Surya Namaskar: My Ayurvedic Dinacharya in Belize
I’m in Belize. By 6:30 at night, the sky is pitch black. There are no cars or trucks on my small island. That’s because there are no paved streets, anywhere. Nor, are there bright lights or neon signs hanging from the streets to bring about an unnatural sense of time. In my lifetime, they brought electricity to this island. Nonetheless, there’s no blasting of TVs. Just the occasional rhythmic beats streaming out from the bars. Other than that, when it’s night, it’s quiet. As it should be, in my book. Here, or at home, I am loyal to my Ayurvedic dinacharya (routine). My prescribed lifestyle is all about optimum wellness, including yoga and healthy sleep patterns.
For one, I never eat after 7 p.m. Here, my light evening meal is closer to 5:00 p.m. I take a refreshing cold water shower once the sun is no longer at its peak. Then, I rub my skin with coconut oil laced with lavender and geranium essential oils. Abhyanga (oil massage), with my homemade oil, even helps repel mosquitos. Next, I chant. By 9 p.m., I’m in bed. More often than not, before then.
So, in the wee hours of the morning, I’m wide awake. I squeeze a lime into my freshly made ginger tea. After I hydrate, I go to the water’s edge to begin my pre-dawn practice. Six breath work exercises followed by a dozen sets of sun salutations. As the sun rises, I lift my heart and head to honor it. No one is around. Except maybe one or two of my dogs. The breeze is cool. The morning sun is gentle. I hear the sounds of nature. Waves. Birds. Insects. Dogs. Occasionally, a bike rider passing near by, or a golf cart picking up the trash. Sometimes, the sound of a motor boat in the wake, filled with fisherman looking for crab, lobster or other catches.
This is my daily routine in Belize. The slogan for my island is appropriate. “Go Slow.” I feel connected to nature in many ways. Among them, my body’s instinct to slow down when it’s dark, and rev up my brain and body with the sun.
Getting a Good Night’s Sleep
The average American goes to sleep many hours after dark. In many “developed” countries it’s normal to eat dinner as late as 9 p.m. Plus, it’s all too common, in “modern” cultures for people to not get a good night’s sleep. Ayurveda points to many reasons for this, especially the time clock. Therefore, yoga and healthy sleep patterns are inseparable.
Ayurveda teaches us to be in sync with the elements: earth, water, fire, air and ether. The elements represent your body, and the world in which you live. For me, it’s also about being in sync with nature. Including the sun and the moon. Day and night. Yang versus yin.
For three decades, I’ve thrived without eight hours of sleep a night. I don’t need as much zzz’s as others. My body and mind rest through my practice, on and off the mat. My current Ayurvedic routine contributes to releasing tensions and from my body and mind, while ensuring that my energy is flowing at the right times, and in the right ways.
Following are some of my tips for a restful sleep, along with those of Aadil Palkhivala. Aadil has been practicing yoga for 51 years. He has a very hectic world travel schedule, which aggravates the vata, thus, disturbing sleep patterns. What’s more, the man that was initiating into the yoga world at the age of seven, under the direction of B.K.S. Iyengar, has had to overcome “amazing injuries.”
Why We Need to Sleep Like a Baby
There are many reasons why rest, or sleep are essential for healthy living. For example, The New England Journal of Medicine reported that the number one cause for injuries was lack of sleep. And, when you lack just one hour of sleep, it’s similar to when you drink two glasses of wine.
“Sleep is the time when your body can move from its current sympathetic state to a state of healing. Healing ONLY happens in the parasympathetic response. It tells the body it is SAFE now to heal. If I don’t feel safe, I cannot move into the parasympathetic response. Creating a context of safety is crucial for sleep.”
I sometimes override the sleep state, by turning on the parasympathetic response system, directly. For example, when in a plane or other places when I know my sleep will be scant, I practice extended sessions of pranayama. Alternate nostril breathing with kumbhaka (retention and suspension of breath) is a great way to switch on the parasympathetic system.
