The Importance of Sleep in Ayurveda: Tips for Better Sleep 

Do you find it hard to fall asleep? You’re not alone. 60% of adults say they don’t sleep as well as they’d like to. Getting enough sleep won’t just keep you from being tired during the day, it is also critical for your overall physical and mental health

Often, the reason we aren’t sleeping well is lifestyle and seasonal disbalances that are affecting our doshas. In this article, we’ll be exploring the importance of sleep in Ayurveda, and also Ayurvedic tips you can use to sleep naturally using your body’s own rhythms. 

The importance of sleep in Ayurveda

Ayurveda is a 5000-year-old traditional medical practice that originated in India. According to Ayurvedic medicine, sleep is one of the three supporting pillars of life (the other two are food and sexuality). The Charaka Samhita says: “one who manages these three pillars properly is guaranteed a full life span that will not be cut short by disease.”

Ayurveda also summarizes the impact of poor sleep in this Sanskrit sloka, which captures sleep as the most important of the three supporting pillars of health. It says that:

“happiness and unhappiness, proper or lack of nourishment, strength and debility, sexual powers and impotence, knowledge and ignorance, and life and death depend on sleep.”

AH-Su

At Ayurkula, we recognize that proper sleep, nutrition, and elimination form an important triad for health. 

What science says about sleep and good health

Sleep deprivation has a serious negative impact on both our mind and body health. Although research into sleep is still an emerging science, we have all experienced that the lack of sleep can make us feel groggy, tired, and less productive in the short term. 

Sleep deprivation and sleep disorders like insomnia are linked with diseases ranging from obesity, diabetes, cancer, dementia and Alzheimer’s. In promoting a healthy nervous system, sleep helps eliminate metabolic waste from the brain and ensure memory consolidation. 

Deep Sleep

The three types of sleep in Ayurveda

In Ayurveda, we can categorize sleep into three kinds:

  • Natural, sound sleep
  • The inability to sleep (anidra), associated with Vata and/or Pitta imbalance
  • Excess sleep, associated with a Kapha imbalance. 

In Ayurveda, air (the primary constituent of Vata) and fire (the primary constituent of Pitta) can move upwards and disturb mental health and have a drying effect on the body when in excess. 

On the other hand, water and earth (associated with Kapha) exert their calming energy downwards and can lead to laziness and stupor when in excess. For a reminder of how the Vata, Pitta, and Kapha doshas work, you can revisit this piece.

How many hours of sleep is enough?

There is nothing magical about getting eight hours of sleep: the quality of your sleep is more important than the quantity of your sleep. How you feel when you go to bed and after getting up will give you feedback about that.

If you wear a sleep tracker, you may notice that you feel fresher when you spend more time in deep, slow brain wave sleep, with fewer wakeful episodes. Ideally, you would sleep at regular periods every night, both relaxing your skeletal muscles and suspending your day-to-day consciousness. 

Sleep need changes with age

According to Ayurveda, the amount of sleep we need varies with our age, season, health condition. Modern science has also shown that sleep needs vary with age. It goes without saying that infants and pregnant women need more sleep than fifty-year-olds. However, some yogis and very healthy people may need less sleep than usual, because they can quickly slow down their body processes to achieve exceptional sleep quality (yognidra). 

Daytime sleep and napping in Ayurveda 

Napping in Ayurveda is generally associated with an aggravation of all doshas, decreased digestive power, and impaired cardiovascular health. The immediate impact of daytime sleep is a lack of sleep pressure, which can lead to nighttime insomnia. 

As a result, napping is generally not recommended for anyone unless one is unwell or  fasting. It’s okay, now and then, to make up for lost sleep during an exceptionally rocky night. 

If you’re not getting enough sleep and want to recharge, a disciplined fifteen-minute nap before lunch in a relaxed sitting posture is ideal. This is least likely to increase dryness (Vata) or wetness (Kapha).

If you’re nervous about napping or not being able to fall asleep, remember that all is not lost if you’ve lost a few hours of sleep! 

Ayurvedic tips to help you sleep naturally

There is no magic pill for sleep, but here are a few basic things we could try even as we toss around in our bed. Don’t try to force sleep—just relax and see how it works. 

Approaches that address lifestyle, body, and mind can often do more to promote deep sleep than sleep pillows, weighted blankets, pills, and herbs.

Go to bed according to your circadian body clock

The simple rule of rising early and sleeping early can go a long way in promoting good sleep. This would imply going to sleep during Kapha time, between 8 pm to 10 pm, and getting up early during Vata time, just before sunrise. 

