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Sleep Better Naturally

Sleep Disorders


It’s three o’clock in the morning, and I can’t even close my eyes.
(B. B. King)

Why couldn't the great bluesman get to sleep?  Perhaps because he was unaware, as many of us are, of the importance of daily Ayurvedic time cycles in our lives. The shortest American introduction to India’s great heritage of natural healing comes, innocently enough, from Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac:

“Early to bed, and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.

This is Ayurveda in a nutshell, and here’s why. 

There are three time periods in every twelve hours, and they are called vata, pitta, and kaphaVata is from 2 until 6, kapha is from 6 to 10, and pitta is from 10 to 2. The cycle repeats itself in the next twelve hours, so there are two vata times, two kapha times, and two pitta times each day, one daytime and one nighttime.

During vata time, a person’s mind is at its peak. Mental alertness is high, but so is a tendency towards mental excess, stress, and anxiety.  Vata time is a good time to study, but a bad time to worry.  It extends, remember, from 2 until 6 pm AND from 2 to 6 AM. Without knowing about this, I, as a college student, used to do all my studying right after afternoon classes ended up until supper. Perhaps my body was a bit fatigued then, but my mind was fully “on.” The very traditional Trappist monks at the Abbey of the Genesee in Piffard, NY, start their day at about 2 AM, promptly commencing with study until dawn. This too is an ayurvedic rhythm. 

The monks go to sleep at about 7:30 pm. They therefore avoid pitta time, which is from 10 until 2. Pitta time is a period of physical activity, appetite, and what we often call “getting our second wind.” I know mothers fathers that wait until the kids are in bed so they can get some work done.  They tackle remodeling projects or clean the house starting at about 10 PM. Once they get going, they can hardly stop. Party-hearty college students are the ultimate pitta-time devotees. Their day is just beginning at 10 PM, and goes great guns until 2AM . . .  which, curiously enough, is when the bars close. Ayurveda again, albeit in a rather backhanded form.

If you want to stay awake, stay up for pitta time. . .  but plan to be up for the whole 10 to 2 block. If you want to sleep, get to bed well before 10 PM.  This no doubt sounds unrealistically rigid to most people. That’s too bad, because they are missing out one a good thing.

The good thing is kapha time, 6 to 10. 

We ALL know about kapha time.  Kapha is slow, smooth, easy, heavy . . . and sleepy. How do you feel after your evening dinner? Yeah, just kick back and put your feet up. How many of us doze off or even nap in the early evening? It is easy to do, and NATURE IS TRYING TO TELL US SOMETHING: go to bed, you lummox!  And the earlier, the better.

And then there is morning kapha: 6 until 10. EVERYBODY knows that that is the best time for shut-eye. When that alarm goes off at 6, and it’s early, early dawn, and you cover your head with the pillow, or cuddle up with your blankets, sweetie or Teddy bear, you know what I am talking about.  Try to get a teenager up before ten. Not easy. Do you telephone your friends on weekends before ten AM? Not if you want them to remain your friends.

We can put this all together into a comprehensive practical plan, as Mr. Franklin did: go to bed early and get up early. Follow the sun, follow the birds, and follow nature’s natural circadian (day-night) rhythm.

It is very helpful.

When I was going through an unbelievably stressful period in my life, I could not sleep. No matter how tired I was, or how late I went to bed to get that tired, I would always wake up at the same time: very close to 2 or 2:30 AM. This was driving me nuts, and in my desperation, I decided I had to try what you probably do not want to try: going to bed really early (again, like the Trappists do, and as Ben Franklin advised), around 8 PM. I was surprised that I fell asleep so readily. I still woke up at 2, but now I’d had six hours sleep when I did.  With time, I was able to “sleep in” until 4 or even 5 AM. Remember, now, that my life stresses were unabated. But I soon had a reliable eight or nine hours of sleep each night with which to better attack them.

Many people have written, or discovered on their own, that it does no good to lie in bed tossin' and turnin' ‘till dawn. It is better to just get up and read or write or do something. This is still ayurvedically correct.

If you go with the flow, it all makes sense.  Sounds odd, of course, but it works.

Now don’t go telling me that you can’t do this. If you can’t, well, then you can’t. If you are a night watchman or nurse, or work a C-trick factory shift, then you can’t. But for the rest of us, the word to employ is “won’t,” not “can’t.” There is nothing really stopping you from changing your schedule. Just do it. It may take time, but the normal course of life’s events may prod you. For example: many young couples find that the only way they can cope with the incessant demands of a new baby is to hit the hay right after Junior does. There is nothing wrong with going to bed at 7:30 PM. I did it when I worked on the farm. As kids, my brothers and I were put to bed early on Christmas Eve because my parents knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that we would be up and dressed and psyched for Santa well before three. All of this is unconscious ayurveda.

I learned in teacher training that we often progress through four stages of growing awareness. The first is unconscious incompetence.  We do not even know why we are suffering, but we surely are suffering.

The second is consciousness incompetence.  We know what’s wrong, but can’t seem to fix it.

Third: unconsciousness competence.  Things got better, somehow, but we don’t know exactly what did it.

The fourth is consciousness competence. We have a plan that we knowingly adopt as part of our routine, because it works.

I invite you to take the fourth step.

For more information:
Chopra, Deepak (1991) Perfect Health. New York: Harmony Books. 

Dr. Chopra's knowledge as both endocrinologist and ayurvedic physician is presented in several books including Return of the Rishi, Creating Health, Quantum Healing, and Ageless Body, Timeless Mind. Of the lot, Perfect Health is the most practical because it provides specific instruction in ayurvedic routines and techniques. Early in the book there is a well-constructed self quiz to determine your body type. The body types themselves are well discussed, and dietary guidelines are set out for each. This is the book's strongest feature, and why you should buy a copy, and why I did. How to exercise, massage, use aroma therapy, perform balanced breathing, and follow the seasons of nature together make up only about an eighth of the book. The illustrations are excellent, and there is both room and need for more of them. 

The book's biggest weakness is failing to provide in print the rest of what you'd pay (a lot) to learn from an ayurvedic consultation or seminar. It is not easy for an author to spill all the beans in his particular field, but I do think that much more could have been told about how to do marma (pressure-point) therapy, and that basic instruction in pulse diagnosis should certainly have been included. Dr. Chopra's books are marvelously uplifting, and with more step-by-step lessons, they would be even better. 

Lad, Vasant Ayurveda:The Science of Self-Healing (1984) Santa Fe: Lotus 

The world’s most ancient complete system of healing is capably explained and condensed in this very practical introduction to ayurveda. Often considered to be the “folk medicine” of India, ayurveda is more than that. The name means “science of life,” and includes philosophy as well as directives for diet, exercise, cleansing, diagnosis, use of herbs and spices and, of course, treatment of disease. Dr. Lad succeeds in making something genuinely foreign to most quite clear using high-quality drawings and non-technical language. The sections on body types (vata, pitta, kapha) and diagnosis (visual, pulse, others) are especially good to begin with. Photographs and tables are provided, along with a handy glossary and reading list. (171 pp, paper) 

Copyright 2001 and prior years by Andrew W. Saul.  


Andrew Saul is the author of the books FIRE YOUR DOCTOR! How to be Independently Healthy (reader reviews at ) and DOCTOR YOURSELF: Natural Healing that Works. (reviewed at )


Andrew W. Saul


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