot, a short afternoon nap may be taken, not longer than 20-30 min.
The effects of untimely sleep:
Untimely sleep causes moha (confusion), jvara (fever), staimitya (stiffness), pinasasa (running nose), siroruk (headache), kasa (cough), hrllasa (hyperacidity), srotorodha (obstruction of metabolic pathways) and agnimandya (dyspepsia). – verse 61, Astangha Hrydayam
When to wake up? One should ideally wake up during the vata time (2am-6pm) which ends at 6am. The ideal time to wake up according to the Vedic texts is two muhūrtas before dawn (one muhūrta is 48 minutes), so that is 96 minutes before dawn. It is said that that time is the best time to engage in spiritual practice and meditation as this is a sattvic time of day and the mind and body are fresh to receive divine inspiration. Since that may be too early for many people, Ayurveda takes a practical approach and advises to at least get up with the sunrise.
How long should one sleep? This depends on the individual and their constitution. Usually vata predominant constitutions need slightly more sleep (at least 8 hours), pitta predominant individuals need a moderate amount of sleep (7-8 hours), and kapha predominant individuals can do well with a slightly shorter duration of sleep (6-7 hours). This depends on many circumstances, time of year and the person’s age and general state of health. Just as undersleeping can lead to many health conditions and weaken the body mind system, too much sleep can lead to health problems as well, especially the formation of ama (stagnation, or toxins in the body) and increased tamas (dullness) in the mind.
Diet to Promote Healthy Sleep
Ayurveda calls the digestive system the master system of the body. When the digestive system or agni (the internal transformative fire) is functioning well, the food eaten can be assimilated to the body and nourish all the tissues and the mind. A balanced diet and digestive system can have a profound influence on the quality of sleep. The quality of sleep also has a profound influence on the strength of digestion (agni) and general strength and immunity of the body.
Ayurveda stresses that food should be fresh, well cooked, warm and include the six tastes in a balanced meal (sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter and astringent). Cold, stale, leftover, and all processed and packaged foods should be avoided as this causes ama. Learning to eat according to one’s Ayurvedic constitution helps one to stay balanced. In the same way that physical ama may accumulate by weak agni, Ayurveda also has the concept that mental ama may develop from unprocessed thoughts, feelings and emotions.
A few suggestions for achieving healthy sleep through diet:
- Finish the evening meal at least three hours before sleeping, ideally by 7pm at the latest so the body has time to digest before sleep. Solid foods should not be taken after dinner.
- Have three meals each day. The mid-day meal should be the largest. Dinner should be lighter and easy to digest. Avoid very heavy foods, and spicy and very salty foods especially in the evening.
- Avoid food that is too light, dry or cold and avoid going to bed hungry, which can increase vata. If vata dosha is increased and digestion is good, and no ama (stagnation, weak digestion) is present, eat more warm, heavy, sweet, oily, and grounding foods to increase kapha dosha. Good quality kapha is needed for healthy sleep.
- Avoid alcohol and stimulants, especially in the afternoon and evening
- Eat mindfully with appreciation and avoid emotional or upsetting conversion or eating while distracted or working.
Routines and Lifestyle to Promote Healthy Sleep
Dinacharya (daily routine), ratacharya (nightly routine) and ritucharya (seasonal routine), are the backbone daily practices of Ayurveda to promote health and longevity. Keeping daily, nightly and seasonal rhythms are essential to maintain good health and quality sleep. Routines help to connect us with the natural rhythms of day and night and with the seasons, so that the body may function optimally according to circadian rhythms which are hardwired into our brain and hormonal system. Below are routine suggestions for to healthy sleep:
- Go to sleep and wake up at the same time each day, even on the weekend. Aim to be turning out the lights by 9:30 and asleep by 10pm, and wake by sunrise. Even when traveling try to quickly adjust to the local time.
- Refrain from using screens in the evening. Turn off screens and devices at least an hour before bedtime. Keep your phone and wifi routers away from the bed and bedroom if possible.
