Sleep is needed for physical and mental homeostasis. We sleep for around one-third of our lives, in order to recover our bodies and process the impressions we experienced during the day. Sleep promotes good Ojas, the ‘immune system’, and resilience of the mind.
Sleep deprivation is called 'Nidra Nasha' or 'Anidra' in Sanskrit. We all know that lack of sleep, insomnia, and poor-quality sleep impair normal functioning, and this can be a disease in itself or a symptom of another physiological or mental impairment.
Our five senses manage the impressions we take in. At night we withdraw the senses from the external world, let them rest, and digest everything we took in during the day.
According to Ayurveda, different causes can be responsible for abnormal sleep. Too much sleep is caused by a lack of Rajas (activation) and/or Sattva (balanced state of mind) that leads to too much Tamas (inertia). An excess of tamas increases sleep, exertion of the mind which leads to oversleeping, exertion of the body, sleep as a fatal sign, or as a result of disease.
Simply put, insomnia is caused by an imbalance in the doshas or in the three gunas that make up the mental state.
Usually, a person with Vata Prakriti experiences a light, irregular, and shorter sleep. Symptoms of teeth-grinding, sleepwalking and talking are more common in this person. This is because Vata regulates the nervous system. Dreams will be airy (flying) and spacey in nature. Since their sleep is light, people often wake up and have problems falling back into sleep. Vata people benefit from more hours of sleep. They need at least 7-9 hours of sleep.
A person with Pitta Prakriti usually sleeps soundly. They have more problems with falling asleep as their mind is still active. When preoccupied with something (usually work), they tend to skip sleeping. Their dreams are wild, fiery, and vivid. They need 7-8 hours of sleep.
A person with Kapha Prakriti usually has a deep and sound sleep. They are not easily disturbed or woken. They have a tendency to oversleep, while they actually don’t need it. They need 6 hours of sleep.
TAKING AWAY THE CAUSE
For example, if a person keeps him/herself awake during the night due to working night shifts, this increases roughness, Vata and Pitta. This person needs to balance this with daytime sleep and food and lifestyle choices that increase water and earth elements or oily, heavy, warm, dull, stable, smooth, soft gunas.
GO TO BED DURING KAPHA TIME, WAKE IN VATA TIME
As you know, Ayurveda is all about working with the rhythms of nature instead of going against them. So this means we go to sleep and wake up around the same time everyday and slightly adapt to the change of the season. We divide nighttime and daytime into 3 parts. The parts correspond to the dominant dosha between Kapha, Pitta, and Vata.
It's best to wake up during Vata time, work and have the biggest meal during Pitta time, finish work and be social around Vata time and go to sleep during Kapha time. Then during the night Pitta-time digests impressions, emotions. This is a very important time for the body. If we are able to digest our impressions, we feel more Sattvic (balanced) and usually, we are also better able to properly digest our food during the day which improves our health. If we make sure we really use this time of night for the digestion of mental input, our sleep and dreams become more Sattvic, so we have fewer nightmares which lead to disturbed sleep. It is a vicious or virtuous circle.
The more our internal nature is aligned with the rhythms of external nature, the better chance we have for a good night's sleep.
Sleeping during the day is usually not advisable, except for children, or those that are weak, diseased, physically or mental overexerted.
Sleeping on the right side, so the heart is free, with the head towards the east (not towards the North) is recommended in Ayurveda.
Because of a lack of relaxation, or in Ayurvedic terms, a lack of good Kapha, some types of yoga help you to slow down. Focus on staying longer in one pose at a time, focus on forward bends, and ‘Yin’ (the Chinese term for the lunar, cooling and relaxing postures) practices.
We can also relax using Pranayama, through alternate nostril breathing to balance and slow deep abdominal breathing to calm the mind. Breathing in through the left and out through the right nostril, focusing on the exhale and making it a little longer than the inhale will lead to relaxation.
Ashwagandha (Withania Somnifera) helps us sleep as it leads to a balanced mind and at the same time it balances Vata, which is responsible for an oversensitive nervous system, stress, anxiety and so sleeping problems. Jatamamsi can also be used for feelings of exhaustion caused by Vata.
Oil massage or Abhyanga can also be very efficient in promoting sleep, there are special oils with herbs that balance the doshas and the pressure, rhythm and warmth on the body also induce the right qualities.
Now we know that sleeping problems can be solved in different ways using the wisdom of Ayurveda, and why one way works for one person and not for the other. We also know why people often wake up early and cannot fall back asleep, because their Vata is too high. Why do many of us find it hard to fall asleep and think they have too much energy? Because they wait too long and end up going to bed during Pitta time. We also learned why sleeping, especially during the Kapha and Pitta time of night, is so important.
And we know that like with anything in Ayurveda, we need to find the imbalance, the cause, before we can treat the problem.