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Ayurvedic Concepts of Sleep

Ayurvedic Concepts of Sleep

July 16, 2020

Have you ever imagined the series of incidents the first-ever human being would have gone through on an average day before finally falling asleep? He would have gazed in awe at the untamed beauty of the landscape he roamed, the earnestness of the animals he hunted, and the mystery of a bird in flight. His quest for survival would have led him to a source of the water that sustains all living things and would have persisted until darkness fell. At that point, the fatigue caused by these mental and physical exertions would coerce his body to sleep. 

The sequence of events that leads up to falling asleep may vary from individual to individual, but sleep has always been a “bound to happen” phenomenon. From the first hunter-gatherers to digital and social media era humans, people have long recognized the vital importance of this phenomenon to our health and well-being. Archeologists have discovered that our Neolithic ancestors, fearing ambush from predators, went to sleep a couple of hours after dusk. Ever since the industrial revolution, people have struggled to find enough time for restorative sleep. From a historical perspective, however, sleep must be understood as a key driver of the continued growth and progress of human consciousness and civilization.

The curiosity of our hunter-gatherer ancestors has evolved into the modern spirit of inquiry that now guides the continual advancement of science. Like our ancestors, we continue to ponder the mysteries of sleep. Why do we need to sleep? How does the complex mechanism of sleep contribute to our well-being?

It is a long-known fact that sleep disorders or impairment of sleep quality can cause developmental disorders, chronic ailments, and a feeble immune system. It may come as a surprise that according to 2012 NHIS data, 6.4 percent of children in the U.S. regularly experience sleep difficulties. The integration of modern research methodologies with established knowledge from complementary medical disciplines promises to fuel real progress toward addressing the serious health issues surrounding impaired sleep.

Integration with Ayurveda

Ayurveda is a 5,000-year-old healthcare system revered as the science of life throughout the Indian subcontinent, where it first took root. The science of Ayurveda comprises a strong theoretical framework and comprehensive practices focused on the maintenance of a relatively steady state of physical and mental balance. Unlike the reductionist approach of modern medicine, Ayurveda sees the totality of an ailment by approaching it from a perspective that integrates both the body and mind. In Ayurvedic science, sleep (Nidra) is regarded as a physical and mental instinct that’s built into human beings. Ayurveda explains that when we sleep our minds rest in our bodies, provided our bodies are healthy and our minds are in a state of equilibrium. Before we can learn how to optimize our sleep using the wisdom of Ayurveda, we must first understand the concepts of body and mind and how their balanced functioning makes quality sleep achievable.

The Ayurvedic understanding of life and health rests on a robust theory that posits the interdependence of humans and nature (Prakriti and Purusha). Hence, The body and its physiology reflect and interact with the fundamental aspects of nature. Maintaining the stability (homeostasis) and proper functioning of our body’s physiological processes depends wholly on the balance of the three foundational energies of the body known as the Tridoshas (three doshas). The main functions of the Tridoshas (Vata, Pitta, and Kapha) are to instigate movement, transformation, and construction in the body. A healthy body manifests order and balance of the Tridoshas, whereas an unhealthy body manifests a state of disorderliness and disparity. The supporting units of the body are called the Sapta Dhatus (seven tissues): Rasa (Lymphatic Fluids), Rakta (Blood), Mamsa (Muscle), Medas (Fat), Asthi (Bone), Majja (Bone marrow), and Shukra (Reproductive Tissue). These seven types of tissue maintain the functioning and structure of the body.

Deeper Understanding of Mind and Body for Quality Sleep

Another aspect of our constitution that helps maintain homeostasis is Ojas, the essence of all nourished bodily tissues (Dhatus). Essence (Ojas) is the primary source of our health and is located in the heart (Hridhaya); it is indispensable for integrating our mind and body. The diminutive form of Ojas, Apara Ojas, is present throughout the human body along with the elements of mind. The chief regulator of the doshas, known as Vata, facilitates movement, enabling Apara Ojas to travel to all parts of the body through major and minor channels known as Srotas.

