The nonstop lifestyle (in the cities, correction by The Article Feed) of the world was behind many of my personal health imbalances, and apparently, I’m not the only one. Stress is the reason for up to 90 percent of all primary care doctor visits in the U.S., a common byproduct of which is a lack of sleep. Many of us have experienced that hungover feeling after staying up all night—which is actually a perfect analogy since lack of sleep will impair cognition just like intoxication. Besides that initial grogginess, over time a lack of sleep, whether from stress or other conditions, may also contribute to illnesses like diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, and depression. Long before the modern stressors of the twenty-first century had been invented, the ancient rishis who shared the holistic medical science of Ayurveda over 5,000 years ago knew the importance of quality sleep, too.
The Ayurvedic clock describes 10 PM to 2 AM as one of two times of day governed by pitta dosha. This combination of fire and water elements keeps us focused and productive during the day, but at night fires up with many other essentials we sometimes take for granted. It’s also why Ayurveda encourages being in bed by 10 PM so that we’re not tempted to use that evening pitta energy for something else (like emails, TV, moving furniture . . .). Indeed, modern science shows that in a state of deep sleep, the body performs a host of detoxifying and maintenance functions that can’t take place during the day.
These include cell and muscle repair, washing your brain, proper functioning of the liver (and regulating blood sugar—a concept that’s key to the Ayurvedic and TCM understanding of digestion), as well as learning and integrating new information. With good sleep you go about your day feeling, well, like you got a good night’s sleep—a state that we modern folks may be very unfamiliar with since we often burn that pitta candle at both ends.
Ayurveda looks at the conditions of mind, body, and spirit to evaluate health, any number of issues with the skin, gut, respiration, circulation, mental health and hormonal health (to name a few) can be potentially traced back to sleep, and, ultimately, the anxiety that caused the lack of sleep [...]
The Ayurvedic texts cite sleeping during the day (because you’re not sleeping at night, and therefore not getting that reset from night-shift pitta) as a direct cause of disease. Modern practitioners emphasize the role of a good nighttime routine as such. While it may seem silly to rest before you sleep, the nervous system needs time to unwind from the day and prepare for the overnight janitorial work inside your body. You could think of sleep in this way as a free, self-generating superfood—which, though your body already knows how to do it, you still need to do a little prep work to make it tasty and digestible.
There’s no one-size-fits-all recipe for sleep, but generally speaking, good sleep is inversely proportional to stimulation. From electronics to exercise, foods to conversations, anything that makes you feel “on” instead of “off” will be disruptive to sleep. Choosing activities that help to quiet the mind and body, and introduce feelings of heaviness, groundedness, and rhythm are all going to support good sleep. In Ayurvedic terms, these qualities are said to be vata-pacifying—meaning they balance the mobile, erratic, and light qualities of the air and space elements that make up the vata dosha.
They also help to reduce the quality of rajas, or activity and restlessness, in the mind. Both vata and rajas are heightened, if not praised, in our society at large—think: traveling all day long, eating on the go, nonstop communication on our devices. That’s why it can feel pretty foreign, even wrong or guilt-inducing, at first to deliberately choose to slow down and do less. But when we don’t introduce balance into our systems regularly, that’s when we find ourselves in those patterns of chronic anxiety, insomnia, and their associated dis-eases. Despite my knowledge of Ayurveda, it wasn’t until COVID forced the world to shut down that I could truly settle into the evening rituals that I knew would calm my vata and rajas and support restful sleep. In the early days of the pandemic, sleep did not come easy. Anxieties about the virus—whether I washed my hands enough, whether I stood too close to that person on my walk in the park, whether that pain in my chest was a sign I was sick (nope, just anxiety, according to three urgent care doctors)—would creep up just around the time I wanted to start to slow things down. This was especially ironic because for the first time, I finally had the time and energy to put into arranging a thoughtful, undisturbed evening well before I collapsed from exhaustion, which was my previous “time for bed” signal. Over time, though, the nightly panic attacks wore off, and my body adjusted to an unforced wake-up and wind-down schedule. While I worked to figure out how to adapt my on-the-go life to the confines of my one-bedroom apartment during the day, I’d look forward with giddiness for the clock to strike 6 PM, when I’d actively “turn off” and explore a more grounded way of being [...]
What to do before bed during a worldwide quarantine is not addressed specifically in the Ayurvedic classics, but we can draw on the basic principles of soothing vata and rajas to reclaim comfort, ease, and even joy in our evenings.
To start, let’s look at the Ayurvedic clock again and the qualities of the pre-bed time of day in question.The period between 6 PM and 10 PM is dominant in earth and water elements (kapha dosha—which is almost exactly opposite, and hence balancing, to vata dosha), which means it is a natural time to feel heavier in the body and seek out activities and stimuli that are soft, dense, and warm—the qualities we find in cuddling on the couch, tea, and even alcohol. These things (not so much the alcohol) all start to direct our energy and attention more inward, rather than the outward-facing activities like emails, talking, posting on social media, and “consuming” of all the things that we do during the day. That mental state, called tamas, is similarly opposite to the activity of rajas. To use Chinese Medicine terms most people are familiar with, our evenings generally want to be more yin (dark, quiet, feminine), and less yang (bright, active, masculine). As I’ve experimented with the infinite permutations of yin the last few months, the suggestions below not contain the Ayurvedic qualities of but also somehow feel new and exciting to me. And because my evenings don’t present yet another struggle of “what to do,” I’m setting myself up for being able to sleep well enough to face whatever news (or lack thereof) will arrive tomorrow.
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