“Dependent on sleep are happiness and misery, corpulence and leanness, strength and weakness, potency and impotency, intellect and non-intellect, life and death. Sleep undertaken untimely, excessively, and negatively takes away happiness and life like the other death-night. Sleep, if undertaken properly, provides happiness and life like the flashed true knowledge provided to a yogin.”
Not having a proper sleep makes us grumpy, agitated, and tired (but not necessarily sleepy enough to get some z’s). It can affect our cognitive abilities and basically make us feel slightly hungover. Not sleeping can literally be a nightmare (no pun intended).
It is thought that about one-third of us experience trouble sleeping, including insomnia. This can manifest as:
- Not being able to fall asleep
- Waking up during the night and staying awake
- Restless nights of waking and sleeping
- Waking up too early without being able to sleep again
So what can we do about it? Well, getting agitated and annoyed at 3 a.m. isn’t going to help, so let’s try something else.
- Make sure you have moved during the day. Try yoga, swimming, or simply a long walk.
- Eat by 7:30 p.m. to give the digestive system time to digest before sleep.
- Avoid stimulants such as black tea, coffee, and alcohol, which increase both vata and pitta.
- Switch off all your emails, social media, and computers at least two hours before bedtime. Electronic devices can increase vata, creating anxiety and stress.
- Go to bed before 10 p.m. This is within kapha time, which will support a calm and relaxed attitude. After 10 p.m., pitta starts to increase and we can find it hard to unwind.
- Breathe. Taking time to breathe will calm down an overactive mind very quickly.
All of the above are tips we can incorporate into our daily routine. But what if your sleep troubles are in need of more drastic measures?
Let’s say you are tired but once you are in bed you can’t fall asleep. Your mind keeps racing, you go through your to-do lists, have mental arguments and internal dialogues, you imagine all sorts of scenarios. This can be a manifestation of increased vata dosha.
To pacify vata we need sweetness, warmth, and oiliness. There are several ways we can soothe vata’s mental chatter, anxiety, and overactive imagination:
- Get grounded by massaging your feet with oil. Choose a nourishing Ayurvedic vegetable or herbal oil such as sesame. Or alternatively, choose an oil that specifically calms the mind such as Sleep Easy Oil or Brahmi Oil. Abhyanga (oil massage) is very grounding. It gets you out of your head, into your body, and down to earth. Massaging the feet is almost like a self-reflexology session. The feet are also the stabilizing connection to the earth, which calms down excess air and space elements of vata.
- Enjoy a calming evening drink. Did your grandmother recommend a glass of warm milk before bed? Well, it works. In Ayurveda, we also recommend warm milk. The nature of milk from happy cows is sattvic and promotes balance. It is also sweet, slightly heavy, and unctuous. The qualities are similar to ojas, and milk is thought to be ojas-building and nurturing. Milk is excellent for vata and anyone who feels fatigued, debilitated, or in need of nourishment. Try adding some warming and comforting herbs as you warm up the milk: cinnamon, cumin, or saffron will help. You can substitute with almond or coconut milk if you are dairy-free.
What if you wake up during the night or have a restless night? This can be a manifestation of unbalanced pitta dosha. The element of fire has increased, perhaps showing up as heartburn. Or maybe you are agitated with a raging mind, irritations, and hot flashes.
Excess pitta needs to calm down with cooling, sweet, and slow qualities. Let’s explore how we can cool down this Type A personality.
- You can enjoy pada abhyanga (foot massage), but use a cooling and less sticky oil such as coconut or Brahmi Coconut Oil. Massage your nostrils and ears with a few drops to calm down the mind.
- The challenge for anyone with high pitta dosha is to relax and unwind a sharp mind, especially if there is a tendency towards anger, stress, and burn out. Try Sheetali Pranayama (Cooling Breath). Stick out the tongue and roll the sides upwards as if you were making a tube with your tongue. Now inhale slowly through the tongue. Feel a cooling sensation at the roof of the mouth calming down both the mind and body. As you exhale, simply relax the tongue. Repeat five times. If you cannot roll the tongue inhale through the teeth instead.
My own journey with insomnia has taken me through all of these steps, and they are rituals that have absolutely helped me. But there is one more lifesaving practice that has been my own personal savior: yoga nidra. Yoga nidra is translated as yogic sleep. It is a practice of staying awake and aware while the body relaxes completely. In fact, it is said that forty minutes of yoga nidra is equivalent to four hours of sleep.
Yoga nidra is a specialized guided meditation. You simply lie in Savasana (Corpse Pose), and listen to recorded instructions. Even if you wake up at 4 a.m. and listen to your yoga nidra, you will still be able to experience complete rest and rejuvenation. You might even fall asleep while listening.
You can experience a few recorded yoga nidras for free here, and there are plenty more available online.
Now, switch off the computer, drink a cup of warm milk, enjoy a gentle foot massage, and get ready to enjoy yoga nidra and a good night’s sleep. Sweet dreams.