Sleeping on the Run

Sleeping on the Run

Rolf Sovik, PsyD

There is a time for many words, and there is also a time for sleep.

—Homer

There are times when the need for sleep is overwhelming. You know the feeling: your eyelids close no matter how much energy you invest in propping them open, and your head teeters like a bowling ball. Sleep deprivation can be challenging, especially at work. As you fight to stay awake, you turn up some loud music, grab a cup of coffee, or chew gum.

These are all quick fixes to get through a bout of sleepiness. You tell yourself that you’ll organize your energies more carefully next time. Despite your resolve, however, there will be other equally exhausting moments. Is there anything you can do?

Sleep Deprivation: A Serious Problem

Both yoga and ayurveda offer practical advice about managing sleepiness, but first it should be noted that daytime sleepiness may be more than a painful inconvenience. It has been associated with a number of medical conditions that severely interfere with the ability to concentrate and perform daily tasks and routines. These illnesses include narcolepsy, sleep apnea, periodic leg movements in sleep, restless legs syndrome (RLS), and circadian rhythm disorder. If you think that the consistency and duration of your sleepiness suggests a serious problem, consult a health care professional who is capable of assessing your symptoms.

Fatigue makes it extremely difficult to concentrate.

But even if your symptoms are not the result of a sleep disorder, daytime sleepiness can have serious consequences. A study by the National Sleep Foundation suggests that drowsy young adults (ages 15 to 24) are responsible for 50,000 automobile accidents a year in the US, with another 50,000 accounted for by older drivers. Sleepiness also affects a wide range of behaviors, including the ability to memorize new material, maintain a positive and cheerful attitude, perform tasks without accidents, and get up promptly in the morning. It is believed that the Exxon Valdez oil spill off the Alaskan coast in 1989 happened, in part, because those who were in charge of the ship were desperately sleep deprived.

Sleeplessness affects meditation as well. In a hall crowded with meditators it is not difficult to pick out those who are in need of sleep! With postures slumped and heads nodding, they stand out just as clearly as those maintaining an erect posture. Fatigue makes it extremely difficult to concentrate.

Sleep Cycles & Wake Cycles

Recent studies show that human beings pass through two distinct periods of sleepiness during the course of a day—these are linked to shifts in brain activity and behavior. The strongest urge for sleep occurs from 2 to 7 a.m. Since nighttime sleepiness is linked to natural changes in ambient light, some workplaces brighten the light during these hours. A less powerful (but still significant) urge for sleep occurs from 2 to 5 p.m., and an afternoon siesta is common in many world cultures. Not surprisingly, during these hours there is a rise in accidents and a fall in productivity as well. As dusk approaches, it is very unlikely to feel sleepy.

Swami Rama followed a routine that was closely attuned to the daily sleep cycle. He divided his sleeping schedule into two parts. At about 2 p.m., he would sleep for one hour. Then, during the middle of the night, he would sleep for another two hours. That was the extent of his sleeping. He rarely wavered from this extraordinary schedule in the nearly three decades he spent working in the West.

But for most of us, a good sleep schedule will look very different. Ayurveda links the optimum sleep schedule to cycles in the day. According to this discipline, each day is divided into segments that correspond to the three doshas (bodily humors). During each segment, a particular dosha—vata, kapha, or pitta—is predominant.

Time of Day Predominant Dosha
2 a.m.–6 a.m. vata (the dosha associated with cold and movement)
6 a.m.–10 a.m. kapha (the dosha associated with rest and cohesiveness)
10 a.m.–2 p.m. pitta (the dosha associated with heat and metabolism)
2 p.m.–6 p.m. vata
6 p.m.–10 p.m. kapha
10 p.m.–2 a.m. pitta

An important clue to reducing daytime sleepiness is found in the ayurvedic dictum: “You sleep better when you get to bed earlier rather than later.” If you go to bed before or around 10 p.m., when kapha prevails, nature assists you in quieting down, and the mind is naturally led toward rest and replenishment of energy. But if the mind remains awake much past 10 p.m., it becomes increasingly active again, influenced by pitta. By midnight, both mind and body are hungry for action. That’s why ayurvedic practitioners often suggest that an early bedtime is best. It makes waking in the morning easier and improves daytime energy.

