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Nidra: An important aspect of healthy life

Sleep is some­thing dear to every­one. Very rarely is some­one will­ing to sac­ri­fice sleep. Ask about the pre­cious­ness of sleep to new moth­ers! We always won­der: What caus­es sleep? How much sleep do we need? What hap­pens when we stay awake for a long time? These are ques­tions we keep ask­ing. One of our reg­u­lar pro­gram par­tic­i­pants always want­ed to “con­quer” sleep to work more and be more productive.People who vis­it the ashram ask us “How long do you sleep? Do Yogis sleep?”. These are ques­tions that don’t have one sin­gle answer.

Have you heard of the cir­ca­di­an rhythm? It is the inter­nal clock that enables sev­er­al changes in the body based on the envi­ron­ment. It is very much relat­ed to the changes in the light. Our mood, behav­ior etc depend on the cir­ca­di­an cycle. Our sleep is also relat­ed to our rhythm. The cir­ca­di­an rhythm tells when to wake up, sleep and eat. Sev­er­al process­es in the body includ­ing body tem­per­a­ture and meta­bol­ic process­es are coor­di­nat­ed by the cir­ca­di­an rhythm to ensure that we stay awake dur­ing the day and sleep dur­ing the night. This rhythm also varies from per­son to per­son. That is why some are “morn­ing peo­ple” and some are “night peo­ple”.

Mela­tonin, called the hor­mone of dark­ness, helps in kick­start­ing sleep. After dusk, there is a lot of mela­tonin released into the blood­stream and grad­u­al­ly it reduces as we near morn­ing. Once sun­light falls on the eyes(or eye­lids), the secre­tion of mela­tonin stops and this helps us to wake up.

As we stay awake the lev­els of Adeno­sine keeps build­ing up. This increas­es the desire to sleep. The more we stay awake, the more the “sleep pres­sure” or adeno­sine build up. When this reach­es a thresh­old, we fall asleep. Stim­u­lants like cof­fee block this adeno­sine build up and hence we seem to stay awake longer when we drink cof­fee but once our liv­er clears up the caf­feine, the adeno­sine build up takes over and we fall “dead asleep”.

But why is this a prob­lem?

A yog­ic way of life is one where the har­mo­ny of the body and mind is a key fac­tor. Over­do­ing sleep or wake­ful­ness is not help­ful and espe­cial­ly if this involves stim­u­lants like tea or cof­fee. Any strong chem­i­cals put into the sys­tem cre­ates huge dam­age. Strong med­ica­tion, strong food or even strong emo­tions can desta­bi­lize the sys­tem. Har­mo­ny, hap­pi­ness and bal­ance are extreme­ly impor­tant to the Yogi.

The Bha­gavad Gita calls for a mod­er­a­tion in food, activ­i­ty, enter­tain­ment and sleep to reap the ben­e­fits of Yoga.

नात्यश्नतस्तु योगोऽस्ति न चैकान्तमनश्नत: |

न चाति स्वप्नशीलस्य जाग्रतो नैव चार्जुन || 6.16||

युक्ताहारविहारस्य युक्तचेष्टस्य कर्मसु |

युक्तस्वप्नावबोधस्य योगो भवति दु:खहा || 6.17||

O Arju­na, those who eat too much or too lit­tle, sleep too much or too lit­tle, can­not attain suc­cess in Yoga.But those who are tem­per­ate in eat­ing and recre­ation, bal­anced in work, and reg­u­lat­ed in sleep, can mit­i­gate all sor­rows prac­tic­ing Yoga.

Sleep in the Indi­an tra­di­tion

Be it the Upan­ishads or Yog­ic texts, sleep has been giv­en due impor­tance. It is recog­nised as one of the states of con­scious­ness and a vrit­ti accord­ing to the Yoga­su­tra of Mahar­ishi Patan­jali.

अभावप्रत्ययालम्बना वृत्तिर्निद्रा ॥ १.१०॥

abhā­vapratyayālam­banā vṛt­tirnidrā || 1.10||

Sleep is a vrit­ti that is sup­port­ed by or based on absence of con­tent (cog­nis­ing empti­ness). It is still a process dif­fer­ent from the state of Samad­hi because there is lack of aware­ness or there is aware­ness of only dark­ness. Sleep is a tama­sic state while the deep state of med­i­ta­tion is a sattvic state. By know­ing the state of sleep and dreams or by deeply reflect­ing on dreams and sleep, one gets a bet­ter under­stand­ing of med­i­ta­tive state says Patan­jali Muni (स्वप्ननिद्राज्ञानालम्बनं वा ॥ १.३८॥ , svap­nanidrājñānālam­banaṃ vā || 1.38||)

In the Tatt­va Bod­ha, Adi Sankara Bha­ga­vat­pa­da describes deep sleep as a state where we aren’t aware of any­thing but we wake up and remem­ber the expe­ri­ence of sleep. The iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with the karana shari­ra is still there which enables this remem­brance. Dream is defined as the state where the expe­ri­ences gath­ered dur­ing the wak­ing state are pro­ject­ed and the men­tal process­es are still on.

स्वप्नावस्था केति चेत् ? जाग्रदवस्थायां यद्दृष्टं यद् श्रुतम्

तज्जनितवासनया निद्रासमये यः प्रपञ्चः प्रतीयते सा

स्वप्नावस्था ।

अतः सुषुप्त्यवस्था का ? अहं किमपि न जानामि सुखेन मया निद्राऽनुभूयत इति

सुषुप्त्यवस्था ।

svap­nā­vasthā keti cet ?jāgra­davasthāyāṃ yad­dṛṣṭaṃ yad śru­tam

taj­jan­i­tavāsanayā nidrāsamaye yaḥ pra­pañ­caḥ pratīy­ate sā

svap­nā­vasthā |

ataḥ suṣuptyavasthā kā?ahaṃ kimapi na jānā­mi sukhena mayā nidrā’nubhūyata iti

suṣuptyavasthā |

Mod­ern sci­ence talks of wak­ing, sleep and dream states. When we lie down in our bed, we ini­tial­ly doze off. This is stage 1. Then the heart­beat slows down and over­all meta­bol­ic activ­i­ty is reduced. This is stage 2 when the body tem­per­a­ture is also low­ered. We then enter into deep sleep where the body is in com­plete state of rest and we are unaware of out­er sur­round­ings. It is hard to wake up in this state. This stage of deep sleep is also extreme­ly restora­tive in nature which reju­ve­nates the body and mind. This stage is char­ac­ter­ized by slow and deep delta waves. All these are non Rapid Eye Move­ment Stages (NREM)

The brain then picks up activ­i­ty sim­i­lar to the wak­ing state and this is the dream state. How­ev­er, the vol­un­tary activ­i­ties are cur­tailed (else we would sleep walk).

Deep sleep leads to reju­ve­na­tion. The prac­tice of Yoga Nidra which is a deeply relax­ing prac­tice is high­ly rec­om­mend­ed to reju­ve­nate the body and mind. There are sev­er­al Yog­ic prac­tices to ensure that one gets enough rest dur­ing the day and night. Learn­ing them from an expert can be very ben­e­fi­cial.

You can access Anaadi’s Yoga Nidra instruc­tions here.


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