STUDENT QUESTION SERIES:
Is it OK to sleep after meditation, yoga or exercise in the morning?
I often find myself sleepy after my morning practice. What is your perspective on this?
There is no yes or no answer to this, but you need to understand this more thoroughly to find the answer for yourself.
I’d like to share my experience and try to give you some insights as to why you might have the inclination to sleep in these situations.
When you start real Yoga practices sincerely and rigorously, you are entering into a very very massive metaphorical auditorium, and the light from the door you entered (often this is asanas or yoga poses) can only illuminate a small portion of the area from where you came in.
In the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, it is advised to do exercises first, then asanas, then pranayama, then meditation itself.
There are increasingly subtle layers to this metaphorical onion, and a large indistinct grey area can be confusing to look at at first.
You will notice that the progression of practice is from stressful to more relaxing, speaking in a general sense. In yoga, it is said that there are three bodies and five sheaths (aka koshas). You can look these up using this awesome resource: Koshas or Sheaths of Yoga Vedanta
So, in general, there are three bodies: The Physical or Food Body, the Subtle Body, and the Karmic Body.
In reverse, these bodies are the causes of each other.
In other words, you have karma, so the subtle body is created (including the mind), and the subtle body causes the physical body to be made. There is a vast topic about the subtle anatomy/physical anatomy causal relationship here that I’m not going to examine here but it is worth investigating if you have time.
When I started doing yoga at the ashram, there are some challenges:
1) Generally, you get less sleep than you’re used to, and 2) Meditation before bed and upon waking aren’t typical in the Western lifestyle and take some getting used to. 3) Sleepiness.
After a while, I began to inquire why I was initially nearly obsessed with sleep. Habits are powerful allies but also contain a lot of inertia. Each layer or sheath has a role to play in these habits. As I began to understand the inner workings of my mind, it became clear that I was almost “surfing” this sleepiness.
(Hilariously, there were some Swamis who never learned the lesson I am giving now, and I got to watch their heads nod up and down during meditation for the whole 30 minutes, twice a day, for WEEKS).
As I learned the nature of the physical body and its structures and connected deeply through the subtle practices of yoga (and pranayama in particular), I began to realize some key facts:
- The physical body is a Tensegrity system.
- The dual nervous systems are what make up this tensegrity system to work against gravity in the physical body. They are called the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. Roughly speaking, in muscular terms, when contraction is taking place, that is a sympathetic nervous system-dominated aspect; but SIMULTANEOUSLY the parasympathetic nervous system is ACTIVELY RELAXING and monitoring the contraction from the other side of that pair of muscles (think bicep/tricep, as an easy example). We’ll come back to this in a bit, as it’s important.
- The physical body, therefore, will always contain tension. This explained why my experience of my body during meditation and asanas never felt as though it was fully free from tension.
- Having said that, there is a state of mind when you can remove your awareness from the physical body. This is the intermediate stage of foundational yoga practices.
- In order to get to this point (not to be considered as an ‘achievement’, btw), one must unify both the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. For this, anuloma viloma pranayama is particularly helpful. Eventually, one learns to harmonize the breath and prana on both sides, and meditation comes more easily.
Now that the basics are outlined, I can speak to the sleep thing, which has some interesting aspects.
So, when you first start yoga practices, you are increasing your relationship with your parasympathetic nervous system, since our Western cultural dynamic is largely sympathetic in its outlook and emphasis. Consider how we work out, exercise, etc. Our minds are almost entirely focused on the “effort” portion of the tensegrity system. This imbalance has many, many deleterious effects, including mental ones.
Much of the initial peace students experience comes from a simple shift of balance between the sympathetic (effort) to the parasympathetic (rest, digest) nervous systems. The simple fact is that this initial peace is then established as a sort of ‘goal’ (imbalanced thinking that is ‘sympathetic’- in nervous system terms-in nature), and people opt into the surface aspects of yoga, always wanting a kind of simplistic relief from their stress-filled lives.
Sleep comes into this picture because the longer we continue in this cultural emphasis and the more we embrace it, the less relationship we have to our parasympathetic nervous systems. The largest aspect of our relationship with the parasympathetic nervous system is when sleeping. As we explore the parasympathetic relationship more deeply, is it any wonder we will feel sleepy? If this is all we know, we won’t be able to distinguish between fatigue and simple habitual imbalances in our daily experience. We will tend to think all these parasympathetic experiences are identical to sleep, when in fact there is an ENTIRE UNIVERSE of yogic experiences awaiting you inside the grey area you are experiencing initially. This grey area, in fact, leads to further and further ability to transcend and include these mental habits and erroneous/ignorant constructs through the wisdom of yogic practices.
For me, it is a real tragedy that we don’t teach pranayama more in modern yoga practices, and even when we do, they are often combined with movements; and this prevents us from seeing into the incredibly rewarding world of transcendent experiences that yogis since time immemorial have been telling us about. How would I be able to speak to these powerful distinctions if I hadn’t spent many hours examining them in light of my experiences? Time must be taken.
The lessons are silent and subtle but world-shaking. Speaking for myself, my entire identity shifted in relation to just prana alone, after some years of consistent practice.
So, as with most answers to yoga, yes/no answers are less relevant than to show why sleep is simply ‘less appropriate’ than giving yourself the benefit of exploring your vast reservoir of parasympathetic experiences; which are themselves informed by the mystery of your mind/wisdom/energy subtle systems. Until finally an understanding of one’s karmic responsibility lay out beyond these grosser experiences, found through the meditation you can begin to have by dropping these increasingly subtle ‘limiting adjuncts’ (upadhis).
Resolving these consciously brings about the REAL bliss of existence/knowledge/bliss (satchitananda), and inevitably the Self-realization that was expressed by Sage Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras.
In the end, I am encouraging you to look beyond sleep to wake up the Self, which is your True Nature. Sleep will only impede your journey to this.