Aadil says, “When the mind is oscillating, you can’t sleep. A scattered mind prevents you from sleeping.” According to Aadil, there was a very old woman in a hospital. She didn’t sleep for days. Then, someone held her hand. Voila. The comfort of human touch, and sense of carrying, was what she needed to fall asleep. Likewise, with babies. When you rock them, sing to them, touch their bodies or head, they will doze off. Even more apparent, when a baby is nursing, they are in a profound state of relaxation.
When we are frazzled, we can’t sleep. Spooning may be a way to calm oneself. But, for those sleeping solo, breathwork or meditation are easy chill pills.
Yoga and Healthy Sleep Patterns
A kirtan artist, GuruGanesha Singh, once told me that when he first entered a Kundalini/Sikh community, he was told they started their day at 4. He said no problem, thinking they meant p.m. The former rock musician was rocked out of his comfort zone when he learned the daily practice was at 4 a.m.
Before some have turned off the lights, I may be awake, feeling completely rested. Aadil explains that every hour of sleep before midnight is equivalent to 1.5 hours of rest. Hence, My three or four hours of early sleep are just as good as six hours of someone else’s later night sleep. Furthermore, he says that sleep after 6 a.m. is ineffective. Most yogic traditions, like the Kundalini, encourage morning sadhana (practice) before sunrise.
Pretty much all my life, I’ve been an early riser. Daylight is a trigger for me. My body — and brain — are most alert at dawn. Aadil explains that, “We are not just bodies. We are part of the sun and the moon.” Traditional Chinese Medicine teaches us that the daytime sun gives us heat, energy, movement (pitta). Whereas, the evening moon is associated with coolness and stillness.
Regardless of your dosha, most of us have a vata-induced lifestyle. Just as travel aggravates vata, deadlines, and working or thinking about work 24/7 wreaks havoc on your balance. Typically, vata folks get the least amount of sleep, whereas kaphas love their slumber and even naptimes.
Good sleep depends on your lifestyle. “It’s the law of cause and effect. It’s that simple. Don’t expect good sleep,” says Aadil, if you don’t have a healthy routine.
Five Tips for Yoga and Healthy Sleep Patterns
- Blue light hinders sleep states. Hence, I light candles and turn on salt lamps before bedtime. No traditional lights, and most importantly, no TV, computers or smart phones.
- “Our body is a body of light,” says Aadil. “The body feels claustrophobic in dark colors.” Feng Shui suggests earth and skin tones for bedrooms. Other options are light greens and lavenders, which I chose, as they remind me of a garden. Similar to Ayurveda, Feng Shui says it’s essential to customize based on your constitution/elements.
- Food is energy. It’s not required for sleep, rather for active daytime activities. So, refrain from eating at least several hours before bedtime. Plus, food in the evening should be kapha-promoting. No spicy pitta-inducing foods. However, camomile, mint or other soothing herbs are good.
- I repeat mantras before bed to relax my body and mind. Yin yoga, meditation or breath work are other good options. Aadil suggests inhaling for a count of two, exhaling for a count of four (to kick in the parasympathetic system) and suspending the breath for a count of three.
- Consider body mechanics. Aadil explains that the area from the occipital ridge on the skull to T2 (about the level of your clavicle) play a big part in the parasympathetic activation.
- Therefore, he suggests practicing bridge poses, with deltoids rolled under the body. Or, try a supported yin bridge. Another option is legs up a wall. Whichever you choose, hold as long as possible and focus on your breath. To release, lift the hips up and down nine times to reactivate spine.
- Another asana he recommends at bedtime is supta padangustasana as the pull on the Achilles tendon travels all the way to the occipital ridge.
- Aadil says the spine shrinks with fear. Therefore, he suggests stretching the spine every single night. Consider a restorative downward dog.
For more on yoga and healthy sleep patterns, read one of my earlier articles. Or, check out Aadil’s site. ”Born a yogi, inside his mothers womb,” he’s author three Yoga Teacher Training manuals and Fire of Love and contributes to Yoga Journal and Prevention magazine.