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Yoga and Natural Sleep
There is an interaction between yoga and sleep that is not often talked about. We know about the wonderful benefits of yoga—relaxation, better circulation, increased energy, and so on. We have heard of people getting up early to practice yoga; hopefully, they are also going to bed early so they’re not cutting their sleep short.
That’s because sleep has its own benefits, which are different from the benefits of yoga. Enough sleep and good-quality sleep make possible things that yoga and meditation cannot accomplish, and vice versa.
Over a period of time it is not healthy to cut back on your sleep in order to practice yoga. Take it from me. I tried it. I practiced yoga for over 20 years very regularly at the expense of sleep. And it caught up with me. I dozed momentarily behind the wheel on the way home from work—twice. It doesn’t take a lot of awareness to realize that a dead, slightly enlightened yogi is still dead!
Deep stages of yoga and meditation provide access to energy and consciousness that sleep alone cannot provide. Yoga can be relaxing, energizing, peaceful, and deeply fulfilling all at the same time. It is a unique daytime experience unlike any other.
Sleep never feels like that. Unless you’re into conscious dreaming and the like, sleep rarely gives you a ‘wow’ experience. First of all, when we fall asleep, we don’t really know it’s happening. When we wake up, it just feels ordinary, unlike the exhilaration one can feel during yoga or meditation. So, as we do with many of the good things in life, most of us take sleep for granted.
What’s different about sleep? During deeper stages of sleep we secrete growth hormones that promote cell healing. That doesn’t happen during meditation. The body produces a dazzling array of chemicals during sleep that researchers are only beginning to uncover. It seems that the more we learn, the more questions we have.
I have met a number of yogis who practiced meditation and/or yoga up to 10 hours per day. Their entire focus was on complete liberation from attachment to pleasure or pain or from the endless circle of life and death, according to Buddhist philosophy.
To that end they tried to reduce their sleep hours in order to maximize their awake time. Eventually, there came a point when they realized that they needed plenty of sleep in order to be able to have the profound experience of meditation they were seeking.
If you are too tired and try to meditate, you’ll fall asleep. That’s just how the body works. Meditation, in all stages except perhaps the most advanced, is no replacement for sleep.
Even though you can’t become enlightened from sleeping, you sure can’t become enlightened without it.
….and there is one more important similarity between yoga and sleep. In western culture, the practice of yoga has become solely a willful practice. You use your will to practice poses. Among advanced yogis, their practice is more about grace and experiencing the flow of chi or prana (energy) in the body.
Falling asleep is similar in one aspect to an advanced yoga practice. You cannot will yourself to sleep. It’s impossible. If you have insomnia, you know what I mean; or you can ask one of your wakeful friends. In order to fall asleep, you have to relax. You have to let go of your conscious mind, or sleep cannot happen.
Isn’t life all about knowing when to use your will and when to let grace take over?