Our brain and major organs have internal clocks which are synchronized with the daily rising and setting of the sun. Normally, sleep pressure, or the urge to sleep, builds up as the day progresses. As evening approaches, a brain signal carried by melatonin tells our entire body to go to sleep. This is also known as our circadian rhythm.

Though you may consider yourself to be a productive night owl, persistently deviating from your circadian rhythm as driven by the solar clock may lead to illness. You can try to improve the situation by sleeping a little earlier every day to help your body ease into a new routine. You might benefit from trying to change when you sleep to nurture the morning lark hidden inside you.

Ayurveda has recognized this failure to obey the natural clock as a source of disease. This is captured by the following Sanskrit sloka, which says that sleep at an improper time, an excess of sleep, and a lack of sleep are all destroyers of health. 

AH-Su

Align your meals with your body clock

Aligning your circadian rhythms with your eating and living habits can go a long way in promoting good sleep. One basic step would be to make lunch your heaviest meal and have a light early dinner.  By doing so, you can take advantage of your peak metabolic activity and digestive fire between 12 and 2pm. 

You should also carefully control caffeine and alcohol in your diet. Caffeine can stay in your system for well over six hours, interfering with sleep pressure or the urge to sleep. If you are looking to sleep by 9pm, an early afternoon coffee is probably the last one you should have. 

Reduce evening screen time

Mental calm is important for good sleep. Late-night Netflix thrillers or even endlessly scrolling on your cell phone Instagram feeds don’t promote a calm state before bed. Reducing evening screen time may help you have a restful sleep. Instead, listen to light music, read, or write your thoughts for the day. Put away your cell phone and remove ticking clocks from your room. 

Follow a sleep routine

When it is time to sleep, try a daily wind-down routine to help prepare your mind and body for this ritual. 

To soothe your physical body, you might want to try a warm shower or pamper yourself with a neck massage. Neck massages at the sides of the neck and behind our ears provides stimulation to the vagus nerve, which is credited with reducing body stress. You can also give yourself a foot massage and put on socks to stay warm. 

You could even try some wind down yoga and breathwork, such as alternate nostril and deep breathing, which we discuss more below.

Yoga Nidra: Yoga poses to help you sleep

Sometimes, despite your best efforts, you might find yourself unable to sleep or waking up in the middle of the night unable to fall back asleep. This often seems to happen at the worst times, when we most need to sleep early or have a looming deadline. 

When we’re anxious about our lives, we often become anxious about not being able to sleep, which can cause a spiral that’s hard to escape. One strategy that might help is to practice physically bringing all our tension together and then letting it go, using yoga and progressive relaxation techniques.

Boat pose

To do the boat pose (nauka), lie flat on your back and clench your fists with your palms facing downwards. As you exhale, contact your body by raising both the upper body and your feet.

Hold your feet together a few inches or more above the bed. Hold for five to ten seconds or longer if you are comfortable, and then simply let go. Relax into your bed. Repeat three times. 

Corpse pose

Following the boat pose, you can try to do the corpse pose (shavasana) along with visualization. 

Lie flat on your bed, eyes closed, with feet slightly apart and your arms on your sides,the palms facing upwards. As you breathe in and out, move your attention from the bottom to the top of your body. 

Start with your right toe and trace the contours of your body, ending at the left toe. Keep repeating this process of progressive muscle relaxation. This practice is also known as yoga nidra.

Boat pose and Corpse pose

If you are still awake after this, you can focus on your breathing.

Try Ayurvedic breathwork to relax

Two basic exercises in pranayama, or breathwork, that may help you go to bed are alternate nostril breathing and deep breathing with an extended exhalation. 

Alternate nostril breathing (nadi shodhana)

Alternate nostril breathing reduces stress, balances our nervous system, and increases the efficiency of breathing. To practice alternate nostril breathing (nadi shodhana), breathe in through one nostril, hold for a little while, and exhale from the other nostril. Then, reverse the process for the next cycle. You can try this while sitting or lying down on your back. 

You can use your thumb and index finger on either side of your nostril to guide the flow of your breath. 

Extended exhalations (ujjayi breath)

For deep breathing with extended exhalation, lie flat on the bed, looking at the ceiling (or the stars if you are lucky!)

Place your palms gently across your belly. Consciously extend your exhale breath for a longer duration than your inhale. By doing so, you will send relaxation signals to your nervous system.