When a sensory organ (Indriya) encounters an object,  Apara Ojas, mind, and Vata must flow freely to the organ where that faculty resides in order to trigger the appropriate interaction between the object and the sense organ (Indriya). The involvement of the intellect (Buddhi) in this process gives rise to knowledge.

The interplay between the senses, Apara Ojas, mind, and Vata plays a central role in fostering sleep (Nidra). These faculties and energies work in concert to coordinate our bodily activities and promote the formation of buddhi as they move throughout the body. By the end of the day, this ceaseless activity depletes Apara Ojas, which in turn results in the depletion of the principal Ojas that resides in the heart (Hridya). This depletion of vitality can threaten the sustainability of life. It’s at this point that sleep (Nidra) can come to the rescue. Proper Nidra nourishes and renews Ojas.  The cultivation of restorative Nidra requires an understanding of the impact of the night on our body’s internal clock and the interrelationship between diurnal variations and our physiological functioning. In modern medicine, these interactions are conceptualized as circadian rhythms.

Tamas, one of the attributes (Gunas) of mind, can be compared to the phenomenon of darkness enclosing daylight to bring about the night. Tamas exercises control over our mind during nighttime and encompass it with a blanket of darkness to induce sleep. The Kapha dosha, the energy in the body that corresponds to Tamas also prevails at night, reflecting the direct connection between sleep and the cycles of nature. The free flow of Apara Ojas, mind, and Vata stagnates temporarily during the hours dominated by Tamas and Kapha, granting Ojas ample time to rejuvenate itself. The stagnation induced by Tamas and the Kapha dosha allows the channels of the body (Srotas) to regain essential lubrication and evenness and to repair wear and tear. Subsequently, the Srotas broaden, setting the stage for the free flow of Apara Ojas, Vata, and mind that sustains the primary Ojas that reside in our hearts. The bodily functions, mind-body coordination, and knowledge formation will automatically reactivate the moment light replaces the darkness. The perfect testament to the theory that the disruption of this process can interfere with psychological development can be found in research published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. This research concludes that children who report sleep deprivation tend to show more antisocial behaviors than sleep-deprived adults. The depletion of Ojas caused by lack of sleep appears to have a direct impact on the functioning of their mind and intellect (Buddhi).

Interplay of Rajas and Tamas in the Mind

While Tamas is associated with darkness, the Rajas guna predominates in the daylight hours.  Rajas signify activity, planning, and transformation. If we look back at history from an Ayurvedic perspective, we can see the influence of Rajas on the progression of society and technology from primitive communalism to farming villages, hunting tools to automation, and steam engines to artificial intelligence. These developments suggest that the human race has more often than not reaped benefits from our natural inclination to work during the daytime and rest at night. In other words, the whole history of civilization can be perceived as a reflection of our biological rhythms when viewed through the lens of Rajas and Tamas.

Wouldn't it be fascinating to study how patterns of sleep evolved over time and how these changes helped shape civilization? The long-standing influence of Rajas and Tamas on human behavior Is documented in the ancient Indian epic the Mahabharata, which tells how both sides in a struggle over a coveted throne agreed to refrain from fighting at night even during the intense phases of the war. The story didn't end there! The enemies who were supposed to kill each other in combat had no problem sharing a common space where the need to sleep and to live in harmony with nature triumphed over the human lust for power.  Even today, many people around the world continue to follow the unwritten rule that dictates “no war after dusk.”

Ever since the rise of logical positivism, humans have increasingly invested their efforts in theories that fuel technological advances such as engines, electricity, and X-rays. This technological progress occurred mainly in bustling urban settings where the notion “more work, more happiness” eventually became entrenched in people’s minds and paved the way for increased workloads. Physical and mental weariness became part and parcel of urban culture as working hours frequently extended beyond nightfall. In response to this deviation from our biologically driven habits, Tamas weakened over time, resulting in the widespread occurrence of sleep deprivation. A recent study predicts an increase in sleep deprivation cases as more communities adopt urban lifestyles. Sleep deprivation is linked to an increased risk of Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, obesity, and depression.

While the need to revamp our sleep habits to reduce our risk of developing chronic diseases is clear, a burning question remains: Can an Ayurvedic diet and lifestyle help you reset your broken sleep clock?


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