If you are a night owl, however, it can be very difficult to accustom yourself to an early bedtime. Try making the change gradually. Shave off 15 to 30 minutes from your bedtime until you’re in the 10:00 to 10:30 range. After four or five days of getting to bed at this time, notice any improvements in your daytime energy levels.

Sleeping Like a Yogi

There are times in everyone’s life when exhaustion wins. The need for sleep becomes virtually overwhelming and to resist it is futile. At such times a technique associated with yoga nidra, yogic sleep, can refresh the mind in a surprisingly short period of time. For one who meditates regularly, this practice is relatively easy to learn, but it can be mastered by anyone with patient effort.

The purpose of this technique is to put both body and mind into a profound state of rest while remaining alert at a deeper level of consciousness. There is no special mantra to recite, no breathing exercise other than relaxed breathing to practice, and no advanced asana to master. In fact, you might think that the practice looks very much like napping.

The difference between napping and yogic sleep lies in what is happening deep within.

The difference between napping and yogic sleep, however, lies in what is happening deep within. In yogic sleep, attention is drawn to the heart center, and there you will become a quiet witness to the sleeping body and mind. At the outset of practice you must determine how long you will sleep—perhaps 10 minutes—during which you will fully rest, unconcerned by disturbing thoughts. Your mind will then wake you when the time has elapsed.

The Technique
  1. Sit on the floor, resting your back against a wall. Stretch your legs straight out in front of you and cross one ankle over the other. Cup your palms in your lap, relaxing your arms. Lower your head toward your lap and relax your neck (for those with neck strain, however, rest your head against the wall). Close your eyes.
  2. Relax your body and settle a bit deeper into the posture. Your head hangs comfortably from the neck, and there should be no tension or resistance in the neck itself. As you sit, your body will become still.
  3. Bring your awareness to your breath. The sides of the abdomen, as well as the front of the abdominal wall, will expand and contract with each breath. Feel each exhalation cleanse the body and each inhalation refresh it. Deepen the breath and let it flow easily and smoothly.
  4. Bring your awareness to the nostrils. Rest there, feeling the flow of the breath for a few breaths.
  5. Move your awareness to the eyebrow center. Center your attention there as you feel the gentle movement of the breath—as if you are breathing at that point.
  6. Shift your awareness to the throat center. Again, feel the breath.
  7. Finally, lower your awareness to the heart center, deep in the center of the chest, and once more focus on the breath. This is where your awareness will remain for the rest of the exercise.
  8. After resting at the heart center for a few breaths, make a quiet resolve. Resolve that you will sleep for a specified length of time. Announce the time to yourself before you fall asleep, so that your mind will awaken you when the time has elapsed. Then let your body and mind go to sleep.
  9. Remain watching, using the merest awareness of the flow of the breath as an anchor for your consciousness, but otherwise attending to nothing. Your body may jerk, sensations may arise, or your mind may drift, but these experiences simply alert you to the fact that you are falling asleep. After a few minutes, your mind and body will approach sleep. Continue observing yourself, feeling your breath ebb and flow at a deep level of your awareness.
  10. Stay in this state until your mind wakes you up. When you awaken, slowly raise your head and stretch your body. Draw your attention outward, opening your eyes into your hands and then to the room around you.

This technique should be practiced in a place where you will not be disturbed. Close the door to the room you are in and, if necessary, ask a friend to help you maintain the quiet environment you will need to practice successfully. You will find that this practice is much more effective than napping—and it takes less time. “Sleeping on the run” will help you restore energy and regain your power of concentration.

So, the bottom line in managing exhaustion is to give up the fight. Rather than struggling against the urge to sleep, sleep like a yogi! This will help you efficiently refresh your body and mind.

Source: Moving Inward (Rolf Sovik, PsyD)

About the Author

Rolf Sovik, PsyD

President and Spiritual Director of the Himalayan Institute, Rolf Sovik, PsyD, began his study of yoga and meditation in 1972. He is a student of H.H. Swami Rama and Pandit Rajmani Tigunait, and under their guidance has explored the teachings of the Himalayan tradition. He holds degrees in philosophy, music, Eastern Studies, and Clinical Psychology. He is currently a resident of the Himalayan Institute where he lives with his wife, Mary Gail. Read Rolf’s articles on yoga wisdom and spirituality in the Himalayan Institute Wisdom Library.