Once upon a time, I would leave my apartment at 6 AM to teach a 7 AM yoga class; spend the day hopping between cafes and classes and meetings, each shoulder laden with a big tote bag filled with clothes, computers, notebooks, and food containers; and arrive back home by 9 PM, the cabinets and couch shrouded in the same dark shadows in which I left them 15 hours earlier.
I’d be overcome with a physical hunger to flop in front of my laptop to zone out watching Netflix, or find some food or tea to calm my nervous system, which was still buzzing with the lights and noise of the subway. When I woke up the next morning, I’d inevitably greet the day in a bewildered fog, body creaking as I showered, dressed, and packed, then spend a lot of my “free time” coaxing my digestion to fire up so I could eat, so I could teach, so I could. Keep. Going.
The Stress-Sleep Cycle: A Modern Problem with Ancient Roots
Sound familiar? The nonstop lifestyle of the pre-pandemic world was behind many of my personal health imbalances, and apparently, I’m not the only one. Stress is the reason for up to 90 percent of all primary care doctor visits in the U.S., a common byproduct of which is a lack of sleep. Many of us have experienced that hungover feeling after staying up all night—which is actually a perfect analogy since lack of sleep will impair cognition just like intoxication. Besides that initial grogginess, over time a lack of sleep, whether from stress or other conditions, may also contribute to illnesses like diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, and depression.
Long before the modern stressors of the twenty-first century had been invented, the ancient rishis who shared the holistic medical science of Ayurveda over 5,000 years ago knew the importance of quality sleep, too. The Ayurvedic clock (similar to the circadian clock in the western paradigm) describes 10 PM to 2 AM as one of two times of day governed by pitta dosha. This combination of fire and water elements keeps us focused and productive during the day, but at night fires up with many other essentials we sometimes take for granted. It’s also why Ayurveda encourages being in bed by 10 PM so that we’re not tempted to use that evening pitta energy for something else (like emails, TV, moving furniture . . .).
Indeed, modern science shows that in a state of deep sleep, the body performs a host of detoxifying and maintenance functions that can’t take place during the day. These include cell and muscle repair, washing your brain, proper functioning of the liver (and regulating blood sugar—a concept that’s key to the Ayurvedic and TCM understanding of digestion), as well as learning and integrating new information. With good sleep you go about your day feeling, well, like you got a good night’s sleep—a state that we modern folks may be very unfamiliar with since we often burn that pitta candle at both ends.
Vata & Rajas: The Ayurvedic Enemies of Sleep
Because Ayurveda looks at the conditions of mind, body, and spirit to evaluate health, any number of issues with the skin, gut, respiration, circulation, mental health, and hormonal health (to name a few) can be potentially traced back to sleep, and, ultimately, the anxiety that caused the lack of sleep.
The Ayurvedic texts cite sleeping during the day (because you’re not sleeping at night, and therefore not getting that reset from night-shift pitta) as a direct cause of disease. Modern practitioners emphasize the role of a good nighttime routine as such. While it may seem silly to rest before you sleep, the nervous system needs time to unwind from the day and prepare for the overnight janitorial work inside your body.
You could think of sleep in this way as a free, self-generating superfood—which, though your body already knows how to do it, you still need to do a little prep work to make it tasty and digestible. There’s no one-size-fits-all recipe for sleep, but generally speaking, good sleep is inversely proportional to stimulation. From electronics to exercise, foods to conversations, anything that makes you feel “on” instead of “off” will be disruptive to sleep.
Choosing activities that help to quiet the mind and body, and introduce feelings of heaviness, groundedness, and rhythm are all going to support good sleep. In Ayurvedic terms, these qualities are said to be vata-pacifying—meaning they balance the mobile, erratic, and light qualities of the air and space elements that make up the vata dosha. They also help to reduce the quality of rajas, or activity and restlessness, in the mind.
Both vata and rajas are heightened, if not praised, in our society at large—think: traveling all day long, eating on the go, nonstop communication on our devices. That’s why it can feel pretty foreign, even wrong or guilt-inducing, at first to deliberately choose to slow down and do less. But when we don’t introduce balance into our systems regularly, that’s when we find ourselves in those patterns of chronic anxiety, insomnia, and their associated dis-eases.
