A Science of Sleep

My infatuation with Ayurveda still feels new, it’s only been a few weeks. That’s why it’s so amazing to me that it already has made such a huge impact on my life. The biggest change Ayurveda has led me to – perhaps like a lot of significant changes – is concerning something seemingly banal: my sleeping rhythm.

I already knew about myself that I really am a morning person. I have always loved the early hours, rising with the rest of nature. Most of all I have the best energy to get things done in the morning. Already in the early afternoon I feel like I can’t work/be productive anymore. After 4pm I really want to be done. The evening hours are definitely not mine, I get like a little kid: way too tired but still throwing because some part of me doesn’t want to go to bed. It’s a What?!-Surely-this-can’t-be-everything-something -more-needs-to-happen kind of mood. Do you know what I mean?

Yet when I had no external reason that forces me to get up early, I simply could not bring myself to do it. I have tried many times, and failed. I was trapped in that vicious circle of not being able to go to bed early, then for fear of lack of sleep not being able to get up early, either (or maybe it’s the other way around, you know, the hen and the chicken).

For some reason not getting enough sleep (enough being about 8 hours for me) bothered me a lot. I used to make myself even more anxious by checking out the clock, and thinking “I still have seven hours left – if I fall asleep RIGHT NOW”. I realized that that never helps (yup, I am that smart!). There is just something I resent about this tired state that you walk around in the day after, which makes it really hard to function even when you have to. Thus, whenever I could let myself sleep in, I did.

Thanks to these amazing Ayurveda books (man, am I sounding like a salesperson on a teleshopping channel or what?), I came to understand why my way of trying to compensate for lack of sleep did not work. Also, I’ve come to understand that being tired is not so much connected to actual lack of sleep but depends on what time of day you get up. After about two weeks, I now get up between 5 am and 6 am – without even setting an alarm. I try to make a point of going to bed between 9 pm and 10 pm, which works for the most part (and when it doesn’t turn out that way, it is now more often than not a deliberate choice because I choose to meet up with friends or something). The more important point: I am now able to fall asleep within minutes of going to bed, which has NEVER been normal for me. Even as a kid I often was the last person laying awake in their bed.

Before I go into what the Ayurveda take on sleep is, I just want to say that if you are not familiar with Ayurveda, then a few of the terms will probably be confusing. I am aware of that, and I do want to write more about the basic stuff – but I just felt like writing about this today, so I am just going be so bold as to refer you to “the internet”. I assume that that’s what you all do anyway – look up stuff you don’t know. Although it would obviously be much neater if I wrote everything in “the right order”, one post building on the next, it would not be very authentic (I know there is a better word, but I can’t come up with it right now). I don’t know about you but I am not really used to this concept yet, so I need to remind myself of this: You don’t need me to explain the world to you, and I do not need to sacrifice the impulse to write about anything to formal or stylistic rules. This linear way of expressing things/ourselves is no longer necessary today. We are free. To make the reading not completely aggravating, I will probably insert a few short explanation here and there anyway, but I will not go into too much detail. You would probably have found it yourself but here’s a link to an Ayurveda 101.

So what is the Ayurvedic take on sleep?

There are very few universal Ayurvedic recommendations, since we are not all the same in most regards. We do have different needs when it comes to how much sleep are good for us (ranging from six to eight hours, give or take), also depending on the season, where we are in our lives, etc. One thing that does apply to everyone, however, is that we are all part of nature, who “awakens” in the morning, and that lays down to rest in the evening. So should we.

Ayurveda knows five elements (space, air, fire, water, earth) and three natural forces or energy forms (doshas) which reflect the energies of the five elements in different ways: Vata, Pitta and Kapha. This relates to sleep not only in so far as these doshas describe our own constitutions (which in turn determines how much sleep we need). The doshas are also linked to different phases of the day.

Each of the three doshas is dominant during two periods in a day:

6 am to 10 am – Morning’s Kapha period

10 am to 2 pm – Mid-day Pitta period

2 pm to 6 pm – Afternoon’s Vata period

6 pm to 10 pm – Evening’s Kapha period

10 pm to 2 am – Nighttime’s Pitta period

2 am to 6 am – Morning’s Vata period

Have you ever noticed that you woke up early in the morning – but then decided, “Nah, it’s too early!”, went back to sleep – and woke up hours later, even more tired?

That’s happened to me many times. The explanation, according to Ayurveda, is, that if you sleep through the Kapha period (Kapha having qualities like “heavy”, “stable”, “earthy”, etc.), that dosha rises in your own constitution – meaning, that you feel “heavier” = it gets harder to wake up. This excess Kapha then influences you throughout the day. (Of course a lot of other factors play in, like always. The extend of the effects are different depending on your dominant dosha(s) in the particular situation.)

Ideally one should get up in the beginning of the morning’s Kapha period. And, looky there: the second Kapha period is between 6 pm and 10 pm, which is when nature prepares to “call it a day”. Here we should take advantage of the Kapha qualities, and do the same: finish up and unwind, so that we can go to bed, and ideally go to sleep by the end of that period.

Because the period that follows is dominated by the firy Pitta-dosha. When I read this it suddenly made sense to me how I could be tired, yet feel like I didn’t want to go to bed: I had pushed past Kapha period, and my Pitta dosha was rising again (Pitta also happens to be my dominant dosha, thus re-enforcing the effect).

So how do you break the cycle? And how do you compensate for lack of sleep?

The first rule seems to be: Whatever changes you are going to make, make them gradually. I somehow missed that part, so I went straight from sleeping until 12pm to getting up at 6 am. I had a burning stomach after every meal for over a week (still do, sometimes), and if I am connecting the dots correctly, that is the result of the sudden shift in my doshas. Before, when I slept long hours and through the morning Kapha and half of the morning Pitta period, Kapha naturally was more dominant in me. I really did have less energy then, despite getting so much sleep, as I thought. After the switch in my waking hours, my Pitta energy basically went through the roof, and all the spicy things I usually ate, that were before ok with my Kapha dominance, suddenly were too much. Sounds complicated, I know, and in a way it is, when you believe that everything is connected, which is what Ayurveda is all about. But it makes sense. Therefore:

Don’t quit any behavior “cold turkey”.

Get up 15 to 30 minutes earlier every day, and go to bed 15 to 30 minutes earlier every day – until you’ve got your ideal rhythm.

If you do get too little sleep, still get up at your usual time, and no later than 8 am. Don’t try to make up for it by letting yourself sleep in (the reasons have hopefully become apparent by now). Instead make sure that you do go to bed earlier the next day, and try to go easy on yourself during the day. I suppose for some it’s ok to take naps in the afternoon, I just know that that doesn’t work for me at all. But again, Ayurveda is all about being your own expert, so you really know what works best for you.

Well, this has turned into another long post with no pictures. I am sharing this anyway, hoping that you find this information as helpful as I did. I wish you the best for whatever changes you are making or hoping to make in your life. Remember to be kind to yourself, and forgiving if you find yourself not able to make certain changes.

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