“Action is masculine, while sleep is feminine, receptive and restorative.
Our habits of controlling and performing reduce our ability to deeply surrender to sleep.”
– Berdhanya Swami Tierra
Sleep disturbances are disturbingly common, in this day and age.
Sleep disturbances are especially common if you:
- Spend long days working on a computer or with technology
- Have a high-stress job or working with highly stressed people
- Are sensitive to energy
… Okay, that’s pretty much everyone…
Regular sleep disturbances — experienced more than 3 nights in a row — generally point to an imbalance in the body, and should not be ignored.
In the science of Ayurveda, we recognize three different patterns in sleep disturbance.
Vata Type (Air/Ether Elements Predominate):
- Tend to affect the mind (e.g. too many thoughts) or an overstimulated nervous system (e.g. anxiety, panic attacks, nervousness, heart palpitations, inability to relax or feeling jittery).
- Vata type sleep problems tend to occur when you cannot fall asleep at night, or when you awaken between 2 – 6 am (vata time).
- Vata dosha is aggravated by caffeine, an irregular schedule (e.g. travel, missing meals), noise or stimulation of the nervous system (such as reading before bed or too much screen time).
- Vata sleep disturbances can occur at any time of year, but tend to increase in the fall and winter months (vata season), where the cool/dry qualities predominate in nature.
- This type of sleep disturbance is your body’s way of asking for extra care of vata dosha.
Pitta Type (Fire Element Predominates)
- Generally accompanied by strong emotions, such as anger or frustration, and typically, with a project, deadline or personal objective. It can also be accompanied by heat, heartburn or intense mental activity.
- Tend to occur between 10 pm and 2 am (pitta time). Flare-ups may occur at any time of year, but can be especially problematic in the hot summer months (pitta season).
- This type of sleep disturbance is your body’s way of asking for extra care of pitta dosha.
Kapha Type (Earth/Water Predominates)
- Generally accompanied by feelings of heaviness or lethargy.
- Kapha sleep disturbance shows up as the tendency to sleep too much, and to feel lazy, depressed, heavy, congested (i.e. full of mucus) or uninspired throughout the day. Kapha imbalances can also result in sleep apnea.
- Kapha sleep problems tend to appear as an inability to get out of bed in the morning, especially between 6 am-10 am (kapha time).
- Although kapha aggravation can appear at any time of year, this dosha can be especially apparent in the late winter & early spring months (kapha season), where the qualities of wetness and heaviness accumulate in the body.
- This type of sleep disturbance is your body’s way of asking for extra care of kapha dosha.
Once you have identified the cause of your sleep disturbance, you can address the predominant dosha that is out of balance through the appropriate lifestyle and dietary recommendations.
For example, a kapha sleep disturbance may benefit from a strong exercise routine and lighter foods, whereas a vata dosha may benefit more from oil massage, more rest, quiet time and foods that are grounding and heavier. Pitta dosha may benefit from taking on fewer projects, or by learning to delegate, or by cooling breathing exercises.
You will likely find that your sleeping habits relate to your predominant dosha (prakriti), but that may not always be the case. For example, a Pitta-Kapha individual in a very vata-aggravating job or in the vata phase of life (after 50 years old) may show signs of vata imbalance in their sleep patterns. We are made up of all 3 doshas.
Learning to Appreciate Your Body’s Signals
On a final note, a sleep disturbance does not necessarily show that you are doing something wrong.
Age certainly plays a factors. After 50, we tend to need less sleep (the vata phase of life); as we naturally turn more inward in this phase, we can devote more time to stillness, contemplation and meditation.
In youth (kapha stage), we tend to need more sleep because we are growing.
Those working in healing, public speaking,technology or with large groups of people may also need extra sleep, to heal or release impressions that we have accumulated throughout our day. (We are constantly exchanging energy with the people, places and environments that we interact with, and sometimes take on energy that is not ours.)
I recently had a good friend tell me that she was experiencing regular insomnia, despite the fact that she was doing all the right things : she had a strong meditation practice, a balanced diet and lifestyle, an inspiring career, and loving husband.
In this case, it seemed to me that her body was asking for extra care to manage the impressions that she was taking on in her work, where she was coaching and speaking with large groups of people. While she radiated health and wellness, but those she worked with were facing high levels of stress and anxiety.
I suggested she may want to consider adding extra bodywork, such as regular abhyanga (ayurvedic massage) and shirodhara (an ayurvedic practice to remove stress from the mind) to her monthly routines.
The elements of our body have a beautiful way of keeping us grounded, simple and receptive to life… with disruptions in our sleep cycles being a way of asking for help that we cannot ignore or deny. By choosing to obey the body’s messages, and to listen to its rhythms, we can can learn new ways to care for ourselves and experience higher levels of contentment, wisdom and balance.