Those Quarantine Nights—A Love-Hate Story
Despite my knowledge of Ayurveda, it wasn’t until COVID forced the world to shut down that I could truly settle into the evening rituals that I knew would calm my vata and rajas and support restful sleep.
In the early days of the pandemic, sleep did not come easy. Anxieties about the virus—whether I washed my hands enough, whether I stood too close to that person on my walk in the park, whether that pain in my chest was a sign I was sick (nope, just anxiety, according to three urgent care doctors)—would creep up just around the time I wanted to start to slow things down. This was especially ironic because for the first time, I finally had the time and energy to put into arranging a thoughtful, undisturbed evening well before I collapsed from exhaustion, which was my previous “time for bed” signal.
Over time, though, the nightly panic attacks wore off, and my body adjusted to an unforced wake-up and wind-down schedule. While I worked to figure out how to adapt my on-the-go life to the confines of my one-bedroom apartment during the day, I’d look forward with giddiness for the clock to strike 6 PM, when I’d actively “turn off” and explore a more grounded way of being. My friends, family, and clients all relished in being able to “get together” sans subway, and people I hadn’t talked to for years suddenly made their way into my speed dial. Maintaining those connections, and connecting to myself, at night made me feel good, which was a small consolation amidst all the chaos of the world.
But like our sourdough breads and TikTok dance routines, the pandemic novelty of not being so active at night eventually wore off. It was sometime around December 2020 that I realized I had shifted into a new phase of the stress-sleep conundrum. Because the movements of my life had become so limited, the quieting, self-care rituals that had defined my evenings were seeping into the rest of my day. Not even the holidays I once looked forward to felt special. And once again, the hours before bed became a hole of anxiety and uncertainty, a waiting game for another version of the same at-home day to end, rather than the routine that, for a brief time, brought me such relief.
Cultivating the Conditions for Sleep
Enter Ayurveda, which thanks to its personalized approach to health has a remarkably diverse toolkit for solving problems related to just about any dis-ease of mind, body, or spirit. What to do before bed during a worldwide quarantine is not addressed specifically in the Ayurvedic classics, but we can draw on the basic principles of soothing vata and rajas to reclaim comfort, ease, and even joy in our evenings.
To start, let’s look at the Ayurvedic clock again and the qualities of the pre-bed time of day in question. The period between 6 PM and 10 PM is dominant in earth and water elements (kapha dosha—which is almost exactly opposite, and hence balancing, to vata dosha), which means it is a natural time to feel heavier in the body and seek out activities and stimuli that are soft, dense, and warm—the qualities we find in cuddling on the couch, tea, and even alcohol.
These things (not so much the alcohol) all start to direct our energy and attention more inward, rather than the outward-facing activities like emails, talking, posting on social media, and “consuming” of all the things that we do during the day. That mental state, called tamas, is similarly opposite to the activity of rajas. To use Chinese Medicine terms most people are familiar with, our evenings generally want to be more yin (dark, quiet, feminine), and less yang (bright, active, masculine).
As I’ve experimented with the infinite permutations of yin the last few months, the suggestions below not contain the Ayurvedic qualities of but also somehow feel new and exciting to me. And because my evenings don’t present yet another struggle of “what to do,” I’m setting myself up for being able to sleep well enough to face whatever news (or lack thereof) will arrive tomorrow.
- Eat well. Dinner might be considered the capstone meal in American culture, but Ayurveda recommends making lunch the biggest meal of the day since that is when our digestive fire is strongest (thanks to the help of the midday sun). We still need some food at night, though, to replenish what we used up during the day, have enough energy to do all that internal cleansing, and support those cozy kapha/tamasqualities. When planning your dinner, choose a light and easily digestible meal—soups and stews are a perfect choice—that’s warm and cooked. By cooking your own food, you’ll also be naturally invited to slow down and not multitask, setting the mental conditions to treat your meal like the sacred ritual it is. Try to focus your attention on just eating rather than socializing; that means, save your Zooms for after dinner, and instead be a full participant in the colors, smells, flavors, and textures of your meal.