- Refrain from intense or emotional conversations in the evenings, or doing evening/night work, or doing tasks that are stimulating or involve planning or analysis
- Before shower or bath, practice abhyanga, or self oil massage daily in the direction of the hair growth to relax the body, mind and nervous system, especially for VP doshas: warm sesame oil for vata prakriti, coconut for pitta. Do not do it if there is kapha aggravation, ama, congestion, fever.
- Bath or shower may be taken each morning and/or in the evening before bed to calm and refresh the body, but do not shower right after eating as this harms digestion. Wait at least two hours after the meal to bathe.
- After dinner, and before bed do some calming activities such as listening to gentle music, take an evening walk, if the weather is nice, sit outside and watch the moon, or do some simple pranayama and restorative yoga poses and shavasana.
- Before bed golden milk with turmeric and nutmeg may be taken, or herbal teas such as camomile, valerian, passion flower
- Rub the feet with sesame oil before sleep
- Sleep in a dark, cool, clean place free from disturbances
- Adjust your routine according to the seasons. Even though it is dark for long periods in winter, prolonged sleep in winter can cause kapha accumulation.
- It is not recommended to sleep with the head in the North direction if possible due to the magnetism of the North pole (this is extremely subtle), any other direction is fine.
Overall, the approach is to reduce and balance vata and pitta doshas and rajo guna. We do need to increase sattva and tamo guna in order to induce sleep.
Herbs and Bodywork to Promote Healthy Sleep
The following single herbs and spices may be helpful to promote a calm mind and induce sleep:
- Valerian root
- Passion flower
- Jatamansi oil
- Golden milk with turmeric and nutmeg
Most of these herbs have a nervine quality, which means they help calm the mind and nervous system. Valerian, camomile and passion flower can be taken in a tea form after dinner, before bed.
Brahmi and ashwagandha can be taken in a capsule form, taken with warm water or milk before bed.
The following bodywork practices are helpful in calming the mind and inducing sleep:
- Padabhyanga – Warm sesame oil is massaged into the feet and soles before bedtime
- Siro abhyanga – Warm sesame oil is applied to the head and scalp in gentle massaging strokes and then washed off with warm water (not hot water)
- Siro Dhara – This bodywork technique requires a practitioner to help you to apply a continuous stream of oil to the forehead which streams over the head and is recollected.
It is said in Ayurveda that oil, especially sesame oil is the best substance to relieve vata dosha, ghee is the best substance to relieve pitta and honey is the best substance to relieve kapha.
Sesame oil mixed with jatamansi oil may be applied to the forehead, temples, crown of head, hands and feet to soothe vata.
Releasing Stress: Yoga Asana and Pranayama to Help with Insomnia
“If I say, ‘relax your brain,’ you cannot do it. If I put you in a certain asana, your brain relaxes, and you become quiet. This is the beauty of yoga. If you do halasana (Plough pose) your brain becomes completely quiet. If you are dejected mentally, you can do Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (a pose in which the body is arched like a bridge) for ten minutes and the depression disappears, though you do not know how this transformation has occurred. This is how the body is used to cultivate the mind. When the suffering, depressed mind is cured, the light of the soul can itself radiate to the surface of our being.” -B.K.S. Iyenagar, p. 80-81 Light on Life
Yoga asanas and pranayama are like a tonic for the body/mind system. The asanas have a biochemical, hormonal effect on the body, which is further enhanced by the sequence of asanas and the manner in which they are performed. Used correctly, asanas or sequences of asana and pranayama can go a long way to eliminating the main root cause of insomnia which is stress and an anxious mind.
I have compiled the following sequences of yoga asanas and pranayama to address insomnia and to aid healthy sleep. All asanas should be done with normal breathing, and a calm and relaxed brain and attention, do not strain the body or mind.
