Why sleep should be a priority.
Ayurveda, Yoga’s sister science describes sleep as a basic instinct of life and one of the three foundations to enjoy optimum health. The quality of your sleep effects your mental, emotional, and physical wellbeing. Yet, we don’t always make sleep a priority. Our busy lives have a habit of pushing our sleep boundaries. As my mum would say to me “burning the candle at both ends.” Almost a third of the UK population experience insomnia, through either problems getting to sleep or staying asleep. In Spain, this number is 20% of the population.
Think for a moment and recall the times when you have woken feeling fresh and happy after a good night’s sleep. You may notice your mind is much clearer and you have more energy. On the flip side, how frequently do you struggle to get to sleep? Or perhaps wake up during the night and then struggle to get back to sleep again? It’s very likely after a poor night sleep, you start your day feeling irritable and experience brain fog. Which makes it very difficult to be focused as you go about your day-to-day life.
Heal when you sleep.
The time you spend sleeping is the natural time for your body to heal itself, to rest, to detox and to rejuvenate. Your sleep duration and the quality of your sleep directly affect your ability to retain information and to learn. There is also a link between the relationship with sleep and gut health. If you’re not sleeping well, you are more likely to consume an additional 200 calories per day. You are also more likely to crave less healthy foods and snack throughout the day for a quick energy boost.
Improve your sleep and you will improve your mental health.
Research shows a link between long term sleep problems and mental health issues.
When you’re not sleeping well, you’re more likely to experience negative emotions and have a negative mindset.
If you regularly experience insomnia, you have a 10 times great risk of suffering with depression and 17 times the risk of experiencing anxiety.
Shorter hours asleep, also give an increased risk of hypertension.
While you are sleeping, your mind has time to rest, to deal with the stresses of the day and reset your emotional balance. Your immune system releases small inflammation fighting proteins called cytokines. (inflammation in the body is one of the main contributors to disease.) Your sympathetic nervous system rests, which means there is a reduction in cortisol, the hormone associated with stress.
In my corporate life, it was very common for me to be either struggling to get to sleep because my mind was so busy. Or I would awake during the night and struggle to return to sleep. My mind was either replaying the events of the previous day, or I was thinking through what was coming the next day. It was only when I changed my lifestyle habits and incorporated a yoga asana, pranayama and mindfulness meditation practices into my life that my sleep issues improved.
What Ayurveda says about sleep.
In the science of Ayurveda, our life is run by the biorhythms of nature and is built around the five elements: earth, water, fire, air, and ether (space). There are three ‘doshas’ which form a combination of each element. VATA (governed by air and ether), PITTA (fire and water) and KAPHA (earth and water).
We are born with all three doshas, yet we have either one or two doshas that are dominant, and it is this that defines all aspects of who we are, including how we sleep.
As adults we should be having between 6-9 hours of good sleep every night. When there are sleep issues, Ayurveda says that this is an imbalance of Vata and Pitta energy. These imbalances are caused by factors including diet, excessive stress, and lack of movement.
A 2015 research study of 995 participants confirmed the correlation between dominant dosha and sleeping habits. A person with a higher Vata constitution is more likely to have insomnia, take longer to fall asleep and feel less rested in the mornings. Whereas someone with a predominant Kapha constitution would fall asleep more easily.
If you would like to define which dosha is your dominant one you can try this quiz.
5 tips for a better night’s sleep.
1. Regularity of sleep
Living within the Circadian cycle creates a habit that your body and mind will love. Ayurveda recommends regular sleep patterns where you go to bed and get up from bed at the same time every day. You rise with the sun and rest as the sun sets. Whilst, with our modern lifestyle habits it’s not always possible to do this, try implementing regularity into your sleep habits at least five days a week.
2. Establish a bedtime routine.
When children go to bed, they may take a warm bath and we read them a story. We actively encourage children to wind down and prepare their body and mind for sleep. It makes sense that same preparation for bedtime is relevant for adults.