- Cleaning. Tidying your kitchen, house, and body at the end of the day is a great way to make space for optimal digestion of your food and experiences. Use the time after dinner to pack up leftovers and wash the dishes, as well as put away the detritus of living in your office/gym/school day care—that way, when you wake up in the morning you’ll have a clean space, and set things up for feeling just as clear in your body.
- Ayurveda recommends a few rituals for nighttime hygiene, which offer gentle cleansing to the channels of food and energy. Oiling of the body (abhyanga) and nose (nasya) can be great for relieving dryness and restlessness. A simple routine I follow is rubbing pure sesame oil on my feet before bed and, a few nights a week, a special hair oil in my scalp. Both practices work to draw energy down away from the head, relieving deep-held tension and promoting sleep. If you choose to bathe at night, take a shower before dinner (which will stimulate your appetite), or take a warm bath at least 2 hours after eating and after abhyanga.
- Handwork. There’s an Ayurvedic saying that “prana follows attention,” which means that our lifeforce energy will move wherever we direct our focus. Using your hands for creative activities before bed will help to focus your attention in that more inward, or at least singular, direction, as opposed to the external focus we tend to have during the day.
- Having a task that involves both mind and body will also prevent eating late at night, which might upset digestion. Whether it’s knitting or coloring, arranging flowers or reading a physical book or magazine, journaling or doing a puzzle, engaging in something where you are participating in an act of building is very much in line with the kaphic vibes of the post-dinner period. Just make sure there are no or minimal electronics involved!
- Gentle movement. Restorative yoga at home is just about my favorite thing, and at this point, I don’t even bother to roll out a mat or put on a yoga outfit—it’s blankets and PJs all the way. This type of yoga practice is extremely accessible, as the postures are large versions of savasana, where you lie on the ground with a bunch of pillows and blankets to hold your body in place. Designed to calm the nervous system, support digestion, and integrate emotional traumas and other experiences in the body and mind, restorative yoga can be a deeply healing practice even in small doses. Doing a pose for just 8 to 10 minutes before bed can be all you need to prepare for sleep.
- After a stressful day, gentle stretches, joint work, and self-massage can all be part of your evening movement routine. Although it may sound counterintuitive, movement can be extremely calming to a frazzled mind, as long as it’s slow and rhythmic (think: rocking a baby to sleep).
- Storytelling. Not too long ago, before electricity, people would gather around the fire at night and tell stories, rituals that forged community bonds and perpetuated cultures between generations. Nowadays, we do a similar thing—though instead of a fire, we gather around a glowing screen and listen to stories being told to us through the ether.
- While screens are not very vata-friendly, I admit it’s hard for me to avoid all TV at night—so I harken back to my ancestors and try to make it about storytelling, not mindless entertainment. I choose shows that are mildly engaging and generally comforting, as opposed to something dramatic, scary, or violent. I also have become my own TV guide and will only watch certain shows on certain days of the week; this gives me something to look forward to even in the days of on-demand streaming and binging on the entire series.
- More often, I choose to listen to podcasts or read books at night or write my own “stories” by journaling. In connecting to the narratives of others as well as my own, I feel the kind of coherence in my human existence that has been so perturbed by this pandemic; and while none of us know how this story will end, we can still attempt to preserve and share it with shapely, elegant language so we don’t wake up on the other side of quarantine and think it was all just a dream.
Jennifer joins The Alchemist’s Kitchen for The Root and Nourishi Book Club. In this course, we’ll unpack the physical and spiritual mechanisms behind each section in Jennifer’s book, Root & Nourish. You’ll come away from each 90-minute session with specific ingredients and recipes to bring balance to your system, and practices for self-care and reflection on how you can live more in harmony with the nature around and inside you.
Areas of focus include: Herbs for Digestion, Herbs for Mental Health, Herbs for Female Reproductive Hormonal Health, and Herbs for Life.