In Ayurveda, good sleep is considered to be one of the three pillars of good health, the other two being correct diet and balanced use of sexual energy. When we sleep, our bodies undergo many important healing and rejuvenating processes and our minds process our throughts and experiences from the day. According to Ayurveda, if our sleep is not deep and peacful, if we are experiencing difficulties falling asleep or staying alseep, or if we have irregular or unhelpful habits and routines around sleep, our doshas – the biological forces that govern our bodies and our minds – become imbalanced, which can result in health symptoms that, if not addressed, can potentially lead to illness and disease.
Alongside its importance for good health, the states we enter into when we are sleeping and dreaming are acknowledged throughout many spirtual traditions. Dream interpretation and lucid dreaming can give us insights into our subconscious, and many indigenous sleep practices provide us with ways to connect with the spirtual world when dreaming. Although there are many traditions and theories around sleep, the reason why sleep is so essential and important for our health and survival still remains much of a great mystery. Here we'll look at some interesting ways that sleep and dreaming are utilised in the Yogic and Shipibo traditions, and at some simple Ayurvedic principles that can help you to improve the quaility of your sleep.
Yoga & Sleep
Yogic philosophy acknoweldges three ordinary states of consciousness: sleeping, waking and dreaming. These are the three states that we transition between every day throughout our lives. A fourth state of consciousness is also acknowledged, called 'Turiya': a transcendental state which is not sleeping, nor waking, nor dreaming, but something beyond these usual everyday states. Turiya is considered to be a state of pure conscious awareness, sometimes referred to as a union of ones own consciousness with the divine, univeral consciousness, or a union of ones everyday self with ones 'higher' self, and can be experienced in states of deep meditation. In the practice of Yoga Nidra, or Yogic Sleep, techniques are used to bring the body to sleep whilst the consciousness remains awake and aware, and the practicioner enters into this blissful other state: not sleeping, nor waking, nor dreaming, but somewhere beyond and in between. Many Yogic schools equate this state of Yoga Nidra with the state of Turiya. Yoga Nidra can also be considered to be a meditation on sleep and dreaming as while ouu bodies sleep, we remain conscious and aware to explore this mysterious space betwen sleeping and waking that we usually pass through without giving much attention.
Sleep in the Shipibo Healing Tradition
In the Shipibo tradition, it is understood that when we dream, we make a connection with the spirit world. It is a common experience to communicate with the spirit of a plant during a plant dieta through dreams, and to dream more vividly in the days following an Ayahuasca ceremony. Often when one is working with the plant spirits, dreams can bring healing or important messages to the dreamer. Shipibo Curanderos (healers) also do healing work with their patients while they sleep, and say that as their body sleeps, their spirit connects with the spirit of the patient and with the plant and ancestral spirits they work with to heal the patient on the spiritual level. It is interesting that our brain releases small amounts of the chemical DMT when we dream, which is also the pyschoactive component of the Ayahuasca brew, present in the Chakruna leaves, and is the chemical that brings us visions when we drink Ayahuasca. This implies that there is a similarity between the altered states we can expereince when consuming Ayahuasca and when we are dreaming, and gives us some more evidence that that our dreams, like Ayahuasca, can also connect us to the spirit world.
Simple Ways to Improve Your Sleep
Everyone can benefit from improved sleep and rest. Sufficient amouts of deep sleep and rest are essential for our health and it is unlikely that we will be able to fully experience some of the potential spiritual expriences accessible during sleep if our general quality of sleep is poor or disrupted. In Ayurveda, good sleep is considered to be essential for good health and many guidelines are given around how to achieve the optimum quality of sleep. Here are five simple Ayurvedic principles and practices that can help us to improve our overall sleep quality:
Acknowledge the importance of sleep. Acknowledge that sleeping is an important and special time and make sure that sleep is a top priority in your life. If you are not currently prioritising your sleep, taking a look at what you are considering to be more important than your quality of rest can often reveal imbalances in your life or lead to an understanding of something that needs healing. Of course, there will always be some times and situations when your sleep may have to be compromised, such as after the birth of a newborn baby, but if you have a long term pattern of ignoring your need for sleep and rest regardless of your life circumstances, it may be time to re-address your priorities.
Go to sleep before 10pm. Awaken with the sun. Ayurveda observes that our bodies move through natural cycles in harmony wiht the cycles of the day and night. In the hours of daylight, we are more awake and active, and in the hours of darkness we are more restful and spend many of those hours sleeping. Our bodies also move through various processes throughout the the day and the night, and the different doshas, (biological forces) in our bodies are more active at different times. In the evening before 10pm, our slow, heavy, kapha (water/earth) dosha is naturally more active, making it the perfect time to easily fall into a deep sleep. After 10pm, metabolic activity begins increase with a rise in the pitta (fire) dosha, causing our minds to become more active again. If you have ever expereinced a 'second wind' of energy after 10pm, this is the reason why. It can often be difficult to fall asleep later on in the evening, and when we stay awake, our energy goes into activity and thinking, rather than into the important metabolic processes that would be taking place if we were sleeping. Ayurveda also recommends awakening at or just before sunrise in the morning to attune our waking and sleeping hours with the day and the night, and with the natual cycles of light and darkness.
Eat your last meal 2 hours or more before going to sleep. Digesting our food uses a lot of energy. If we eat a large meal just before going to sleep, energy that would have been used for healing and rejuvenation of the body goes into digesting the food. This not only leads to a poor quality of sleep and a decrease in the healing and rejuvenative benefits that we would be receiving when sleeping, but also to a poor quality of digestion as our bodies work hard to digest the food overnight – our digestive systems are much more active and efficient duing the daylight hours. Along with losing many of the benefits of quality sleep, this poor digestion can also lead to toxins forming within the body as a result of the improperly digested food which, if left unaddressed over time, can be a contributing factor to disease. It is best to eat the final meal of the day at least two hours before going to sleep or, when possible, when it is still daylight. Ayurveda also advises eating the largest meal of the day at lunch time, when the digestive system is at its strongest, and eating a lighter meal in the evening so that no energy is lost to digestion overnight.
Make evenings a peaceful time. We sleep more peacefully when our minds are quiet and calm. Allowing some time to relax and leave the events from the day behind us before we go to sleep allows our minds to calm down and can help us to fall asleep more quickly and sleep more peacefully. For the final hours of the day, avoid anything which over-stimulates the mind such as violent or fast-moving films or tv shows, too much social media and technology with bright screens, or difficult conversations and arguments. Focus on peaceful, calming activities like listening to relaxing music, meditation, art or crafts, or quietly preparing for the next day.
Drink a calming beverage before bed. Warm beverages with herbs and spices can help to encourage deep sleep and, when consumed regularly, can lead to a long term overall improvement in sleep quality. Warm milk spiced with cardamom, cinnamon and honey calms the nervous system, grounds the mind and promotes deep rest. Chamomile and peppermint teas are also calming and soothing at the end of the day and are recommended for those who have problems with over-sleeping or congestion, for whom milk may be too damp and heavy.
Insight Timer Recordings
Yoga Nidra for Sleep
This free Yoga Nidra sleep meditation on the Insight Timer app, guides you into sleep using traditional Yoga Nidra techniques, allowing you to meditate your way into deep sleep.
Ayurvedic Wisdom for Peaceful Sleep
This 12-part audio course explores sleep from the perspective of Ayurveda and gives practical ways to improve the quality of your sleep using Ayurvedic principles. The course is available to paid subscribers on Insight Timer. Non-subscribers have the option to sign up for a free seven day trial and can listen to the full course during the trial, or to buy the course directly from me for $20 USD.