In this way, you can use the sound of your own breath to prompt your body into a state of relaxation. Focus on the sound of your breath emanating from the back of your throat—you don’t need the television or a white noise fan! Keep practicing the breathwork for as long as you are consciously awake without seeking a goal of actually trying to sleep.

Alternate nostril and Deep breathing

Finally, I’ve often heard people say you should try to meditate when you cannot sleep. In reality, if you cannot sleep, it is likely that you will not be able to meditate even if you are armed with a magical mantra. Sleep and meditation are processes of letting go.

Ayurvedic drinks and herbs for better sleep

It’s important to keep in mind that no one plant, herb, or food alone is a magic pill. Unless you are living on the North Pole with six months of continuous sunlight, simply gulping more melatonin to overcome persistent insomnia is not a smart thing to do. Our bodies can regulate themselves by producing enough of what we need, and we should respect that. 

Here are a few Ayurvedic medicines relating to sleep that you may consider under expert guidance from Ayurvedic practitioners:

  • Pistachios are a wonderful natural source of melatonin.
  • Brahmi is associated with good sleep
  • Ashwagandha may act as a sedative
  • Jatamasi reduces vata
  • Shankhpushpi is a flower used in traditional medicine for inducing sleep and calm
  • Aromatic essential oils like lavender, sandalwood may have a calming effect
  • Chamomile, rose, and spearmint tea contain essential oils with a therapeutic effect
  • Ghee can calm and reduce vata and pitta disbalance
  • Ginger can be used to reduce vata and kapha disbalance 

Warm water helps relax the body and may help with earlier sleep onset

You could also have a warm non-alcoholic drink, like camomile or lavender tea. A simple Ayurvedic wind-down recipe involves heating a cup of dairy or almond milk, adding a few strands of saffron, ¼ teaspoon of ashwagandha, ¼ teaspoon turmeric, a dash of nutmeg, and date or honey to taste. Milk contains tryptophan, which is a precursor to serotonin and melatonin. 

How to improve sleep quality based on your dosha

When our doshas are balanced, we can all sleep peacefully. According to Ayurveda, it’s best to wake up in the last part of the night (brahma muhurta), just before sunrise. This is the ideal time for pranayama and meditation. 

Waking up early in this way will also increase “sleep pressure” in the evening, helping us sleep early. It will create a healthy pattern over time as our internal body/organ clocks fall in sync with the external environment.

Vata Pitta Kapha periods

Imbalances of primary dosha in people can manifest in some typical sleep problems, which we describe below. You may have more than one dosha imbalance, so consult a practitioner for individualized advice.

Vata

Vata imbalance results in unsettled, broken sleep. This often occurs with particularly active REM sleep and vivid dreams. Vata aggravation can happen due to many reasons, including illness, weakness, excessive alcohol, or excessive stimulation that leads to mental disquiet. 

Following a proper sleep routine, as discussed above, is very important for balancing the Vata dosha. It will help to sleep in a soft, comforting bed with minimal external stimuli and sounds. If you’re lucky, facing the moonlight is considered very good for sleep.

Pitta

Pitta imbalances generally manifest with late sleeping and night owl activity. The mind may be problem-solving and working in overdrive, unable to let go.

To tackle this, calming teas, sandalwood paste, and a cooling environment are very helpful. Avoid pitta stimulating and heating spices and peppers in your food, and don’t eat late at night. 

Kapha  

Kaphas require the least amount of sleep, but kapha imbalance generally results in excess sleep. Kaphas also tend to nap in the daytime, which is generally harmful for people with excess Kapha.

If you have a kapha imbalance, work on reducing your kapha through light, anti-kapha diets. Follow a strict sleep schedule and wake up before the morning kapha period from 6-10am. Use nasya and steaming and dry body massage to clear their nasal passages to improve sleep quality. 

The best sleep is natural sleep

Let go of your anxiety about sleeping, and try to have a diet, lifestyle, and sleep routine that promotes healthy outcomes. Don’t try to force yourself to sleep using pills, magical herbs or essential oils without consulting your sleep doctor or an Ayurvedic practitioner. Instead of shopping for pills and herbs, it may try to make simple lifestyle changes and remove one or two harmful foods or behaviors to promote overall good health.

To learn more about sleep, Ayurveda, and other related topics, you can subscribe to our newsletter or write me a note at rajat@ayurkula.org. I offer workshops and deeper content on sleep and other topics. We also do dosha analysis to help you find your personal path to wellness.