This sequence can be used as afternoon/evening practice to calm the and quiet the mind and “wind down” after a day’s work, or in the morning:
Adho Mukha Svanasana, Downward Facing Dog, head supported
Uttanasana, Standing forward extension, head on block or chair
Prasarita Padottanasana/ Wide leg forward extension, head on block or chair
Sirsasana/Headstand, or rope sirsasana
Janusirsasana/ Head to knee pose, head supported, use more height as needed
Triang Mukhaikapada paschimottanasana, Thee angle forward bend, head supported
Paschimottanasana, head supported, use as much height as needed
Supta Baddha Konasana, cover eyes, use support under knees
Halasana/Plow pose and Sarvangasana/ shoulder stand, with blankets and chair
And/OR Sarvangasana/ Shoulderstand with chair
Ardha Halasana/Half plough pose supported
Paschimottanasana, head supported
Savasana, also cover eyes for relaxation of the brain
The following sequence will help one to recover after a poor night’s sleep:
Pranayama: It is advised to learn under the guidance of a qualified yoga teacher. See Light on Pranayama by B.K.S Iyengar for detailed descriptions. This is a general list only.
Ujjai II, Conquers breath. Reclining over a spinal support, take normal inhalations and slightly extended exhalations. Support the spine over the folded blanket shown above.
Bhamari, reclining with shanmukhi mudra, or eye wrap – The bumblebee breath with eyes covered, focusing on the sound and vibration. This pranayama calms the mind, the humming sound induces sleep.
Chandra Bhedana, Using the thumb and ring and little finger, block the right nostril and inhale through the left nostril, exhale through the right. This pranayama activates the lunar energy, or the ida nadi and is cooling and quieting.
Nadi Shodhana -Alternate nostril breathing. This pranayama is balancing and cleansing. The nerves are calmed and purified and the mind becomes still and lucid.
Shanmukhi Mudra, or headwrap – This turns the senses inward and blocks incoming sensory stimuli to quiet the mind.
Savasana – Refreshes the whole system, “It banishes fear (bhaya) of death and creates fearlessness (abhaya). The Sadhaka experiences a state of serenity and inner oneness.” (Light on Pranayama)
Meditation or dhyana is the “art of self study, reflection, keen observation and the search for the infinite within… It is the discovery of the self.” (Iyengar, Light on Pranayama, p. 223) Practicing meditation, even for a short duration each day can have profound effects. However, to go deep in this practice, a teacher and consistency is required. It can be approached with care by beginners and those looking for relief from states of stress by sitting quietly, observing the body, breath and thoughts. The key is observation without getting involved, by witnessing. Relaxation is a prerequisite of the practice, so if one is feeling anxious, asana and gentle pranayama may be practiced before attempting meditation.
Psychologically, the opposite of anxiety is acceptance, and the opposite of stress is letting go, surrendering, and developing trust. By doing our best work, and then letting go of attachment to the results or the fruits, as taught by the Bhagavad Gita, this practice helps to keep the mind in a calm and balanced state, free from attachment, anxiety and worry.
Ayurveda offers a wide variety of ways for promoting healthy sleep and addressing the underlying causes of insomnia, namely by correcting agni, balancing the doshas and reducing the impact of stress on the mind body system. This paper offers a springboard for those who wish to explore and go deeper. Each one of these facets of treatment could have been a book in and of itself.
May all beings be happy and find peace. Om shanti, shanti, shanti.
This blog post is a par of a larger paper: Relieving Insomnia and Supporting Healthy Sleep Through Ayurveda and Yoga. Click below to read full paper:
T. Shreekumar MD (Ay), PdD, translation. Ashtanga Hridayam. 2007, Harishree Publications, Thrissur Kerala, India.
Iyengar, B.K.S :
Light on Life: The Yoga Journey to Wholeness, Inner Peace, and Ultimate Freedom. 2005, Holtzbrinck Publishers, United States of America.
Light on Pranayama. 1985, The Crossroads Publishing Company, New York, NY.
Yoga: The Path to Holistic Health by B.K.S Iyengar, 2014. DK, Publishing, London. Revised Edition.
Swami Muktibodhanada. Hatha Yoga Pradipika. 1998, Yog Publications Trust, Munger Bihar, India. Third edition.
Cengage Online Course, Fundamentals of Anatomy and Physiology. http://www.cengage.com