“Early to bed, early to rise” has gone out of style. These days it’s old advice; outdated, no longer applicable to the modern world. Generations X, Y, and Z have every temptation to stay up late and little motivation to wake up early.
Before the prevalence of electricity, “early to bed, early to rise” was probably an easier proverb to follow. When the sun retired and all was dark there wasn’t a whole lot to do besides sleep. I imagine there was little temptation to stay up late- no TV, no internet, no late night bars, and simply no light. Dawn must have been a welcome occurrence as it meant the time for activity.
Now we have every excuse to stay up late- the dark is no obstacle. And staying up late leads to sleeping in. I know very few people who happily welcome dawn. Besides my baby boomer parents and a few of their peers, most find waking up before 7 or even 8 am to be simply absurd.
But this schedule is way out of sync with nature. Simply put, if the sun has gone to bed, we should soon follow suit. And when the sun arises, as should we.
Most of nature is on this timetable. Take birds, for instance. They’re never heard chirping at night as they’ve settled down to rest. And as soon as dawn strikes they’re again awake and lively. That’s the sleep schedule nature intended- not only for birds, but for humans as well.
Ayurveda has been saying early to bed, early to rise for thousands of years, and the advice will forever remain applicable. There’s a reason why keeping in sync with nature’s rhythms makes your body happy and healthy.
Even the most basic understanding of the Ayurvedic doshas, given here, can explain why going to bed early and waking up early make so much sense.
We, and everything around us, are made up of the five elements: air, space, fire, water, and earth. These elements combine to form the three doshas: Vata, Pitta, and Kapha. They are biological energies that influence our bodies and minds, each having its own particular qualities and traits.
The Vata dosha is a combination of air and space. Vata’s qualities are light, mobile, dry, cold, erratic and subtle.
The Pitta dosha is comprised of fire and water. Pitta’s qualities are hot, sharp, light, and intense.
The Kapha dosha is comprised of earth and water. Kapha is heavy, dull, stable, soft, and static.
The doshas exist not only within our bodies but also outside of us, influencing the day’s energy. Each dosha is dominant twice a day, as follows:
2 am – 6 am: Vata dominance
6 am – 10 am: Kapha dominance
10 am – 2 pm: Pitta dominance
2 pm – 6 pm: Vata dominance
6 pm – 10 pm: Kapha dominance
10 pm – 2 am: Pitta dominance
These times of dominance affect the way we feel by increasing their respective energy within us. For this reason, our bodies experience harmony when we carry out a daily routine that balances the doshas’ influences.
Hence, Ayurveda recommends going to sleep by or around 10 pm- during Kapha time. Kapha is slow, stable, and dull, and has that same kind of influence on our bodies and minds, which is ideal for falling asleep.
After 10 pm we enter the Pitta time of day. Pitta’s qualities are hot, sharp, light and intense. None of these traits are conducive to falling asleep. This explains why you get a second wind if you’re up at 11 or 12 at night and feel ready and motivated to do anything but sleep, as Pitta is in full effect.
Therefore, it’s best to go to bed by 10 pm- 10:30 or 11 at the latest. This makes it much easier to fall asleep than a later bedtime.
Because Ayurveda recommends that everyone (with a few exceptions) wakes up early, we also need that early bedtime to ensure we get enough sleep. Ayurveda advises arising during brahmamuhurta– the 2 hours before sunrise. In these hours, the atmosphere is calm and quiet and the mind is relatively clear. This is the best time for yoga and meditation- which are important practices in Ayurveda for maintaining health of the body and mind.
Not everyone may be so inclined for a 4 am wake up call, but at least try to be up by 6. The idea is to awake during Vata time. Vata’s light and mobile influence on the early morning hours make it easier to wake up and easier to empty the bowels.
After 6 am we enter the Kapha time of day. Again that slow, dull, stable energy bears its effects. When you wake up at 8 or 9 am you’ll likely feel groggy and sluggish because of Kapha’s influence. Even if you got a good 8 hours of sleep, arising during Kapha hours means you still won’t feel fresh and well rested.
Also important is the quantity of sleep we get. Sleep is considered in Ayurveda to be one of the three pillars of life along with food and sex. Not everyone needs the same amount of sleep, but we all need enough. It gives the body, mind, and senses a chance to refresh and rejuvenate.
Depending on the individual’s constitution, Ayurveda recommends between 6 and 8 hours of sleep a night. Vata types need the most sleep, and Kapha types the least. To ensure that your 6-8 hours are of good quality sleep, always try to go bed by 10 and wake up by 6.
Just like everything else in life, too much of a good thing can have negative effects; sleep included. Excessive sleep brings about as much imbalance as lack of sleep and causes causes lethargy, dullness, and heaviness. More than 8 hours is only recommended for those who are ill, pregnant, or elderly.
As for naps, they’re generally not recommended except in the summer, and for the ill, pregnant, and elderly. Keep you naps to 20 minutes max.
In summary, try to follow these 3 principles for more quality and restful sleep: go to bed by 10 pm and wake up by 6 am; get between 6 and 8 hours of sleep a night; and avoid daytime napping. This rhythm keeps the body in sync with nature, and being in sync with nature is the ultimate definition of health.
(This article was also published on elephant journal.)