DISCLAIMER

All content is for educational purposes only. Please consult your medical practitioner before attempting any therapeutic, nutritional, exercise or meditation-related activity.

What are different body types in Ayurveda

When we hear the words “my body type” in the West, we often think only of physical characteristics. You may have heard of people categorizing themselves into apple, pear, or hourglass shapes based on fat distribution. Alternatively, you might’ve heard about people calling themselves ectomorphs, mesomorphs, or endomorphs, based on their bodily composition.

Body types in Ayurveda are more holistic. In Ayurveda, the mind leads the body. Your body type is a reflection of both your mental, emotional and physical characteristics. There is no single “right way to be” —we each have unique strengths and weaknesses, and we have to work with our individual systems. 

With that context, let’s take a deeper look at different body types in Ayurveda.

How does Ayurveda approach body type?

Our Ayurvedic type is made up of both our physical and mental attributes, which are characterized roughly by doshas and gunas. Let’s do a quick review of doshas before going ahead (read more background here). 

Doshas, very roughly, are variables that can influence your physical and psychological nature. Ayurveda characterizes people based on both bodily and mental doshas, all of which we exhibit in different proportions. Let’s focus on the bodily doshas here: Vata, Pitta and Kapha. 

Each person has a different proportion of these three doshas. There are three buckets of combinations, so you could either be:

  • Single dosha: Vata, Pitta, or Kapha
  • Dual dosha (with one dominant): Vata-Pitta, Vata-Kapha or Pitta-Kapha
  • Tri-doshic: All three doshas, Vata, Pitta, and Kapha, in equal proportions.

Your steady-state proportion of these doshas, called your swabhav, is set at birth and does not change over time. If your doshas become unbalanced from your individual steady state, you may run into health issues.

It is critical to know both your swabhav dosha combination and how you are unbalanced from it. Your swabhav combination may be Pitta type, for example, but you may have health issues if you exhibit an overdominance of Vata. 

My Body Type in Ayurveda- Vata, Pitta, Kapha

Ayurvedic Body Type

Vata dosha body type constitution

Balanced: If you have predominant Vata dosha, you might have a tall, wiry frame, prominent, cracking bones, low weight, dry skin, and thin hair. You may also have a varied appetite, be sensitive to the cold, and require less sleep. 

A balanced Vata individual is often a talkative, creative, quick learner who takes initiative and is adaptable to change. 

Imbalanced: When the Vata dosha becomes imbalanced, you may experience tinnitus, arthritis, rheumatism, or digestive issues like constipation. Mentally, you may exhibit anxiety, impulsiveness, nervousness, insomnia, or excessive dreaming. You may find it difficult to complete tasks. Vata dosha imbalance has the greatest potential to lead to various disease conditions.

Pitta dosha body type constitution

Balance: If you have a predominant Pitta dosha, you may exhibit a medium build, moderate weight, good musculature, good hunger, and moderate sleep. You could also experience prematurely graying hair and profuse sweating. 

A balanced Pitta individual is goal-oriented, with a sharp mind, good judgment, and courage to take on the world. 

Imbalanced: If you have excessive Pitta, you may experience hair loss, gastric issues, irritable bowels, and inflammation. You also may have skin diseases such as acne. Behaviorally, you may have a sharp temperament. 

Kapha dosha body type constitution

Balanced: If you have predominant Kapha dosha, you may have a wide body frame and be stocky, big, tall, and strong. You may have oily or smooth soft skin, a generous appetite and be prone to heavy sleep. 

When Kapha is optimal, it is associated with compassion, a calm demeanor, and a steady mind. The Kapha body type in Ayurveda, when balanced, is generally the strongest and has the highest immunity levels. 

Imbalanced: If you have excessive Kapha, you may experience accumulation of fat, which could lead to obesity, diabetes, sleep apnea, and lethargy. Excess Kapha is also associated with pulmonary diseases and chest/throat diseases and an attachment to material objects.

Different Body Types in Ayurveda: Vata Pitta Kapha

Let us take a deeper look at the characteristics of each dosha, which will help us better understand each of these body types.

The elements and qualities of the bodily doshas

In Ayurveda, we are a manifestation of consciousness and the five core elements: space, air, fire, water and earth. Each dosha has a predominance of two of these elements. 

Ayurveda also describes a set of twenty opposing qualities. Each dosha is associated with a different set of these qualities.