Light exposure plays a big part in this routine, particularly the exposure to blue light. If you think about it, we expose ourselves to light from the moment we get up until we sleep even when it’s dark outside. Your television, computer and mobile phone is built to replicate the natural light you are exposed to during the day. This tricks your nervous system to remain alert when in fact it should be preparing for sleep.
Transitioning to bedtime will help your body’s production of melatonin, the natural chemical we need for sleep. In the evening reduce your exposure too light by turning on side lamps, and lower the light on your screens. At least an hour before sleep, switch off from all technology.
3. Time you eat your evening meal.
In Ayurveda the digestive system is the second of the three pillars for optimum health. It believes improper digestion eventually results in disease. To live in accordance with the principals of Ayurveda, the main meal is eaten at lunchtime when the digestive system is at its optimum. The evening meal is lighter and eaten at least two hours before bed. This helps to reduce the work required by the digestive system, giving it enough time to rest before sleep.
Eat too late into the evening and you risk changing a healthy meal into junk food because your body is not expecting it. It has already moved into sleeping mode. Eat too late you have a great chance to wake up feeling tired, low of energy and have more hunger the following day.
An evening massage for the feet with warm oil is wonderfully pacifying for the Vata dosha. I can speak from personal experience how relaxing it is to spend a little time before bed to massage the soles of the feet. Ayurveda also recommend doing this to the scalp.
I’d also highly recommend a warm bath with epson salts before bed. It is incredibly relaxing and soothing for your nervous system.
5. Yoga, Pranayama breathwork and Meditation.
Practice gentle and restorative yoga before bed.
Gentle or Restorative Yoga is a wonderful practice for the evening. It offers you a beautiful way to wind down after your day, switching on the ‘’rest and digest’’ mode of your nervous system. When your nervous system is in relaxation mode, sleep comes easier because your mind is calmer and quieter.
Keep your movement gentle and slow, opt for postures that internalise and stimulate relaxation. Incorporate props, like blankets, blocks, and bolsters to support your body and allow you to fully relax into the posture. Hold the position for longer periods and connect into your natural breath.
Practise Pranayama (breathing practices)
If you find your mind is still racing before you go to sleep, try connecting in with your breath. It is a wonderful practice to calm your nervous system and bring your focus away from your racing thoughts and onto your calming breath.
Before you go to bed, try Bhramari pranayama, also known as the Humming Bee Breath (see picture), this is a tranquillising breathing practice that instantly brings calmness and relaxation to your body and mind. If you’re feeling a little stressed, you will instantly feel the benefits from this practice. In clinical studies, Bhramari pranayama was shown to show an immediate effect and slow the pace of breath, heart rate and lower blood pressure. All the effects you want before you go to sleep!
Practising meditation is one of the most effect techniques for quietening your mind. The thing about meditation is it’s only effective if you do it! As little of 5 or 10 minutes a day will make a big difference to your wellbeing.
The practice of Antar Mouna is a meditation practice where you focus on the thoughts from the perspective of the witness. Observing how your thoughts come and go without any attachment to the thought. Many times, your thoughts and worries create an obstacle for sleeping. With this practice you can observe your thoughts objectively and gently release them. At the same time releasing any tensions in the mind.
We have a free short 10-minute meditation for quieting a busy mind that you can access by clicking on this link.
Prior to getting into your bed, try the candle-gazing meditation, known as Trataka. This practice has been clinically proven to significantly increases melatonin production. The important points with candle-gazing technique are that it should be practised regularly and for only 2 to 3 minutes each time. (We teach this meditation in our 5-week meditation course).
Let’s not forget the wonderful healing and relaxing practice of Yoga Nidra. When my working day is finished, I opt for Yoga Nidra. I religiously practice Yoga Nidra every day to relax, mentally, physically, and emotionally. It provides a separation in my day from ‘work’ to relaxation. It’s also incredibly effective for anyone who is experiencing insomnia. If you would like to try Yoga Nidra for yourself, you can access a free recording by clicking here.
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