The Ayurvedic Approach To Sleep

(Authored By Margaret Doyle)

Ayurveda is the sister science to hatha yoga and is fully documented in the Vedic literature of ancient India.  To understand the Ayurvedic take on sleep we must first understand the concept of tri-dosha. The word dosha can be translated as conditions or qualities, of which there are three.

These qualities are manifestations of the five elements – earth, water, fire, air and ether (also called space). According to the Ayurvedic system, not only are these elements present in our environment, but also within everyone to varying degrees. Our days, seasons and food are also categorized as tri-dosha and exert their influence upon us accordingly.  In fact,everyone is influenced by their body, their mind and their environment and this includes the time of day, time of year, the food we eat, our actions etc. Although there are only three basic types of constitutions, everyone carries a unique combination of these three conditions.

The three conditions are kapha, vata and pitta and while all three will be present, most people have a predominance of one or two of them.  As mentioned, these three conditions or doshas are manifestations of the five basic elements and they embody the qualities unique to each of these elements. Therefore,everyone’s physiological and psychological make-up is simply differing combinations of these elements and therefore will react in a different way to influences. Sometimes,due to some adverse influence which is out of sync with our dosha,we experience imbalanceswhich are felt as some sort of disease of the body or mind. Therefore, it is in our best interests to be mindful of the influences upon us and keep our doshas in balance.

Kapha dosha is ruled by earth and water. When you think of the qualities of earth and water these are the qualities of this dosha: heavy, oily, cool, static, soft, stable and slow.Those who have a predominance of kapha qualities are usually physically quite strong with good stamina although there is a tendency to carry excess weight. Their movement is slow and by nature they are tolerant, calm, forgiving and loving, although when they are out of balance they can be greedy, attached, lazy, become envious and possessive. Kaphas tend to have no trouble falling asleep or staying asleep and usually their only sleep challenges are waking up and oversleeping.

Vata dosha is ruled by ether and air and embodies the qualities of these elements which are dry, cold, light, moving, changeable, subtle, rough and quick. Vata people tend to be slim, not very strong and either on the short or tall side with prominent bone structure. They are fast and changeable and restless. They tend to be inspirational and artistic but when this dosha is out of balance they can become unstable, fearful and worried. Because of their restlessness vatas tend to find sleep quite challenging. They often have trouble falling asleep and once asleep have trouble staying asleep. These people may also be troubled by sleepwalking. To get a good night’s sleep vata people may benefit from a grounding type yoga practice which includes relaxation and meditation before turning in for the night.

Pitta dosha is ruled by fire and water and displays heat, sharpness, light and moistness. Pitta is responsible for digestion not only of foods but also emotions, sensory impressions and ideas. Those of a pitta constitution tend to be of medium build with very sharp minds and intellect. They are usually quite ambitious and tend to do well as leaders, teachers and scientists. Because of their fiery constitution, they usually find the heat uncomfortable and prefer the cooler weather. When out of balance, extra heat is produced in the body which can manifest as anger, rashes or hyperacidity. People with a predominance of pitta usually have a pretty good night’s sleep although for some whose lives are full to the brim with ideas and work, insomnia can be a problem and their sleep may be disrupted by intense dreams. Pitta people therefore sleep much better if they spend time winding down with non-stimulating type activities like yoga stretches and slow deep breathing before they retire.

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Ayurveda recognises that for optimal health the times that we sleep and wake and the activities that we do throughout the day such as the times that we eat, meditate and exercise should all be governed by an awareness of the dosha that is most prominent at each time of day.  According to this system the twenty-four-hour period of the day is divided up into four hourly segments and each time slot is governed by one of the three doshas.

In connection with eating, pitta is prevalent two hours before and after midday therefore the advice is to eat the largest meal of the day when pitta’s digestive fire is strongest which is around midday. Because kapha is prevalent during the morning from 6 – 10 am and kapha’s quality is heavy, dull, slow and steady we are advised to eat a light breakfast so as not to aggravate our kapha tendencies. Similarly, our evening meal would be best to be eaten in the vata time from 2 – 6 pm before kapha exerts its influence. The evening mealshould also be a time of eating lightly, preferably nothing too dry which would aggravate vata.