Twenty Qualities in Ayurveda

Heavy <> Light

Slow <>  Fast

Cold <> Hot

Oily <> Dry

Smooth <> Rough

Solid <> Liquid

Soft <> Hard

Stable <> Unstable

Small (subtle) <> Big (gross)

Non-slimy <> Slimy

Clear <> Cloudy

Element Qualities
Vata Space and Air Dry, cold, light, subtle, coarse, rough, mobile, clear
Pitta Fire and Water Slightly oily, hot, light, sharp, mobile, liquid
Kapha Water and Earth  Oily, cold, heavy, soft, slimy, slow/dull, stable
Dosha -elements and qualities

Elements in the Vata dosha emphasize mobility 

The Vata dosha is made up of space and air. Space characterizes free flow, and air characterizes mobility and instability. This dosha relates to the atmosphere and breath. It’s also associated with touch and sound. 

Vata impacts our body’s input, output, and transport mechanisms, like breathing or digesting. It plays a role in muscle contraction, joint movement, and hormone signaling, so it’s also associated with our nervous system. The mobility in the Vata dosha also plays a role in migrating diseases from one part of the body to another. 

This ancient Sanskrit sloka captures the qualities of Vata:

Sanskrit Sloka AH-Su

The Vata dosha has properties of dryness, lightness, coldness, roughness, subtleness and movement.

Elements in the Pitta dosha emphasize energy

The Pitta dosha is made of combination of fire (heat) and water (liquidity from bile or body heat). Pitta symbolizes the Sun and relates closely to vision. 

The pitta dosha impacts bodily metabolism and transformation, like the breakdown of food through digestive enzymes or processing of emotions. It maintains vision, controls body temperature, and gives the skin luster. It is associated with the endocrine system. 

This ancient Sanskrit sloka captures the qualities of Pitta:

Sanskrit sloka-AH-Su

The Pitta dosha has the quality of being oily, piercing, hot, light, odorous, fluid, and radiating movement and liquidity. 

Elements in the Kapha dosha emphasize stability

Kapha is primarily made up of the elements of water (fluidity) and earth (mass). Kapha symbolizes the Moon and is strongly associated with the sense of taste and smell.

Kapha impacts the assimilation, storage, and energy input mechanisms in the body, like the creation of tissues or assimilation of fat. Kapha controls our libido, lubricates our joints, and impacts growth, immunity and resistance. 

This ancient Sanskrit sloka captures the qualities of Kapha:

Sanskrit sloka-AH-Su

The Kapha dosha has qualities of oily, cold, heavy, mild, viscous, smooth, clear, slimy like phlegm, jelly like, stability and immobility. 

How to balance your doshas in Ayurveda

You may experience excesses of one dosha when you expose yourself to too much food or environments with the same qualities as that dosha. You may have excess Pitta, e.g., if you eat too much spicy, inflammatory food, in a hot, angry environment.

To counter these excesses and balance your doshas, you can try to expose yourself to food and environments with opposing qualities. (This is just like when you apply cool water or ice to help heal burns!) In the example above, if you have excess Pitta, you might have too much heat. You can counter this using mint, ghee, or calming meditation.

If you have excessive Vata, you may have too much dryness, coolness, and mobility. You can counter these through oil massage, warm fluids, and breathwork.

If you have excessive Kapha, you may have a slow, dull digestion. You can counter this with warm spices, exercise, and light meals. You will also benefit from fasting.

When we suffer from disbalances in all three of our doshas, the line of treatment is a complicated topic left to Ayurvedic practitioners. 

Simple advice for balancing your doshas

Health is simpler than we might think. Following some simple steps can go a long way with dosha balance. You can practice mental calm through breathwork and meditation. You can reduce or eliminate processed food from your diet. Follow your natural circadian rhythm, listen to your body’s signals, and eat seasonally in line with nature’s offerings. 

Remember, no one diet regime, plant, herb, or food alone is a magic pill. You might be looking for the one magic food they can add to their diet when in reality, you might benefit much more from removing one or two harmful foods or behaviors from your daily routine.

At the end of the day, remember to celebrate the uniqueness of your mind and body.

To learn more, you can subscribe to our newsletter or write me a note at rajat@ayurkula.org. I offer workshops as well as deeper content on the above, we analyze our doshas and find our paths to wellness.

DISCLAIMER

All content is for educational purposes only. Please consult your medical practitioner before attempting any therapeutic, nutritional, exercise or meditation related activity.