It is my belief that in order to be a teacher of anything, I have to, first and foremost, be a dedicated student of the subject. When I am in student mode, it is difficult not to let the mind wander into the territory of, “how will I teach this to my students?” It is this particular challenge that led me back to New York City to my teacher, Sri Dharma Mittra,to do the work of being a student of yoga.
In our “Habits of Yogis” series, we’re looking at the daily routines and rituals that connect us with the natural cycles of nature. The Ayurvedic term for daily habits is dinacharya, and these are guidelines for living a long and vibrant life.
A nature-aligned evening routine is essential for healthy living.
Thoughtful, nurturing evening habits honor your body’s natural energy cycles. It puts you into the flow of life, rather than trying to work against nature. We’ve already talked about why an earlier, lighter dinner is important. It gives your body appropriate nourishment to end your day without adding extra material to digest in the evening and overnight. Once dinner is over, you have time to naturally wind down in preparation for sleep.
Ancient Wisdom and Modern Science for Sleep
The yogis have known for ages that sleeping when it’s dark and rising when it’s light is nature’s design for humans. Whether you look to the yogis, or to nobel laureates or you listened to your grandmother, there’s scientific proof and deep wisdom that tells us that “early to bed, early to rise makes a (wo)man healthy, wealthy, and wise.”
Our culture does not support nature-aligned sleep, and its effects are severe. The book, Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams by Matthew Walker, PhD (or this interview of if you want a quicker hit) offers fascinating science on how sleep is essential (e.g. for being ready to learn and for remembering what we learn). He also presents sobering science on how lack of sleep is connected to so much of our dysfunction and disease (e.g. increased risk of immune disorders, Alzheimer's and dementia, and cancer).
Getting too little sleep makes life harder (and unsafe). It weakens the immune system. It makes you fuzzy and ungrounded. Sleep deprivation can leave you more impaired than if you were drunk on alcohol. The cumulative effect of poor sleeps knocks you out of integrity with yourself and puts high barriers between you and your life purpose.
The Habit of Early to Bed
Ayurveda teaches us that our nighttime energy cycle from 10pm to 2am is the time when energy is high for detoxification and rejuvenation. Your cells are taking out the trash and making vital repairs to keep organs and systems strong. It is also the time when you mentally and emotionally digest the events of the previous day. When you stay awake past 10pm, your body gets a second wind from that rising energy cycle, you feel alert and push on with more work or socializing, and you miss out on the deep rest your body needs.
When tuned into to the natural rhythm of waking and sleeping, you protect the time your body needs for rest. You wind down in the evening, starting around 8pm, and you close your eyes to sleep by 10pm. You allow yourself the time to sleep for 7-8 hours each night. You need MORE sleep (8+ hours nightly) if you have been sleep deprived for a long time or are experiencing big challenges or demands at this time of your life (e.g. raising children, demanding job, illness, emotional stress, a big project, etc.).
Seasonally, you may feel you need different amounts of sleep. The darkness of winter may draw you to bed earlier, and the long days of summer may cause you to linger later. The best way to know when it’s time for bed is to listen to your own body’s needs. Follow your body’s natural rhythm and you’ll sleep soundly and wake with a clear mind and an energized body, ready to greet a new day.
Creating a Healthy Sleep Habit
A sound sleep habit is built on other self-nurturing routines that will set you up for deep sleep. When you’ve had an early and light dinner, you have time for light activity and relaxation in the evening. You can be alert to your body’s cues and you will feel your fatigue - your signal for winding down.
Now we get to the fun part: You design your evening to prepare yourself for sleep. Here are some things you can do to wind down before bedtime:
Invoke satya - truthfulness - and look honestly at your sleep patterns, habits, and the overall quality of your life and health. Are you thriving or are you feeling fatigued, foggy, and unwell in some aspect of your being? Sleep may be the habit you need to nurture yourself back to better health and wellbeing.
If your current evening routine is far from the of calm, quiet, ease, you’ll be more successful in improving your sleep habit if you make a series of small changes over time.
Even small changes can make big improvements to the quality and quantity of your sleep, so give yourself credit for every small win. You don’t have to be a perfect sleeper to benefit from better bedtime habits!
The Subtle Energy of You
Ojas is the word for the subtle, refined energy that is produced by the digestive processes in your body. It is what protects the functions of your cells and systems, and promotes overall health. Ojas holds together the immune system, so strong ojas = vibrant health + longevity.
Ojas is depleted or built up by lifestyle choices, and sleep is one big factor. So is pushing through instead of resting when you feel tired, filling your schedule with too many activities and no downtime, and using caffeine, alcohol, or other substances to either wake up, stay awake, or fall asleep. We all have our our favorite ojas-depleting tendencies, which can almost always be remedied by cultivating nurturing, nature-aligned habits that build ojas and create stability and strength to your immune system and to your life. Start with creating a relaxing and calm evening routine, followed by a full night’s rest and you’ll feel the effects on your energy, mood, and overall wellbeing.
Kirstin Pinit is Santosha’s writer-in-residence. She is an artist, a student of yoga, Ayurveda, and massage therapy, and she is a Yoga Health Coach. Kirstin practices and teaches the habits of yogis - dinacharya. This is the Ayurvedic practice of daily habits that are essential for leading a vibrant, healthy, creative life. Find out about her upcoming courses and collaborations at kirstinpinit.com.