Mind & Body

Desperately Seeking Sleep

If the standard insomnia remedies aren’t working for you, look to the East for mind-body solutions.

Desperately Seeking Sleep
Pin it Felix Wirth

Like traditional Chinese medicine, this 5,000-year-old Indian medical tradition treats illnesses and other conditions by working to create balance among three life forces, known in Ayurveda as doshas. Vata dosha, made up of air and ether, governs creativity and bodily processes; fiery pitta rules digestion and transformation; and earthy kapha governs stability and matter. Insomnia is largely seen as a vata imbalance (though pitta also often plays a role). “Vata governs all movement in the body, including the nervous system,” explains Claudia Welch, D.O.M., a faculty member at the Ayurvedic Institute in Albuquerque, N.M., and the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health in Stockbridge, Mass. Because by nature it is light, mobile, cool, rough and unbounded—like the wind—vata is the most easily unbalanced dosha, she explains. Overworking, multitasking, surfing the Web and watching the news all upset vata, which in turn upsets body and mind. The best way to rebalance vata is to introduce the opposite qualities: heaviness, stability, warmth, oiliness and structure. Here are Welch’s ideas for a suitable nighttime routine:
Drink warm milk. “Warm whole, preferably nonhomogenized milk with a pinch of nutmeg can have a calming effect,” Welch says.
Find an herbal formula. One classic herb for calming vata is ashwagandha. “It’s a great choice when you are overworked, your body is tired and your mind feels fried,” Welch says. Try taking 500 milligrams of the herb twice daily, or look for a formula that combines ashwagandha with other stress-reducing herbs. For more immediate relief, look for a formula that combines ashwagandha with sedative herbs, such as bhringaraj, valerian, passionflower, chamomile and nutmeg.
Massage your soles and scalp. Welch recommends using warmed bhringaraj oil or a vata-specific blend such as Sarada Ayurvedic Remedies’ Vata Herbal Oil ($13.50 for 4 ounces at saradausa .com), which contains 80 herbs.
Strike a yoga pose. Performing Sun Salutations upon waking can help you get in sync with nature’s day/night cycle. “When you do these early in the morning, you’re telling your body it’s time to wake up,” Welch explains.
Try alternate-nostril breathing. Do this before bedtime, or when you wake during the night. Here’s how: Exhale fully through both nostrils. Fold your index and middle fingers toward your palm. Block your right nostril with your right thumb and inhale deeply through your left nostril. Then close your left nostril with your pinky and exhale through your right nostril. Next, inhale through your right nostril, block it with your thumb and exhale through your left nostril. Continue this pattern and finish by exhaling through your left nostril.