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The Ayurvedic advice to eat the evening meal early will also benefit the quality of our sleep.Accordingly, we should eat before the digestion gets sluggish during kapha time which starts around 6 pm and lasts until around 10 pm. You may notice as the evening wears on that your body and mind start winding down as kapha gathers more momentum, consequently the recommendation is to retire between 9 and 10 pm. This is a wise move as the alert and active qualities of pitta start kicking in after then and you will very likely find it hard to relax into a drowsiness that invites sleep.

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If you are awake at this time you will find the pitta characteristics of heat, energy, creativity and intellect kicking in as you get your second wind. Unfortunately, if you do succumb to this Pitta energy and stay up late, your body will miss out on what it’s really meant to be doing this time of night which is using this pitta energy to digest any remaining food in the system and repair and renew itself.  This pitta energy between 10 pm and 12 am when the mind is resting is said to be the most beneficial for our nervous system then between 12 am and 2 am our bodies are being replenished with prana, subtle energy.

If,however we stay up till around 2 am the vata energy will be prevalent whichalso not a good time to be trying to get a good night’s sleep. The quality of vata is light, subtle andrestless and so too will be our sleep. In fact,apparently,we start the process of waking up around this time which means the depth of our sleep is lightened although we remain relaxed and using the time to gather our energy.

Vata is prevalent until sunrise or around 6 am and just before this, it is time to start getting up. Those who are on a spiritual journey are advised to risearound 4 am and take advantage of the subtle creative qualities of vata in an early morning meditation practice. In general,however,for their health and well-being,kapha type people who tend to be sluggish and in general need less sleep are advised to wake at least 90 minutes before sunrise, pitta typeswho use up more energy and need a little more sleep should wake 45 minutes before sunrise and vataswhose nervous systems need long soothing sleeps should sleep in till 30 minutes before sunrise.

If,however we sleep past 6 am, or after sunrise, kapha’s quality of heaviness is more dominant and we will start our day feeling sluggish and rushed. However, this kapha time is a good time to get the body moving, great for an early morning yoga workout or a brisk walk and some deep breathing. You can also add the habit of listening to some meditation music to start your day

Ayurveda also offers some helpful tips for a good night’s sleep.  According to Ayurveda, the right side of our body is infused with vibrant, positive, solar type energy whereas the left side is the subtler lunar type energy. Therefore, if one is accustomed to sleeping on their left side it will be suppressing the lunar type energy and fostering the solar energy. This may not be conducive if one is of a pitta nature because it may affect an imbalance of pitta causing overheating, irritability, and when taken to extreme, obsessive compulsive type behaviours. So, pitta people are advised to sleep on their right side and suppress this abundance of solar energy. Vata and kapha people however are advised to suppress their lunar side which would calm the restless nervousness of the vata people and would encourage a lift of sluggishness in the kapha people.

Another Ayurvedic tip is to never sleep with the head to the north. In this position, there is a subtle repelling of the magnetic energy of the earth which causes imbalances, in fact it is advised in the ancient texts that sleeping with the head to the south or east creates strength and wellbeing whereas the head to the north or west will bring disease!

O King! It is beneficial to lie down with the head placed eastward or southward. The man who lies down with his head placed in contrary directions becomes diseased.”- Vishnu Purana

So, the Ayurvedic advice is get to bed between 9 and 10 pm and get up before 6 am, sleep on your right side if you are of pitta nature and on your left if you are kapha or vata, head to the south or east and you will have a day suffused with calmness, productivity and energy.

Ayurveda the Science of Self-Healing by Dr Vasant Lad
Vladimir Kazinets, Ayurvedic Medicine practitioner, member of National Ayurvedic Medical Association
Banyan Insights, Supporting your Ayurvedic Lifestyle


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